I have already enjoyed the experience of eating at Gravetye Manor as a paying customer. More recently I was able to spend time in the kitchen alongside the team who prepare food to the consistently high standard which earns a star. The Michelin Guide awards a further star for a restaurant worth a detour. Since I took a five hundred mile round trip each time to eat and to 'work' there, Gravetye already has a two star rating from me!
You now have the daunting task of staying with me and reading my account here. I have dealt with events as best as I could. Advance apologies for inaccuracies, including names of the people I met and their proper job titles. My organisation and attention to detail does not match theirs.
The day arrived. Chef George Blogg had written, “How does 9am sound?… We work until about 10.30pm.” The coward in me had thought, “I can always make my excuses and slope off after morning coffee if I can’t hack it.”
By half past ten (a.m!) my calf muscles were in persistent ache mode and my right hip was reminding me that it is not in the best of order… and I was fully and irrevocably decided that I would ignore those and any other negative signals and enjoy one of the best days of my life outside those with my family and close friends.
I have split up my text rather arbitrarily with the stages of a restaurant visit. Not ideal but at least it will give you a chance to draw breath, even stop for a while, and decide, like me, if you have the resolve to carry on!
My visit came on the 31st which meant that elements of the new, monthly-changing menu were being prepared while well-practised courses went out for the last time. Not strictly true... there is a little sensible seasonal repetition and sometimes a dish is just too good to be discontinued. But it did make for a delightful confusion as far as I was concerned as I witnessed a wealth of ideas being brought to life before me.
For the early part of the day commis pastry chef Henry made me warmly welcome and we discussed sour dough starters, flour suppliers and parental wisdom on what to avoid discussing with a prospective partner on a first date. It’s not all about food, you know! Doughs were at various stages of preparation and I eventually tried to shape breakfast rolls. Two at a time. My right hand occasionally succeeded but the left is in detention after completely refusing to co-operate. I filled conical brioche bun tins with slightly more sticky success. I brushed rose petals from Tom Coward’s garden with egg white and sprinkled them with rose sugar to be dried for eventual adornment of afternoon teas. That sugar is powerful stuff. Opening the container releases a pungency sweeter and more heady than a score of English country gardens.
Amuse-bouche: Mistaken Identity
A recurring theme when introduced to a new member of the brigade was being asked where I had worked previously and how long I was now contracted to be at Gravetye.
A few years back, Mrs. Cheoff gifted me a chef’s jacket and checkered apron. At home I usually don them just before friends arrive for a meal and greet them with something like, “We’re very busy… have you booked?” I changed into this for the day at Gravetye and I guess they gave me false credentials. It’s always lovely to have an ego boost but I did correct each misguided individual immediately. I reckon I gave them enough subsequent evidence to confirm that I was just a keen but casual visitor.
Chef appeared in our section just before ten. There was no quick, polite introduction followed by George Blogg's disappearance to do ‘more important things’. Instead, he began to include me in a conversation which flowed through the day. I had brought notes with prompts for questions to ask but these were deliberately discarded as I realised how much was going on around to feed my curiosity. Chef by no means devoted all his time to me but I felt that he would always be available with much more attention than I had expected. And, of course, the whole brigade are given that same attention. Through great time management Chef is constantly questioning and responding to those around him so that they are fully occupied in sustaining a standard and pushing it to further heights.
I was kept busy while lunch service started by collecting and mixing ingredients for an 'Olive Oil & Pistachio Cake', also intended for afternoon teas. Henry needed his book of notes and recipes to work with elsewhere so he quickly transcribed the ingredients for me.
It was a rather emotional choice of recipe. A recipe that is not really so unusual or too difficult to make. But it appears in 'essence', the first cookbook by David Everitt-Matthias. And George Blogg spent formative time with David at 'Le Champignon Sauvage'. And I first knew of George through reading David's work. Thoughts of the love and respect which I have for those two joined the mix as the kitchen whisk and paddle turned. Yup... emotional.
Amuse-bouche: Better Late Than Never
On my way to return the box of pistachio paste I realised that I’d forgotten exactly where the dry store was. Along the corridor came Head Sommelier, Alexis Jamin, and I asked him for help. After he had pointed me in the right direction, I took the opportunity to thank him personally for his recommendations when we dined in March 2017. He had only just arrived at Gravetye then. I do trust he is becoming a permanent fixture… he is yet another reliable member of the team.
Before going further I might as well confirm that the ‘C’ word was freely used through the day. This is more than understandable... it is easily justified. ‘Chef’ is regularly consulted as the driving force here and criticisms, corrections and confirmations are regularly sought from him in the pursuit of excellence. As for any other professional kitchen stereotypes of rich but foul language and threatening behaviour... forget them. You might hear an occasional self-addressed curse from the perpetrator of individual mistakes but the inescapable feeling here is that everyone is treated as an integral part of a thrust towards developing something special in a quiet and determined way. In 2016 viewers of 'MasterChef: The Professionals' were impressed by the care and empathy which George showed in mentoring competitors. It was no put-up job for the cameras. I witnessed it through the entire day I was there. Bookings are still made on the back of that TV coverage. Can such an attitude promote clarity, honesty and excellence which is ultimately translated onto each plate in the Gravetye dining room? I strongly suggest that it can and does.
I spent just enough minutes in the kitchen at lunch service to be offered a trimming from some quail and a spoonful of lightly spiced quinoa. I was to be given what amounted to a feast later. An extended review about the depth of flavours in those two midday mouthfuls could easily follow. Don't panic... I've decided to let you off and bludgeon you with the rest of the days events instead.
After lunch service there was talk of foraging for acorns and I had thought that a company of us would set out. In the end Chef, having received requests for pickings of cavolo nero and sorrel, motioned to just me and we were off to the garden. So I was treated to a priceless one-to-one chat with a great member of the culinary profession.
George looked fondly at the screen of Jerusalem artichokes which had started to produce early this particular season. Tom Coward and his team ensure that there is constant inspiration growing a few yards from the kitchen. Other restaurant gardens appear wonderful but many can't truly support the quality asked for by their chefs. Gravetye's certainly does. We talked about the importance of the garden and the careful sourcing of suppliers of equal quality who are referenced in the restaurant menu.
We distracted ourselves with talk of celebrity chefs and by sampling slices of apple from espalier growth. George immediately mused on a dish in which the particular variety of apple might shine. With a sweep of his hand he encompassed the whole garden and smiled at his great fortune that its bounty is on his doorstep.
He glossed quickly over characters who maintain a high profile in the media. No resentment or disdain there... but I think that the notion of celebrity is regarded as an unwanted distraction from his kitchen and his restaurant diners.
I was pretty sure that Phil Howard's name would come up and when it did George spoke of him with great affection. At the Square and at Le Champignon Sauvage, George was not only influenced by refined cooking skills and inquisitive approaches, he was in the company of two more very intelligent people. George worked in kitchens from age fifteen but graduated in Geology before letting his true passion take over. Chefs communicate in immediate and important ways through their understanding and mastery of flavour. But something special happens in kitchens such as Gravetye's. I believe that great chefs like George and his prime mentors bring their gifted abilities to the plate alongside a deep intelligence. This can push their food to extremes of complexity. Then comes the art of drawing back, at least some of the time, so that as many people as possible can enjoy their creation. If a particular dish stops you in your tracks and forces you to eat more thoughtfully I would suggest that the chef is actually asking for a fuller understanding of that dish.
I am all for a punch in the solar plexus from the swelling emotion of a symphony’s final movement but I still want to know more about what inspired that emotion in a composer and how it found expression. A good restaurant meal gives that same visceral impact but on this day I was on the other side of things and soaking up so much more about creative drive and its potential from Chef and his brigade. It was a glorious treat.
Erk. Got a bit highfalutin there. Sorry.
Amuse-bouche: The Night Porter – Part One
After my garden walk with Chef I made a cup of tea in the rest room and met Javier. He is the hotel night porter. He is also a wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful human being. We chatted about his native Spain, his love of architecture and of physical geography. Javier delights in the quiet beauty of the Sussex countryside which surrounds Gravetye. Back to architecture, and I discovered that both his faith and his secular interests have seen him visit many English cathedrals. He was almost jealous that I live so close to the winner of #cathedralworldcup, which is one he’s missed so far. It was a privilege to talk briefly but with such meaningful depth to Javier. I hope he will manage that trip to Lincoln one day.
Everyone is offered a late afternoon meal before dinner service starts and I enjoyed a chicken and mushroom pie. Needless to say, it was perfectly seasoned.
Amuse-bouche: J Chokes
Shortly before dinner service, Sous Josh asked me to prep some Jerusalem Artichokes. Below is the result of my efforts. And that blue band around my finger in the header picture for this post is covering the result of a snick when all but four of the little devils were peeled.
I had watched Josh form mini quenelles of beef tartare earlier in the day. Prepped for canapés, they were now needed as diners had begun to order pre-dinner drinks. Josh showed me how to control a squeezy bottle to deliver a small, neat dob of horseradish mayonnaise and then finish with garden garnish. Crisp blades of dehydrated cavolo nero, liberally seasoned with vinegar salt were going out as well. A sort of pearl barley mini 'arancini' completed the trio on offer. These were brought over as needed by Collins after warming. And then Josh dropped the mini bombshell on me that I would be calling "Service" on the canapés. It was a lovely gesture which rested on us both knowing that I had immediate support at hand. But I managed to get through with a few words of encouragement and minimal physical intervention. It was assembly of prepared elements but I still felt the weight of responsibility. I plated the last table of six as three pairs and had to change them in a hurry to two triplets. My chance to experience just a hint of the pressures of the professional kitchen but all went out with approval... phew!
The complexity of food on offer for dinner meant that I was happy to stand back and watch as the brigade delivered. I did ask questions and made mental notes which would inform my cooking at home. Some of those questions were answered with offerings from the night's menu items.
Chloé was at her stove cooking every piece of Halibut, Southdown Lamb, Pine Smoked Fallow Venison (oof, the aroma - wow, the texture and flavour!), Wood Pigeon and Norfolk Quail for this service. Faggots, meat bonbons and confit legs were all sent to the pass along with them. In the entire evening Chef questioned one pigeon breast as a little 'under'... and then relented and admitted that it would be perfect after resting. As the evening progressed I tasted trimmed pieces from all of the meats before plating. Chloé's efforts get first prize from me - but she is just one of a team of gold medallists.
Chef had obviously decided that I needed extra sustenance and called on Collins to prepare one of the evening's starters for me. See it below before I poured in the vegetable dashi.
Collins is from Andorra, speaks French, Spanish and English and had only worked in the kitchen for one month. I popped in a touch of foreign language skills practice with him and Chloé. My verdict on the trout was "Un véritable triomphe!" I think Collins already knew.
Chef explained why he had chosen the particular fish. Its habitat is the secret to its fresh, clean taste with none of the 'muddiness' of other catches. A stunning dish. Delicate but insistent flavours for the most part... but then that hit of tagetes reminds you how one small element can elevate an already exalted dish.
Amuse-bouche: The KP
I’d seen Iñaki at his sinks behind the pastry section earlier in the day and exchanged a few words in English... Basque is beyond me! As the cooking of the dinner service progressed I noticed that the 'batterie de cuisine' of used pots, pans and tools was disappearing and magically returning in a pristine state, ready for further use. I don’t claim to comprehend the full mysteries of a kitchen porter’s training but I do now have a theory that they undergo Ninja training which allows them to ghost in and out of kitchens. Iñaki delivers stealth and infiltration at black belt level... everyone benefits and no-one gets harmed!
Starters and mains were all out by now and cleaning down had started but the pastry section were still at work ensuring a memorable end to each diner's night. Henry prepared a fresh mix for raspberry crumble soufflés while Head Pastry Chef Ashley produced the final flourish for his last table... and the smaller tasting menu version for me!
No rum... but still a heady cocktail of tropical seduction. The chiller drawer at his station ensured perfect texture for sorbets and ice creams but their consistent delivery in perfectly formed rochers was down to Ashley. His calm and control had been matched throughout the evening by every person working in the kitchen. There was complexity but a total attention to detail dismissed all trace of confusion.
Amuse-bouche: The Night Porter – Part Two
The rest room has a wall on which are posted photos of the ‘Gravetye Family’. I was taking snaps of these for reference when Javier pointed to the top of the pyramid. There was Andrew Thomason, Managing Director. I can’t report Javier’s exact words but they were close enough to these… “That man is a truly wonderful person. He cares about each and every one of us. He will always stop to talk and this place could never be what it is without him.” To have someone from the base of the pyramid extol the virtues of one at its apex does rather shatter the idea that the pyramid exists in any important hierarchical sense. At any rate, Javier made it perfectly clear that the Gravetye family does exist and that he feels very much a part of it.
For one day I became an honorary member of the family. One final confirmation came as I walked through the stillroom towards Chef's office. Zoltan, also on his way home, said his farewell to me as if we had worked side by side for years.
I had arrived, excitedly, with hopes of understanding more about what I might achieve at home with some input from professionals. I certainly took away inspiration and guidance in that respect but a much more valuable aspect of my day was what the whole team joined to give... the knowledge that a group of people can work without conflict to achieve excellence.
I went into George's office and tried to thank him for all that I had been given. There was not enough time and there never seem to be the exact right words on such an occasion. I had prepared my own gifts and eventually sent a more considered response in writing.
Chef then did one of those things which, on reflection, is perfect. He sent me on my way with a loaf of sourdough from the morning bake. All the stunning effort and culinary achievement which I had witnessed will stay with me for an age. But I will always remember leaving with what everyone is given by the Gravetye kitchen... a simple, honest offering of love through food.
For a few more pictures of my day, follow this link to a new gallery.
COFFEE AND PETIT FOURS
Things are now changing dramatically at Gravetye which closed on the 2nd of January at the start of a truly exciting project. The restaurant is to be transformed by breaking down barriers between it and the wonderful garden. The website now has a tantalising countdown until Gravetye reopens on the 7th of May.
You can still explore hotel and restaurant bookings and the closure has thrown up lovely opportunities to enjoy courses at nearby Kingscote Vineyard. Garden and flower workshops are there but you will understand that the most attractive to me are those with Chef George Blogg!
Whatever you decide upon, Gravetye will continue to give rich satisfaction.