Two years ago, in July 1996, John Wood gave up what for many chefs would be their dream job as Willi Elsener's senior sous chef at the Dorchester to go to work at a 120-seat restaurant slap-bang in the heart of suburbia.
Admittedly, Wood was moving into a more senior job as executive chef, but nevertheless, Chapter One in Locks bottom, Kent, could hardly claim the same international culinary standing as the London hotel.
But for Wood the move was a logical step. He is one of Elsener's most ardent admirers, calling him "the most organised chef in the world", but as his sous chef, Wood found he was becoming increasingly tied up with administration. "The Dorchester was a massive operation. I looked after the Oriental restaurant and also pulled everything together for functions and outside events," he explains. "I became frustrated that I was being pulled away from the stove to be a manager."
Wood had, in fact, begun to consider buying his own restaurant when an acquaintance suggested he talk to Ken Sanker, a director of the Selective Restaurant Group. "He was looking for someone to take over the reins at Chapter One. David Cavalier had opened the restaurant in February 1996, but he'd never intended to stay long-term," says Wood.
Sanker offered Wood the job of executive chef, promising to make him a partner in the business if he succeeded in getting consistency back and driving up numbers of diners.
Wood leapt at the opportunity, seeing this as his chance to make his mark. "This was the first place where there were going to be no restrictions on me - I could launch an entirely new menu of my own," he says. "I wanted to put everything I'd experienced in my career into making a success of Chapter One."
Wood's career had indeed prepared him well for the challenge; it's no exaggeration to claim he must have some of the broadest experience of any chef in the UK.
First smitten with cooking at the age of 15, when he got a part-time job at Keith Floyd's Bristol restaurant, the Black Cat, Wood went on to work in the kitchens of the Grange in Winterbourne, near Bristol, when he left school. His head chef there was Alan Jameson who, Wood says, "bred a passion into me about food".
After two years, encouraged by Jameson, Wood moved to London to work as chef de partie at the Savoy under Anton Edelmann and his then sous chef Garry Hollihead.
Two years later he got itchy feet and decided he should travel to experience different types of cuisine. So Wood got a job at the five-star Vier Jahreszeiten hotel in Hamburg. "At that time, in the late 1980s, the Germans were being experimental with food. They were starting to create intense, earthy flavours and did lots of pot-roasting and braising. I loved it and lots of my cooking is still like that now," says Wood.
Wood's next move was to South Africa, where he worked under Garth Strobel, the head of the South African culinary team, first at the Sandton Sun hotel in Johannesburg and then at the Mount Nelson hotel in Cape Town. "The time I spent there gave me experience of working with some fascinating ingredients, exotic fruits and things like crocodile, ostrich and impala," he says.
Aged 26, Wood then decided it was time to learn about Asian food, and landed a job as senior sous chef at the Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong. The hotel served 1,000 covers a day, with dishes ranging from European to Chinese, Malay and Japanese. "I was in charge of 100 chefs and was faced with loads of new ingredients, so the learning curve was immense," he says. "I'll never forget my first day. In the Chinese kitchen I saw six chefs wrestling with a snake on the floor. Everything there was brought in live."
Wood was so keen to learn that on his afternoons off he would go to the Chinese kitchen to watch how the chefs used Asian ingredients and worked with a wok. Not surprising, then, that when he returned to England, Elsener put him in charge of the Dorchester's Michelin-starred Oriental restaurant.
This breadth of knowledge and understanding of food has proved particularly useful at Chapter One because of its range of clientele. The local community is largely middle-aged and middle class, with a taste for traditional food and hearty portion sizes, but the restaurant also needs to draw more adventurous diners from out of town.
Wood offers a large Á la carte menu at dinner, with 11 starters, 12 main courses and nine desserts. A slightly reduced version of the same is offered at lunch, with eight starters and nine main courses. At lunch two courses are offered for £16 and three for £19.50, while in the evening starters are priced £4.95, main courses £13.50 and desserts £4.50.
Among the starters, modern European dishes such as Mediterranean prawns, chilled spiced couscous salad, or seafood and rockfish nage in a basil cream, sit side by side with East-meets-West-style cuisine, such as Oriental duck confit with sweet and sour cabbage.
This duck starter, "bursting with flavour", is one of Wood's favourite dishes. Asian spices - chillis, soya, honey, lemon grass and garlic - are added to duck fat, and in this Wood submerges a salted duck leg. He then cooks it in the oven for four-and-a-half hours so the meat is almost falling off the bone.
The leg is then crisped up under the grill and placed on a bed of kimchi (Korean cabbage), which Wood pickles in rice vinegar with chillis, soya, salt and sugar. "The dish is served with an Oriental jus, made by taking the jelly from the duck fat and adding coriander, shallots, chilli and red wine."
At main course Wood likes to offer lots of fish, including some unusual varieties. For instance, grilled barracuda served with warm orange and fennel salad and olive dressing is currently on the menu, along with sea bream, cod and sole dishes.
Pushed to choose the main course he is most proud of, however, he again picks a duck dish - glazed peppered duck breast with balsamic potatoes and roasted beetroot - because of its depth of flavour.
Honey, infused with rosemary and orange, is drizzled over a roasted duck breast, which is then sprinkled with a powdered pepper mixture to form a crust. "I use six different peppers, coriander seeds and dry orange and lime zest for this crust." The breast is then flashed under the grill to crisp.
To accompany the duck, Wood makes a lyonnaise of new potatoes and finishes it with basil and balsamic vinegar; while to contrast with this slightly sharp flavour and give some sweetness to the dish, he adds beetroot - roasted whole and diced.
The Grand finale
However, the biggest gasps from diners at Chapter One are when desserts are placed in front of them. Wood's time in Germany has given him the ability to create a spectacular grand finale and descriptions such as vanilla and lime cheesecake or cherry tea sorbet do nothing to prepare a diner for what arrives on the table, for plates are adorned with complicated sugar twists and exotically shaped biscuits.
Wood does not believe in changing his menu four times a year as is the trend in so many restaurants, rather he loses dishes and adds new ones on an ongoing basis. And the menu certainly appears to be winning him fans. Chapter One is now serving 1,000 covers a week and rumours have been heard there of three AA rosettes and possibly even a Michelin star.
In recognition of these achievements Sanker kept his promise, making Wood a partner several months ago. And in this role he is now gearing up for the opening of Chapter Two in Blackheath, south London, in September.
Finishing touches are currently being applied to the menu for the 80-seat restaurant, which will be slightly smaller than that at Chapter One, with seven starters, eight main courses and six desserts. Customers will be charged the same at both lunch and dinner: £16 for two courses and £19.50 for three. "The quality will be the same at Chapter Two but all the dishes will be different, because we want the restaurants to be individual," says Wood.
Starters will include pork knuckle salad with onion rings and sauce gribiche; and wild mushrooms, soft-boiled egg and crispy pancetta. Main courses will definitely include a skate dish, as well as maize-fed chicken with foie gras and summer vegetables, and rump of veal with creamed spinach, cèpe and parsley tortellini.
When the second restaurant opens, Wood plans to split his time between the two, with head chefs Mickael Weiss and Adrian Jones supporting him at Chapters One and Two respectively. "I'll cook at whichever restaurant needs me on any day. But wherever I am, I'll definitely be at the stove," he promises.