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Kit Chapman, the essential restaurateur

26 March 2003 by
Kit Chapman, the essential restaurateur

West Country restaurateur and hotelier Kit Chapman is ideal for television. He is opinionated, articulate and colourful, from the roots of his rakishly cut hair to the tips of his purple-socked feet. By turns withering and charming, he rarely minces words. He sacked his first chef at the Castle hotel, Taunton, on the grounds that he was "an idle slob" and relates his subsequent victory in a tribunal case brought by the chef with "immense pleasure".

Chapman can praise as vigorously as he condemns, but what makes him significant in the restaurant business is not his ability to construct a punchy, controversial phrase but the capable and distinctive way in which he can run a top-quality fine-dining restaurant.

Since he left his job as a heavy-lunching advertising man in London and moved to run the family hotel in Taunton, he has created the setting in which four different chefs have won a Michelin star. Chris Oakes, Gary Rhodes, Phil Vickery and the incumbent Richard Guest are all talented chefs, but talent needs the right environment.

Chapman gives them a very distinct vision. This is definitely not a man who shows his chefs the kitchen and lets them get on with it - he has firm views on what the kitchen should and should not do. If chefs don't understand that, they don't go to the Castle, either by choice or invitation.

Chapman has a name for what he wants at the Castle. He calls it "the English Project". In the mouth of a lesser man this would sound a hopelessly pretentious phrase, but he has the passion, the palate and the knowledge to carry it off.

The English Project means a number of things. It means making good use of local produce. It means that the Castle does not just acknowledge English culinary traditions but makes them the cornerstone of the kitchen. It means "taking English tradition and seeing what might done with it in the 21st century". It means that alien ingredients such as lemon grass are banned, and that turned vegetables are dismissed as "Gallic prissiness". It means that menu descriptions are robustly Anglo-Saxon: "warm pigeon pie with quince jelly"; "pot-roast shoulder of lamb with root vegetables and its own broth"; "cream treacle tart with baked Cox's Pippin and a vanilla ice-cream".

It also means that if the Castle's chefs do not have the historical awareness that Chapman believes they should, they are likely to be given gifts such as Gilly Lehmann's scholarly history of English cooking in the 18th century. Given half a chance, Chapman will begin chatting keenly about great British chefs of the past, men such as Robert May in the 17th century or John Farley in the 18th. Farley's fame at the London Tavern was such that he inspired a culinary movement in France known as the "Les Tavernes Anglaises".

Chapman's paternalistic control over his hotel's kitchen is reminiscent of the autocratic restaurateurs of a different age. Jonathan Meades, the former Times restaurant critic, once described his style as "intelligent dictatorship" and it is a label with which Chapman is quite happy. He doesn't cook but he does know about cuisine. He has a fine palate, extensive knowledge of wine and a distinctive philosophy. In short, he is a self-confident ruler with a lot to be self-confident about.

His selection method for chefs is rigorous. If an initial interview lasts less than an hour, then it is unlikely that the chef has the job. He talked for four hours with Gary Rhodes before employing him. The things Chapman looks for are passion, intelligence, a "feel for food" and management ability. He also likes his chefs to be well-read. He is often disappointed.

"It is astonishing how ill-read a lot of chefs are," he says. "It is astonishing how few of them have heard of Elizabeth David. It is astonishing how little chefs eat out. I like chefs who eat out properly, but when they go out, a lot of them like to eat a hamburger."

If Chapman likes what he sees at the marathon interview, and the chef still wants to cook at the Castle, he then invites them to come to Taunton and cook for a dinner party at the hotel. "Of course," he concedes, "this can be daunting, but I am not necessarily looking for 10 out of 10 at this stage. What I want is an understanding of ingredients and how they are put together. I want to see their ability with sauces, a balanced menu, good understanding of textures, of hot and cold, and of the combination of both."

Then, if things are still on track, Chapman likes to meet their wives, if they are married. "Their private life is extremely important to stability at work," he explains.

After all this, Chapman might, perhaps, have found the sort of chef he wants. And he knows exactly what that is. "The best cooks are those that have acute palates," he says. "The problem with a lot of English chefs is that they don't taste, they don't have a feeling for their craft. Most of these guys cook by numbers."

The emphasis Chapman places on the palate is hard to overstate, as illustrated by a story he tells about a telephone call he took from the owner of Gidleigh Park in Devon after the hotel's chef, Michael Caines, lost his arm in a car crash. "I will never forget Paul Henderson ringing me up in despair," says Chapman, "and I remember saying to him that, as long as the boy has his palate, he will still be able to cook."

Chapman's palate and feel for food are complemented by a marketing talent that no doubt owes much to his advertising days. The latest television series is part of that, but he has always had a flair for promoting both the Castle and himself. During the height of the BSE crisis, he put full-page advertisements in the local paper boldly declaring that nothing but British beef would be served in the Castle. His sourcing is so careful that he was confident about its safety. His suppliers were grateful for the loyalty, and the patriotic customer base of the Castle ate more beef than ever.

As with beef, so with cheese. Chapman is an avid advocate for his British cheeseboard, and is particularly keen on the outstanding local unpasteurised Cheddar, Montgomery's. "I feel that a good restaurant should have a sense of place as well as being in tune with the seasons," he says. "We are an old hotel in the West Country, so it makes our restaurant more interesting to use produce from this region."

Perhaps the finest proof of Chapman's managerial skill is that, despite his strong, often fierce, opinions, he still leaves his chefs enough room for proper creativity. "There has to be a chemistry between the chef and me," he says. "I have to like them and they have to like me. I have a close bond with my chefs. We may argue, but there is a close bond."

The key thing that the chefs must go along with is the "rehabilitation of English cooking and its repertoire" which is so close to Chapman's heart. It can be a chef-changing process. Rhodes is arguably the highest-profile chef to have adopted the Chapman approach to food, and the Castle was a major influence in putting him on this track. "When he came to us, Rhodes was a nouvelle cuisine merchant," observes Chapman, with satisfaction.

Whether you take to his style or not, Chapman has proved to be a significant influence on modern British cooking.

The man himself has clearly proved interesting enough for ITV, which starts the series Diary of an Innkeeper next Thursday (20 February). It will run for six weeks, initially on regional channels in the West Country and Wales.

He's King of the…
Castle Hotel restaurant
Castle hotel, Castle Green, Taunton, Somerset TA1 1NF

Tel: 01823 272671
Proprietor: Kit Chapman
Chef: Richard Guest
Number of seats: 65
Price: dinner £33 (two courses), £39 (three courses) Lunch £18.50 (two courses) or £22.50 (three courses). Both set lunches include half a bottle of wine

Brazz
Branches in Castle Bow, Taunton; Palace Gate, Exeter; and Park Street, Bristol

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