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The power behind the stove

25 March 2003 by
The power behind the stove

Peter Yetman's front-of-house style is as casual and idiosyncratic as his hair (the length and cut is straight out of a 1970s rock-band - think Marc Bolan or Brian May). When he greets diners Peter is usually wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he never calls anybody sir or madam and wine is poured without being offered for tasting. In a restaurant where a dinner for two will cost the fat end of £100, this makes for a decidedly easy-going approach.

Yetman makes no apology for his informality. For a start he says it helps customers relax. And anyway, if they don't like it he would probably rather they weren't there.

"It depends what people want," he says, "for example, we are not a particularly noisy restaurant, but occasionally we do get people saying they want others to be quiet. I generally say to them ‘sorry, but they are just enjoying themselves'. The point is that I want eating here to be fun, not stuffy."

If Yetman's is mildly unconventional in its approach to service, its haphazard attitude towards making money is more so. The Yetmans open when they want to. If, for example, they have taken just one or two bookings on a midweek evening they are quite likely to ring up those who have booked and say they won't be opening and would another evening be suitable. Customers normally accept this, but if anybody does dislike it Peter just shrugs off the lost business.

"They probably wouldn't like us anyway," he says.

This attitude goes to the heart of what Yetman's is about. Not only was the restaurant not set up to make pots of money, it wasn't set up as part of a dream to run a country restaurant either. This restaurant was a romantic dream in a far more literal sense: Peter Yetman simply wanted to spend more time with his wife.

Before he and Alison moved to Holt in 1988, Peter was a money broker in the City of London, earning a packet and deeply dissatisfied with his lot. Alison was cooking for a director's dining room, both were working hard and in Peter's view, they just weren't seeing enough of one another. It was him that persuaded Alison to open a restaurant, not the other way around.

As well as front-of-house, Peter looks after what he unpretentiously calls "the shopping" and does any repairs necessary. Despite the airy attitude to money (Peter says he "rarely knows what is in their bank balance"), they must be doing something right. The finances are helped because the money they brought from London has left them with a tiny mortgage so costs are low in the part-Tudor house that is both the restaurant and their home. The food guides are impressed too: The Good Food Guide gives Yetman's five for cooking and remarks on the way Alison's "ordinary dishes are made special". Unpretentious in fact, just like the couple running the restaurant.

Le Champignon Sauvage The problem with two-Michelin-star restaurants, Helen Everitt-Matthias observes, is that potential customers often perceive them as impossibly grand, too haughty for proper relaxation.

This is a perception against which she is constantly battling, not least in an effort to increase the number of local diners at Le Champignon Sauvage. At present only one in five of those eating there comes from Cheltenham, a local problem underlined by the fact that when it received the second star in 2000 the story only got three lines in the local paper.

What is more, the perception that a two-star restaurant is stiff, formal and intimidating can also put off staff, making recruitment even more difficult than it would be anyway.

"Prospective staff are frightened that if you have two Michelin stars they will not be able to do the job," she says.

Overcoming this dated image of the grand restaurant is one of the reasons that Helen has tried to run the restaurant with as light a touch as possible ever since she opened it in 1987 with her husband, chef David Everitt-Matthias.

"I would rather be served by somebody who has a nice personality than by somebody who is technically well-trained but is clinical," she says.

Nevertheless, two Michelin stars are two Michelin stars, and Helen is a stickler for doing things properly.

Staff all operate to a strict 23-point checklist on how to deal with diners, starting with "Greet, check name" and giving precise instructions on everything from when to ask about mineral water or take away cover plates to when to sweep the table for crumbs.

And Helen insists that all instructions go through her so the kitchen is in no doubt about what is going on at any point.

Staff have to meet clear standards of personal appearance as well. No trousers for girls ("too informal and not so soft") and no heavy perfume. And, in an echo of Catherine Storey's requirements at Chesil Rectory, speaking good English is a must.

"We get a lot of calls from France and I will often phone them to test their English," she says.

Helen demands a sensitivity from her staff which belies the casual impression she sometimes gives. She does not like it, for example, when unused cutlery is put on the plate before it is cleared away.

"I don't like that because I think it gives the impression that the diner has done something wrong. I like the plate taken first and the cutlery removed separately," she says.

"Not casual, but comfortable" is how Helen aims to make the service the restaurant gives and it is all very much driven by her view of what most people want.

"I just serve how I like to be served. That's why we put only one set of cutlery on the table for each course, because I know I've knocked forks off the table before. We want to be comfortable but not casual."

Chesil Rectory If you walk into the picturesque 15th century Winchester house that is home to Chesil Rectory restaurant, you are as likely to find Catherine Storey carrying out repairs to an internal wall, dealing with a supplier or doing the books as serving a customer.

Like many of the partners of chefs who work in the family restaurant, Catherine does much more than run front of house.

And in common with many partners of ambitious chef-proprietors, Catherine didn't imagine herself in such a role a few years ago. In fact she admits that on the whole she would "rather be training to be a midwife".

Catherine's fate as the front-of-house part of the classic independent restaurant husband-and-wife team was sealed when Philip Storey decided he had had enough of working as a materials engineer for paint manufacturer.

"He decided he no longer wanted so much time watching paint dry, which was literally what he was doing some of the time," she recalls, with a smile.

Philip found himself a job cooking at the Milestone Hotel, London, where he worked for a year, moved down to Chesil Rectory under the previous chef-proprietor, Nicholas Ruthven-Stuart, and in 1998 bought the restaurant. Economics meant it made sense for Catherine to run front of house. A mere 15 months later, she was looking after a newly crowned Michelin-starred dining room.

Her ambition to be a midwife, she acknowledges with a smile and a shrug, is now unlikely to be realised, although she does have a pair of small boys at home, aged two and four.

Catherine's role in running pretty much everything except the kitchen is designed to "try to ensure that all Philip has to do is to think about the food and the cooking."

Her front-of-house style is modern British informal. As always, service rather than servility is the aim.

"Our service style is informal, but I do insist that everything is done at the right time in a friendly style. I dot all the i's and cross all the t's," she says.

The Chesil Rectory front-of-house team at full strength is Catherine, restaurant manager Gary Nicholls, who has been with them since they started there and one other. This is usually a university student rather than a fully-trained professional, as Catherine prefers to rely on her own guidance rather than that a of a catering course. Catherine's approach to schooling staff is practical, old-fashioned and straightforward. She wants her waiters to be well-presented, efficient, pleasant and - last but not least - speak good English.

These may seem like basics but it is a formula that clearly works for Michelin, even if when the restaurant won its first star Catherine had only ever eaten in one other Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Poussin in Lyndhurst.

Bur Catherine is one of those people who has more expertise than she herself might suggest. She is not a chef but she knows exactly how each dish should look. She knows the wines on Chesil's list too. And she has a natural flair for dealing with customers, most of whom she says are wonderful despite the occasional bad egg.

But even bad eggs are paying customers and customers, she says, are "never wrong, but occasionally misguided and stupid. What you must do is smile and bite your tongue."

Contacts

Yetman's 37 Norwich Road, Holt, Norfolk, NR25 6SA
Proprietors: Alison and Peter Yetman
Vital statistics: 32 seats, set lunch (Sunday only) and dinner, £25-£35.

Le Champignon Sauvage Suffolk Road, Cheltenham, GL50 2AQ
Proprietors: David and Helen Everitt-Matthias
Vital statistics: 28 seats, set lunch £19.95(3 courses), dinner £21.50 or £42 (both 3 courses)

Chesil Rectory 1 Chesil Street, Winchester, SO23 OHU
Proprietors: Philip and Catherine Storey
Vital statistics: 40 seats, set lunch £30 (3 courses), set dinner £45 (six courses)

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