Kit Chapman is the owner of The Castle Hotel in Taunton, Somerset, as well as being a widely respected champion of British cooking, writer, and leading activist within the hospitality industry.
Born in 1947 into a family of hoteliers, Chapman grew up living at The Castle, then run by his parents, Peter and Etty. After attending Taunton School, where he sat A levels in Greek, Latin and French, he read hotel and catering administration at the University of Surrey from 1965 to 1969.
A career in the hospitality industry seemed inevitable, but, disillusioned by early stints in the trade, he took a job with a series of advertising agencies – ultimately with Benton and Bowles – where he sold the likes of Ariel detergent, Smiths crisps, Players cigarettes and Camay soap. In 1976 – two months after his father completed negotiations to buy The Castle – Chapman returned to Taunton to join the family firm. Initially he was appointed marketing director of the hotel and in 1980 became managing director.
Having spent seven years in London eating in the city’s best restaurants on a generous expense account, where he developed a taste for fine cuisine, Chapman was determined that the restaurant at The Castle – previously an unremarkable provincial hotel dining room – should become a serious culinary destination. It took him considerable time – and several fired chefs – before heachieved his goal.
Chapman’s first successful head chef appointment came in 1983 when Chris Oakes took over the kitchen and within a year won a Michelin star. Gary Rhodes, who took over from Oakes in 1986, was followed by Phil Vickery in 1990. Richard Guest was appointed head chef in 1999 and remains in charge of The Castle’s kitchen today.
As well as creating a seriously good restaurant, Chapman was adamant that The Castle should provide a sense of place and concentrate on using the bountiful fresh produce from the locality. It was part of what he describes as his English Project, his campaign to rehabilitate the English repertoire. Over the years Oakes, Rhodes, Vickery and Guest have all embraced the English theme by building up a strong network of enthusiastic artisan suppliers and putting together menus that offer the traditions of English cookery updated for the 21st century.
Chapman’s paternalistic control over his hotel’s kitchen wavered with Vickery’s abrupt departure from The Castle in 1999. Vickery had resigned after a heated phone call from Chapman over his appearance on BBC TV’s Ready, Steady, Cook programme while on a three-month break to recover from stress and fatigue. But he later retracted that resignation. He eventually left after a press statement was issued announcing his departure, without his approval. An employment tribunal later awarded Vickery £10,785 in compensation, although the chairman ruled that the payment had been cut because Vickery had contributed 50% to his dismissal.
In 1998 Chapman created Brazz, a new brasserie-bar-café in Taunton and later set up Brazz plc to roll-out the brand. Branches opened in Exeter in 2000, Bristol in 2002 and Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, in 2004. Exeter and Bristol have now closed and Cardiff is contracted out to an outside operator.
While Chapman does not cook, he has used his wide knowledge about food and wine and well-honed writing skills to produce two seminal works on British chefs – Great British Chefs (1989) and Great British Chefs 2 (1995). He has also written An Innkeeper’s Diary (1999), which describes a year in the life of The Castle, and Simply the Best, a book accompanying a TV series, screened on Channel 4, celebrating British food and presented by Chapman. A fifth book along the lines of a family memoir is currently with his agent.
Constantly looking at new ways to fill The Castle, Chapman has successfully staged a series of musical weekends at the hotel. Over Easter 2009 he held an ambitious ten-day festival to celebrate the bicentenary of Haydn’s death, staging 42 concerts with a relay of 10 world class string quartets playing all 68 Haydn quartets. He has also hosted a literary festival and regular literary lunches with the likes of Michael Portillo and Jonathan Dimbleby as guest speaker.
Chapman has held numerous appointments within the hospitality industry including founder and past president of the University of Surrey Food and Wine Society, visiting senior fellow to the University of Surrey School of Management 1999, vice-president of the West Country Tourist Board since 1986, chairman of Prestige Hotels 1985-87, and board member of Somerset Training and Enterprise Council 1989-94.
His awards include an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours in 1989, the Guild of Food Writers Michael Smith Award for Great British Chefs 2 in 1984, and two Caterer & Hotelkeeper (Catey) awards – for tourism in 1987 and best independent marketing campaign for Brazz in 1999. He was elected a freeman of the City of London in 1984.
Chapman and his wife Louise have two sons, Dominic (born in 1973) who is head chef at The Royal Oak in Paley Street, Berkshire, and Nick (born in 1975) who runs an internet advertising company. The family all appear together in the BBC 2 series, Keep it in the Family, screened in May 2009, regarding the future running of The Castle.
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