Kay Henderson, who with her husband Paul was one of the pioneers of the British country house hotel movement in the 1970s and 1980s, has died at the age of 74. She had been suffering from cancer.
The Hendersons opened Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon in 1978, with Kay in the kitchen and Paul heading the front-of-house service. Despite its remote location on Dartmoor, down a one and a half mile long driveway, the property became one of the UK’s leading hotels with a widespread international reputation, thanks to their tireless work over 27 years.
Born in July 1940 in Indiana, USA, Kay graduated with a BA from Purdue University, West Lafayette. She and Paul married in 1963 and lived in Hawaii, Philadelphia and New York before moving to Amsterdam in 1969 and London in 1970.
Originally built in the late 1920s, Gidleigh Park – a mock-Elizabethan property – had been converted from a private home into a hotel in 1955 and was in a poor state of repair when acquired by the Hendersons. They undertook extensive works before opening welcoming their first guests.
Kay taught herself to cook mostly from books, particularly those of Julia Child, before assuming a professional catering role at Gidleigh Park, where in 1981 she is believed to have become the first American woman to achieve a Michelin star.
She continued to cook at the hotel until 1986. John Webber became the first outside appointment as head chef, followed by Shaun Hill and for the past 21 years, Michael Caines. Kay, meanwhile, continued to be responsible for decorating the hotel, as well as look after her cats – there were usually two or three in the hotel.
The Hendersons sold Gidleigh Park to long-time guests of the hotel, Andrew and Christina Brownsword, in March 2005.
Kit Chapman, director of the Castle hotel, Taunton, said that the Hendersons had created “a hidden Garden of Eden” in Devon.
“It was unlike any other of the genre: a place of peace, soul-soothing, life-enhancing. Where Paul was the drive and frontman, Kay was the quiet, elegant aesthetic eye and culinary force inside Gidleigh Park. The restaurant became the beating pulse of a place whose reputation matured into a destination for visitors from across the world. It was Kay Henderson who laid the foundations for the stellar careers of Shaun Hill and Michael Caines.”
Hill said that he very much enjoyed the nine years he spent at Gidleigh Park and in particular found the directness of both Kay and Paul to be refreshing.
“Initially they did everything on a shoestring – they lived in one of the bedrooms to start with and used Paul’s car used to drive to London to collect supplies,” he explained. “They were very determined. The style of Gidleigh was largely down to Kay. The most important thing was that the food had to be good as both Paul and Kay believed that would bring people in – and it did. I remember Kay as having a good sense of humour – she enjoyed having a good time.”
Caines said that he personally owed Kay and Paul a great debt as they fully supported him following the car accident, in which he lost his arm, soon after arriving at Gidleigh Park in 1994. “Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
“They were trailblazers and an inspiration to many other country house hotel owners. They worked very hard at creating a business based on the principle of good food, good service and a great wine list. I’m very sad that Kay has lost her battle against cancer and my thoughts are with Paul.”