Chef Steve Drake tells Katherine Price about how he nearly walked away from the industry, but, with a little help from John Cleese unlocking his creativity, is back and better than ever with his new restaurant, Sorrel, in Dorking, Surrey.
Steve Drake bounds out of the red brick building on South Street in Dorking, Surrey. He’s energetic and buzzing – his excitement at showing off his new restaurant, Sorrel, is palpable.
Drake announced his intention to leave his eponymous restaurant in Ripley, Surrey, in August last year, having held a Michelin star there for 11 years. While Drake’s former wife Serina kept the restaurant following their divorce settlement, all eyes were on Drake, who trained at the Ritz London, Chez Nico and Aubergine, and won the Roux Scholarship in 2001 while at Drakes on the Pond in Abinger Hammer, Surrey (where he worked for four years and won his first Michelin star), to see what he would do next.
It wasn’t long before news of a new restaurant broke and, one year later, he has finally unveiled Sorrel, which opened last week. Bursting with enthusiasm and animatedly pointing out the shiny new Geoff Snelgrove Control Induction stove, the new floor, the building’s fascinating nooks and crannies, he also has the assurance and confidence of a consummate chef and restaurateur.
The restaurant, on which Drake has signed a 10-year lease with a five-year option to purchase, is reflective of its 300-year history, with a cosy downstairs bar and 32 covers upstairs.
The kitchen, though, couldn’t be more different. Housed in a glass extension jutting out from the same first-floor level as the dining room, and set at the back of the property, it’s light and airy and designed by Charles Parker of CBP Independent Catering Design Services, who also designed the kitchens for the Woodspeen and the Waterside Inn.
It wasn’t always the plan for this space – originally a conservatory in the restaurant’s former guise – to be the kitchen, but Drake felt the downstairs kitchen was too small for his style of cuisine, so that has become a prep kitchen. But the glass-framed, first-floor space has also meant investing in heat-resistant film to ensure the kitchen doesn’t become a hothouse in the summer – and to give his pastry section a fighting chance.
The flipside is that there’s plenty of natural light. The chefs also have the benefit of overlooking a generous, terraced garden – a million miles from the dungeon kitchens that Drake grew up with.
A stunning kitchen can only aid recruitment. “It’s hard to get chefs as it is and people wonder why everyone’s dropping out of the industry,” he says. “We’re not paying them enough, we make them work too long hours, and, more importantly, they’re not inspired. We stick them in a corner picking spinach all day and we don’t allow them to be part of the creative process.”
At Sorrel, even the staff quarters and offices on the third floor, where we eventually sit down for the interview, overlook Ranmore Common, part of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Drake’s philosophy on staff and their working conditions also helped shape his decision to open the restaurant for just four days a week. He is confident it will work and will be opening slightly earlier on a Saturday to allow for a few extra covers to compensate.
The four-day week (Wednesday to Saturday) also allows him to work on the menus once a week with head chef Michael Wall- Palmer at the Anchor, the pub he still owns in Ripley with Chris and Lisanne Mealing. The pub is just across the road from Drake’s, which is now called the Clock House and overseen by Drake’s former sous chef Fred Clapperton, who, to Drake’s delight, was awarded a Michelin star in the 2018 guide earlier this month.
A new beginning
Drake has clearly demarcated a new beginning for himself at Sorrel. While his other restaurants for the past 17 years all carried his name above the door, Sorrel, he says, is all about the restaurant and is named after one of his favourite ingredients.
Yet he hasn’t gone far geographically, choosing to stay in Surrey rather than move to, say, London. “I could have gone into London,” he confides, but the Surrey food scene is a landscape he knows and can operate in on his own terms.
He has also cultivated an extremely loyal group of followers in the area. And while some chefs have had their heads turned by the rise in casual gastronomy, Sorrel is very firmly in the fine-dining camp, white tablecloths and all.
“We can’t do casual fine dining here because this is a night out for people. We’ve gone with tablecloths because I feel it’s the right thing for us to do here.”
However, the Alexander Waterworthdesigned interiors have a more relaxed feel, and while the restaurant celebrates its Georgian architectural details, it now has a pared-back look – clean, elegant and contemporary.
Past Waterworth interior design projects include everything from London private members’ club Annabel’s in Mayfair to pizza brand Homeslice.
Likewise, Drake says he is trying to go “simpler” on the menu, making more use of herbs and spices as he used to at Drakes on the Pond, but there won’t be any drastic changes in his cooking. “I can only do what I do. I haven’t suddenly changed my style of food overnight,” he says. “I am more than a year on since I left Drake’s but I’m not rebranding. The food is what I’ve always done.”
There are two menus available at lunch: five regularly changing dishes, and Drake’s five- or nine-course Discovery tasting menu, for which he is well known; at dinner it’s à la carte or the Discovery menu.
It’s an exciting new chapter for Drake, but one that has emerged from a difficult few years for him personally where he had to teach himself how to be creative in a management position and to fall in love with the industry again “I would have left the industry if things had stayed as they were,” he admits. “In the last five years I’ve really learned how to be more creative. I’ve learned how to manage people and organise things better, and I didn’t have those skills before.”
So what triggered the change? “John Cleese,” he answers.
As in… Fawlty Towers, Monty Python? “Yeah. I watched some videos on YouTube of John Cleese – they’re incredible. He talks a lot about creativity and needing a framework for it. I used to love doing everything myself, but there’s a real conflict between thinking operationally and then also trying to clear your head to think creatively. I needed to carve out time to do it, and not put it all on my own shoulders.”
He says that running the five miles home each night helps clear his head, and a real solution he developed while at Drake’s was to involve his staff in the creative process: brainstorming ideas each month with the whole team and allowing them to experiment with, and contribute to, the dishes. “For the younger guys it was great, because they felt they had real inclusion, and suddenly the retention of staff went through the roof.”
The creativity within
He even spent some time with business coach Mike Duckett, who has worked with Heston Blumenthal and Ashley Palmer-Watts. “Before that point I didn’t think I was creative. It was in there somewhere, but I just couldn’t unlock it, and he triggered it for me,” Drake says. “Chefs are promoted for their cooking ability, not their human resources skills. They are suddenly supposed to have all these management skills when they get promoted to head chef, which you never learn.”
Creativity is something he’ll be promoting at Sorrel with his seven-strong brigade, which includes head chef Richard Giles, previously senior sous chef at Drake’s. While some may worry about changing the menu monthly with a customer base as solid and loyal as Drake’s, he says his regulars aren’t put off by not finding their favourite dish on the menu every week.
In fact, at Drake’s he says it was great for business. “We would send out an email on the last Friday of the month and then get loads of bookings come in. First week it’s full, second week it’s full, third week dropping off a little bit, then the whole cycle starts again.”
While he won’t go as far as saying that he’s aiming for certain awards and accolades next year, anyone who knows Drake (a frequent marathon runner) knows how driven he is.
He does, however, admit that he’s “very ambitious” and says he wants to be “at the same level” he was at with Drake’s. “I’m very confident in what we do, but I
want to do it on my terms. I used to get really worried about Michelin, but I’m not any more,” he says.
“I’ve set the operation up to enable us to be the very best we can be, and that’s all I can do. I don’t really have any more excuses. There’s nothing to hide behind. The way we’ve set this up, if everything’s in its place, then I know that I can be my very best.”
From the Discovery menu
• Warm pumpkin mousse, smoked paprika, Parmesan and parsley
• Grilled red mullet, cauliflower, Granny Smith, Brixham sauce
• 21-day-aged raw venison, bitter orange, dried watercress, smoked egg yolk
• Bosworth ash, salt-baked beetroot, Douglas fir
• Turbot, broccoli, Gewürztraminer mussels, miso butter
• Etherley farm duck, mushroom couscous, ras el hanout, golden broth, liver toast
• Tartlet of Barkham blue, rosewater gel, tarragon
• Hibiscus ice, cinnamon mousse, pear, Pedro Ximénez syrup
• Chocolate and olive oil marquis, sesame sponge, Drambuie ice-cream
Drake and the bigger picture
On the Roux Scholarship
“The trips can almost be more relevant than the actual winning. It is amazing how when you are around inspiring people you bounce off and inspire each other.”
On being a role model
“It’s very rewarding to see people who have worked for me go on to open their own restaurants and doing really well. I guess I see this as a new phase of my career. I’ve taken a lot from other people and I need to do my bit towards that now.”
On Michelin stars
“It’s only recently that I’ve realised why it takes some so long and some are so quick. Some chefs understand themselves and what they’re about. For some
of us that takes time.”
On competing with London
“Most people’s perception of a good night out is to go into London from here. If you jump on the train in Dorking, you can be in Victoria in 60 minutes, so I think that we can suffer from that.”
2000 Steve Drake becomes head chef at Drakes on the Pond in Abinger Hammer, Surrey, having trained under Keith Stanley at the Ritz London, Nico Ladenis at Chez Nico, Tom Aikens at Pied à Terre, Marco Pierre White at the Oak Room,
and William Drabble at Aubergine.
2001 He wins the prestigious Roux Scholarship competition and does a stage at
Marc Veyrat’s L’Auberge De L’Éridan in Annecy, France.
2003 Drakes on the Pond is awarded a Michelin star.
2004 He leaves Drakes on the Pond to open Drake’s (now the Clock House) in Ripley, Surrey. It is awarded a Michelin star after a year and three AA rosettes.
2013 Drake acquires a stake in the freehold of the Anchor pub in Ripley, entering into a business partnership with Chris and Lisanne Mealing.
August 2016 He announces that he is leaving Drake’s.
October 2017 He opens Sorrel on South Street in Dorking, Surrey, with Richard Giles as head chef, Winnie Eckardt as restaurant manager and Sazan Aljija as head sommelier.