Robert Thompson, the newly installed head chef at the George hotel in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, only had to cross the island to discover his dream restaurant. Fiona Sims reports
He's grinning because this is his dream space, or rather dream spaces - there's an elegant, light-filled dining room complete with a cheese trolley the likes of which the island has never seen, and a buzzy brasserie packed with customers sucking on plump moules and crunching on frites as they watch
the yachts glide past on the Solent.
The George hotel is undergoing a multi-million pound facelift thanks to its new owner, Camelot chief executive Dianne Thompson. And no, she's no relation, which they both have to keep gently reminding people. Though there's a definite bond there on the drive front - Dianne with her CBE and her Camelot hat on until she retires in the autumn; and Robert with his Michelin-starred pedigree, still striving for perfection. Restoration man
I say retire, but Dianne has no intention of spending it pottering around her garden.
"I want to make the George one of the top 10 boutique hotels in the south of England. I want to restore her to her former glory," she declares over dinner. She unveils plans to renovate the 17 bedrooms as well as the public spaces - of which the fine-dining room, called Isla's, is the first to get a makeover The room has not been used since a former chef, Kevin Mangeolles, upped sticks to North Norfolk seven years ago to open his own place, taking his Michelin star with him.
The colour scheme - greige - is deliberately neutral. "I want the feature to be Robert's food, not the interior," adds the charming, tenacious, West Yorkshire-born woman, who took on Richard Branson and his Lottery licence bid in 2000 and won.
Claire Nelson, founder of architectural interior design company Nelson Design, is responsible for Isla's graceful, 60-seat interior. Robert says: "I wanted something organic, if that makes sense. Not stuffy - and definitely no muzak."
There are still a few pieces to come - like the antique mirror and some Isle of Wight Studio Glass pieces. Plus Robert's dad is still making the cheese trolley. "That'll be a first for the island," Thompson sniggers. And yes, there will be cheese on it, from Richard Hodgson's Isle of Wight Cheese Company, along with a selection from London's La Fromagerie.
The brasserie gets a new name, too: Isla's Conservatory. This space has 80 seats with a further 100 outside on the lawn - the biggest number of covers Thompson has had to juggle yet. He had just 45 seats at the Hambrough and a similar number at Winteringham Fields in Lincolnshire, where he worked for six years under two-Michelin-starred chef Germain Schwab. This is where Thompson won his own star, at just 23 years old, after Schwab retired.
"We can do 150 covers max at one time at the George, though we've been holding back a bit on bookings so we can get ourselves organised.
We've not got our full complement of kitchen staff yet," Thompson says. "I really need 12 staff. That said, I've got great key staff - without them I couldn't do this. It's important to have a team who know the Isle of Wight and understand its quiet periods," says Bedfordshire-born Thompson.
The key staff include Richard Broughton, who heads Isla's Conservatory and who worked with Thompson at the Hambrough and Winteringham Fields, Simon Ulph, who is sous chef at Isla's and also ex-Hambrough, along with James Newnham, junior sous chef, putting the number of kitchen staff at seven.
After the October half-term and until Valentine's Day (not including the Christmas spike), the island's restaurants are quiet - something Thompson had to get used to. Tourism is everything to the Isle of Wight, which has around 600,000 visitors a year and a permanent population of nearly 140,000.
Second-homers are rife on the island - particularly in Yarmouth - but only the hardy visit during winter.
But what is putting a smile on Thompson's face is the number of customers who have returned after a long absence, buoyed by his presence and his reputation - one of the key reasons Dianne recruited him. And yes, of course he wants his Michelin star back - though he's probably too late for
this year's guide as the fine-dining room only reopened in June. "For me, personally, I absolutely want a star. It's my life. I love eating in Michelin-starred restaurants. But it's important to instil in my team that we aren't cooking for the guides; it's not the most important thing. I say to my staff that if we have no complaints and we have happy customers, this is the most important thing - the Michelin star is just the icing on the cake."
Thompson reveals that his ambition for the George is two Michelin stars, just like his mentor, Schwab. "Germain and Annie were a massive inspiration for me. They ran a tight ship - one team working together. To this day, I don't like segregation between the sections.
Everyone has to pitch together. That's got to be the model we work to here on the Isle of Wight. Anyway, it makes it more interesting in the kitchen for everyone - you can't bone out a saddle of lamb every day.
"The conservatory menu changes all the time. We work with the day boats at Looe and with a couple of local fishermen who work out of Yarmouth. The idea is to mix up the classics with a few modern touches, like the Thai-spiced St Austell Bay mussel frites and the occasional River Café-inspired favourite, such as panna cotta. This is exactly why I wanted two restaurants. I don't always want to eat lobster taken out of the shell and mucked around with. The conservatory is about a simple meal by the sea - though I still want to be able to amuse diners," he adds.
There is indeed a section on Isla's Conservatory menu called 'Something to Amuse', where each dish is priced at £4.50. The cuttlefish breadsticks with homemade taramasalata are proving particularly popular, says Thompson, who smokes his own cod's roe and mixes cuttlefish ink into the white bread dough before rolling it through a pasta machine.
Other sections include 'Smaller Plates (that can be bigger!)', with dishes such as cod brandade, flat parsley purée, toasted sourdough and Isle of Wight rapeseed oil (£8/£16); 'Picked, dressed and served', including Jersey Royal potato salad, spring onion mayonnaise and Will's rainbow radishes (£7/14); 'Something larger from the Isle, Solent & Forest', including grilled local lobster with nut brown butter, lemon mayonnaise, pommes frites and green salad (half £19.50/whole £38).
The small dessert section is called 'Room for More', where all are priced at £7.50, and includes that River Café-inspired vanilla panna cotta with a salad of peaches with grappa.
Things get more serious on the menu in Isla's, which is £70 for three courses. "I like food that's not too fussy, but there has to be something that excites," explains Thompson.
He's particularly proud of the eel starter - a pressing of smoked eel, duck liver, pork belly and Bramley apple, with celeriac remoulade, medlar vinaigrette and toasted brioche.
"I first did that dish at Winteringham - it won over Germain. It's about building levels of excitement with ingredients I'm confident will go together," he says.
Another starter dish of ceviche of yellowfin tuna with lime and Arbequina olive oil, pickled mooli, wasabi cream and pink radish, and ponzu
dressing is a variation of a long-running signature dish that until recently used mackerel. "I adjust the ingredients according to the time of the year," Thompson says.
His current favourite main is the pigeon dish. "Why? Because there's a lot of work involved in it," he smiles. The exact name of the dish is 'roasted squab pigeon cooked with Douglas fir and duck liver, white onion purée, sautéed radicchio with Xérès vinegar and lightly smoked confit legs'.
Here, Thompson removes the breast of a French squab and replaces the angel fillets with slivers of duck liver; the legs are smoked separately with an oil infused with Douglas fir. The Wight stuff So where does Thompson stand on keeping it local?
"If you have great local products, then absolutely use them," he says. "On the island we have fabulous tomatoes from the Tomato Stall, amazing asparagus from Ben Brown and great rainbow chard and broad beans from Will Steward. Plus we have oyster and shiitake mushrooms from Paul Metcalf and brilliant sausages from Jackie Carder at Mottistone Farm, to name a few.
"But if I say that I'm only going to serve ingredients from a 10-mile radius or only from the island, then I would fall at the first hurdle.
What do you do when the fishermen say they didn't catch anything that morning; or when the farmer has finished that particular crop? It's great when it's there, but you can't go down the route of misleading customers when it's not. So I won't say 'catch of the day' if the weather has played up and there is no catch of the day, even though I see restaurants that are obviously doing just that. People think that because we are on an island that
fish is abundant. It's not We only have a handful of fishing boats."
Island meat is an issue for Thompson. "I love Dunsbury lamb, but when the season has finished, I struggle. The island desperately needs an abattoir. Every week I see animals packed into lorries leaving the island and they get stressed and the meat can be tough. My concern is putting something on the plate that is always spot on." Thompson buys meat from Donald Russell when he can't get it locally.
Dianne returns to the table after doing the rounds with diners - most seem to know about her. "She's called the George, but she's a she, and she knows I know," says Dianne, referring to the hotel. She first came here 23 years ago to work out how to rescue Gerald Ratner's jewellery business after he had just wiped a reported £500m from its value after a gaffe-riddled speech.
"I thought crossing the water would clear our heads - it did," she beams. It's still clearing her head now. After her day job of making millionaires she jumps on the ferry at Lymington Pier, and as the George hotel comes into view, from halfway across the water, she says to herself quietly: "I'm coming girl, I'm coming."