Last week, Caterer revealed details of Lime Wood, the £30m hotel project Robin Hutson is involved in. Gemma Sharkey talks to the band of men who are carving a new groove in the New Forest.
When I meet Robin Hutson at his old stamping ground, on the third floor of London's Soho House (he used to sit on its board), his usual casual demeanour has been replaced with something altogether more zealous.
As we sip our still waters, trying to stay cool, he earnestly explains that he doesn't want to "take all the credit" for the project he's been consulting on for the past four months. Of Lime Wood, the new five-star boutique hotel in the heart of the New Forest in Hampshire, he says, "It really isn't all about me - Alex Aitken has been involved with the project from the beginning in 1999; Charles Morris, the architect, has done a wonderful job with the building; and David Collins with the interiors - all in all it's an extraordinary project."
Although Hutson is characteristically modest, there's good reason the co-founder of Hotel du Vin was coaxed out of semi-retirement to consult by the property's owner, local businessman Jim Ratcliffe who has pumped in excess of £30m into the project. According to Aitken, Hutson brought a fresh pair of eyes to the project, "I thought I paid attention to detail, but he's pushed all of us to a higher level of quality," Aitken says.
Hutson is less modest, more evangelical when extolling the virtues of the building itself, a Georgian country manor originally established as a hunting lodge in the 13th Century. "It's a real architectural triumph. I don't think the country house sector has seen such a development in the last 10 years.
"I've been approached over the past few years to do these sorts of things, but they were all more of the same. This really stood out and it will be important for the hotel sector. We're aiming to be in the top five UK country house hotels within two years."
The project was initially born out of Aitken's desire to create something special, a labour of love. When he bought the then named Parkhill property in 1999, he was already running the Michelin-starred restaurant Le Poussin. The originally self-taught chef opened a less formal venue re-named Simply Poussin within the hotel which gained a star the following year. Aitken closed the property in 2004 to transform it into the "best country house hotel in the country".
In 2005, Morris, who is the architect to the Royal family, was brought in to design the guest buildings and spa, while Ben Pentreath, of Working Group Design, was given a brief to restore the main hotel and extension. The hotel's 30 bedrooms will be spread across a number of buildings within the grounds, 16 in the main house, four junior suites across two pavilions, five suites in a crescent-shaped building, and five rooms in the coach house.
Interiors, designed by David Collins, who also recently designed the Langham's new interiors, will be contemporary, clean cut and uncluttered with a white-on-white-with-grey-overtones colour scheme. Pieces of art and sculpture will also adorn the property. The main body of the hotel is set to open at the end of October and will be followed by a 10,000 sq ft spa next spring.
Despite the all-star cast, the project has not been without its problems - after all, there was a reason Hutson was drafted in to consult at such a late stage. "In general, it has all been carried out to the highest levels of craftsmanship, it really caught my eye. But, of course, had I been around a few years earlier, there are a few elements I would have done differently", Hutson concedes.
He uses the bathrooms as an example: Morris had designed them along his normal lines for traditional private country houses. But Hutson points out they simply weren't made for the wear and tear a hotel undergoes. "They were built from a non-hotel point of view," he explains. "It's a double-edged sword because it meant they were original and had a high level of craftsmanship, but weren't practical for hotel usage. You have to make it so that it will still be OK in five years' time."
Hutson says his main focus will be ensuring the service is delivered with wit and humour and "free from silly rules". He says: "I hate it when service systems dictate how staff do things - when an accountant in head office decides that a chambermaid should clean 10 rooms every shift, which means knocking on bedroom doors while people are still in bed. It's annoying and not about the guest experience."
He's also set about building what he dubs his "dream team", starting with Justin Pinchbeck, general manager of the Zetter hotel in London, to run the show, as well as "marketing heavyweight" David Elton. "Justin opened the Zetter six years ago, so he has experience with that side of things and the more I met him, the more I liked him. He also came with glowing references from all sorts of different angles in the industry."
Hutson admits to being concerned about putting Gerard Basset's [Hutson's co-founder in Hotel du Vin] nose out of joint.
Basset's current project, Hotel TerraVina, is less than two miles from Lime Wood, so Hutson called him in to consult on the wine list, and also to find a sommelier. Despite this tact, Hutson is clear in his ambition for the team and is now looking to recruit the best of the best. "We're encouraging anyone who's worked with us before and enjoyed it to get in touch now to work here," he says with a smile.
GENERAL MANAGER'S VIEW
Hutson and Justin Pinchbeck met to discuss the project at the end of April. Pinchbeck confesses that he was enticed by the "unique proposal" and the fact that he was a fan of the Hotel du Vin concept. "It's not just another country house hotel, I think once every 10 years something like this comes along: the grounds, the setting in the forest, the detailing in the bedroom," Pinchbeck says. "And, although for Ratcliffe it was slightly philanthropic in the beginning, he also wants to make money as well. That's why we brought Robin Hutson in - there's no better person to have on your board of directors than Robin. He'll make it the success it deserves to be, and bring in the high-profile people to make it extra special."
Pinchbeck says he was chosen for the role of hotel director because he had experience opening the Zetter combined with the backbone of his training having come from Grosvenor House. "It was like the formality of the one met with the innovation of the other," he explains. Hutson says he chose him not only for his professionalism, but because he was a fellow bon viveur. "I was really delighted to find Justin - I see in him a little of what I was like at that age: enthusiastic, passionate and in love with food and wine," he says.
Pinchbeck will join the property in the middle of August and plans to hit the ground running. "There's a lot to do between now and October; getting the hotel's image together will require some fine-tweaking. It won't be easy at first but the recruitment process has already started - fully staffed we're aiming for 60 people - and we'll build up slowly between now and the opening. And I think it's going to be a very special place."
EXECUTIVE CHEF'S VIEW
Although Aitken has now sold his 50% stake to Ratcliffe, he has been very hands-on throughout the whole process. When I phone him to discuss the project he immediately launches into a rapturous review of some particularly fine marble he picked out on a recent trip to Italy. "It just happened to be white truffle season too and, yes, I brought some back. I am a chef!"
Aitken will head up the two restaurants at the property: the fine dining venue Alex Aitken at Limewood, for which he hopes to regain a Michelin star, and the Scullery which will serve more brasserie-style steak and frites fare. Aitken says he recently took Martin Skan of Chewton Glen round the property and that he was "blown away" even declaring it to be "the most beautifully built hotel he'd ever seen".
Aitken explains the food offering will be similar to Le Poussin's - namely real forest food such as wild mushrooms and garlic, venison, and his own "New Forest haggis" a creation using offal, dried wild mushrooms and lots of horseradish. He's also throwing some home-grown beef into the mix and is currently experimenting with an Aberdeen cross, and pure breed Dexter. "I've been feeding them beer and barley to get them fatter, I tried Stella but they got too aggressive. But you've never tasted beef like it."
ROBIN HUTSON CV
- Trained with the Savoy Group, London, including Claridge's, the Berkeley and Hotel de Crillon in Paris
- Front office manager at the Berkeley
- Operations manager, Elbow Beach hotel in Bermuda
- General manager, Chewton Glen, New Forest, 1986-1994
- Managing director, Chewton Glen
- Co-founder, chairman and managing director Hotel du Vin group 1994-2004
- The seven-strong Hotel du Vin portfolio was sold for the record sum of £66.4m (2004)
- Executive chairman of Soho House Group (2005-2008)
- Consultant, Soho House Group
- Chairman of Lime Wood Group 2009
- Newcomer of the Year in 1996
- Hotel of the Year in 2000 and 2003
- Hotelier of the Year in 2003
JUSTIN PINCHBECK CV
- November 2003 to date General manager, the Zetter hotel, London; Chairman, East London Hotel Group.
- February 2002- October 2003 General manager, Compass Group, Royal Thames Yacht Club, Knightsbridge, London
- September 2000- February 2002 General manager, Firmdale Hotels; Number Sixteen hotel and Knightsbridge hotel, South Kensington and Knightsbridge, London,www.firmdale.com
- February 1995- September 2000 Deputy general manager, the Sloane Club, (& the Club Suites), Chelsea, London.
- September 1989- February 1995 Trainee and senior assistant manager, Grosvenor House hotel, Park Lane, London,
ALEX AITKEN CV
- 1978 to 1982 Maitre d' at the Chanteclerc restaurant
- 1983 Bought Le Poussin with wife Caroline on his 25th birthday, became head chef
- 1999 Expanded Le Poussin into the Parkhill hotel. Gained Michelin star and AA red star status in the first year
- 2004 Bought Whitley Ridge, closing Parkhill to totally refurbish
- 2005 Whitley gains Michelin star, red stars follow soon
- 2009 Parkhill set to re-open as Lime Wood
- Numerous awards for food wine and service followed over the years including: The Times Out of Town Restaurant of the Year, Telegraph Restaurant of the Year, GFG Hampshire Restaurant of the Year, Michelin star.