Michael Caines on Michelin and launching at the Bath Priory

19 March 2009 by
Michael Caines on Michelin and launching at the Bath Priory

He was tipped for three Michelin stars at Gidleigh Park this year, but the final accolade wasn't forthcoming. However, Michael Caines denies being disappointed - his main motivation is building a business rather than creating the perfect soufflé, he insists. But do we believe him, and how does it feel to be heading up an ever-increasing number of kitchens? Tom Vaughan reports from Caines's latest restaurant, at the Bath Priory hotel

The whispers started last October, produce of the scatter-gun rumour mill that precedes each year's Michelin results. By January they hit a crescendo. "Is it true he's got three stars?" assorted chefs would enquire, with an overblown faith in journalistic fact digging. "What rumours have you heard?" asked a fidgety Caines two weeks into the new year, restless with thoughts of 2009's guide printed and bundled up in some suburban storeroom and his restaurant at Gidleigh Park a hot tip to join the three-star brigade on publication.

Sadly, though - but not too sadly, Caines will stress - 2009 will not be remembered as the year Gidleigh Park entered the true elite. When the Michelin results leaked out five days early Caines was seen to be stuck at two stars and it was Alain Ducasse's restaurant at the Dorchester that edged nearer to the Holy Grail of three.

Attentive industry spectators will note, however, that Caines has of this week added a third star to his portfolio. Monday (16 March) saw the official reopening of the restaurant at the Bath Priory hotel, with one Michael Caines MBE as executive head chef. The hotel, owned by Andrew and Christina Brownsword, proprietors of Gidleigh Park, was formerly the vehicle for Chris Horridge's Michelin-starred healthy cuisine, but following his departure in January, Brownsword turned to Caines to relaunch the restaurant, retaining the Michelin star Horridge secured for the site in January. For Caines's group it's another notch in what is fast becoming, after Gordon Ramsay Holdings, the biggest high-end restaurant collection overseen by a British Michelin-starred chef.

As well as Gidleigh Park and Bath Priory, Caines has signature restaurants at a further four properties in the Abode group, the hotel company he opened with Andrew Brownsword in 2003, with plans from the pair to add a further 10-15 in the next decade. By the time the 2012 Olympics arrive, there could be a dozen or so Michael Caines fine-dining restaurants across the UK. The chef-cum-businessman pithily sums up the role he's grown into since his days as simply head chef at Gidleigh Park. "Food is my business - creating good food," he says. "But there's no chance of taking good food to more than a few people unless you have a solid business platform to do it on." So the aim at Bath Priory, which underperformed last year, he admits, compared to Gidleigh Park, which outstripped expectations, is to introduce more links between the two hotels and raise the Priory's standards to those of its esteemed sister (see panel, page 24).

Sustainable business

While some might imagine Caines to be downbeat after missing out on an accolade he was so widely tipped for, the businessman in him has got plenty else to keep him occupied. "Do I need three stars? One day when I'm sitting on a beach in a warm country looking at the scenery from my yacht, knowing I've got a sustainable business and money in the bank from the hard work I've put in over the years - ask me that question then, and I'll tell you it won't matter that much," he says with customary self-confidence.

That self-belief - the same trait that saw him back in the kitchen two weeks after losing an arm in a road accident 15 years ago - comes across poorly on paper. In person he has a boyish charm, calling to mind his mentor Raymond Blanc. And, like Blanc, there are those huge monologues. Monologues where you can just switch on the tape-recorder and sit back, where he asks himself, without prompting, the very questions you came armed with and where every aspect of Caines and his business comes up for discussion, usually several times over. An interview becomes a musing, a third-person look at the career of Michael Caines: Caines on Caines, if you will. But then there's plenty to talk about in a career that almost ended before it truly started when, just months into his first head chef role at Gidleigh Park and aged just 25, he lost his right arm in a horrific car accident.

In the 15 years since, Caines has not only gone on to gain two Michelin stars and hold them for a decade, but also become a leading British light among the growing breed of chefs not content with just being revered cooks, but intent on being successful businessmen. In the past decade super-chefs like Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon and Gordon Ramsay have shown that those in the kitchen can sculpt a successful business, taking their high-end food across multiple sites, even multiple continents - and Caines is gradually building up his portfolio of signature restaurants.

This evolution, says Caines, has been driven by an urge from chefs to take their destiny into their own hands. "Chefs have been pawns in the business game for too long - being moved around and being sacked. It's only recently that we've widely started to become restaurateurs." In general it comes on with age, he says - he'll be 40 this year. "When you start this career you start pure, with that one objective to cook the best food you can, because that's all you need worry about. Then you get to a point in your career when you start wondering why everyone is leaving to start their own business, and you realise there is no future in being in a team being bossed around. You have to take your destiny into your own hands."

Chance meeting

After gaining a second Michelin star in 1999, Caines set up Michael Caines Restaurants, embarking on a series of solo ventures (see panel, page 21) before a chance meeting with Brownsword in 2000 gave Caines the business partner of his dreams. The British entrepreneur had sold his greetings card business for an estimated £195m in 1994 and was branching into property and hotels with the acquisition of Sydney House in Chelsea and the Bath Priory. The pair subsequently teamed up in 2003 to realise Caines's long-term plan to buy the Royal Clarence hotel in Exeter, where he had a popular signature restaurant, and bring the bedrooms up to what he felt was a similar standard to the food. After a £3m refurbishment of the site, they launched Abode Hotels in 2005, adding sites in Canterbury and Glasgow the following year and a Manchester site in 2008. This year Caines aims to launch an Abode in Chester, and one in Salisbury. Caines is branded across the company, from the signature Michael Caines restaurants in each hotel to the Michael Caines Taverns and MC Café Bars that give the hotels a broad appeal for each market.

Caines's time is now divided between maintaining standards at Gidleigh Park and helping the young chefs across the Abode group develop within the classical style of cooking he is known for. This year sees the first national recognition for one of his protégés, with Manchester Abode chef Ian Matfin competing on the BBC's Great British Menu programme.

The argument that you can't be a multi-site businessman and a chef is one Caines vehemently disagrees with, along with the suggestion that not being ever-present in a kitchen might dent three-star aspirations. "Robuchon has two three-stars in one city [Tokyo] and one single-star operation. It's no good Michelin, or anyone else, saying they like chefs to be in their kitchens - we know they're not, but they're still creating great food. I speak to some people and they go, ‘We love this chef because he's always behind his stove,' and I think about them, ‘You really don't get how this industry has evolved.' Part of my job is to make sure the guy next to me in the kitchen can cook as well as I can for when I'm not there, but, as it happens, I'm in my kitchen a lot. I'm certainly not doing the Anneka Rice thing, as another magazine suggested, dashing around the country."

Caines's responsibilities to Abode, Gidleigh Park and Bath Priory are helped by the Brownsword proprietorship of Gidleigh Park, bought from the Hendersons in 2003. It's also given him a bigger platform for his cuisine, after an extensive refurbishment in 2006 extended the property by 10 rooms to 24, in a move that has also allowed Caines to take his food forward. "By growing the hotel we have been able to grow the turnover, grow the kitchen and grow the staffing structure as well as raise our capacity in the restaurant. It's now the best kitchen I've ever worked in, and Gidleigh is looking the best it's ever looked."

Predatory business

As for the perilous financial climate, Caines claims Gidleigh Park, with its banks of prestige and loyal patrons, is virtually recession-proof. And the downturn may even play into Abode's hands. "We are a predatory business that will look at the market and see if there are opportunities to acquire. There are some big debts out there, and this year will be hard for some businesses. Some will inevitably trade insolvent, and if that's the case, we'll be there to pick up the assets."

If the idea of a chef channelling his energies into achieving three stars and a businessman pursuing and expanding his interests seems incongruous to some, then Caines says it's the accolades that would have to give way. "I'd choose the business every time. Those stars can be withdrawn whenever they want. That business is truly yours. There are chefs out there who had stars and have nothing now. I can't build a business partnership with Andrew while we continue to stare at the lights of Michelin hoping for another star, hitting our heads against the wall and going nowhere."

But regardless of these sentiments, and despite touting a more grounded view of 2009's stars when we spoke recently, there was a tangible sense of impatience from Caines as this year's results neared the two-star chef desperate to know if he'd done enough to join the elite. "I'm ready for three stars," he said. "What more can I do? What more can Gidleigh give? Food doesn't get much better. In 10 years at Gidleigh I've never come as close as this. Press, trade members, customers have all been telling us that it's the best we've been cooking here and it's worth three stars. I'm nervous, but - you know what? - I'm certainly not going to have a mid-life crisis if we don't get it."

That third star would, of course, be a personal triumph for Caines and, he points out, he would be the first three-starred chef of black African origin. If the accolade does ever arrive, Caines will also be proving another point completely. Ducasse, Ramsay, Robuchon, Marco Pierre White all worked hard to get their third star then rolled out their self-named restaurants. Caines, however, doesn't seem to need this endorsement. And while the top Michelin accolade would be a triumph for Caines the chef, you get the impression that it would also launch Caines the businessman into the stratosphere.

Clever decision

He is resolute, however, that Caines the businessman will continue to not indulge Caines the chef, however close those stars might seem. "The one thing you can't afford to do is lose perspective," he says. "Listen - I lost a dear friend, Bernard Loiseau, because he lost perspective. He was a manic depressive, thought he'd lose a star, and took his own life. I nearly lost my own life aged 25. I wake up every day and my life is food, and I know the end goal of that is three stars. If I don't get it, I will be disappointed, but I'll also know I made the right and clever decision in realising I'm just a commodity and I needed to secure a future for my kids."

Caines pauses momentarily, and between the lines of his next comment there's another whiff of his mentor Blanc in the suggestion that, while the bigger picture of business interests will always take priority, to not be the best in every department - and this surely includes three stars - would be to leave unfinished business come the end of play. "I'm not at a point in my career when I can say I'm anywhere near done," he says. "But when I am, trust me: I will have achieved everything I want to achieve."

Michael Caines - a timeline

  • 1969 Born in Exeter.
  • 1987 Wins Student of the Year title at Exeter Catering College.
  • 1987-89 Works at the Grosvenor House hotel, Park Lane, London.
  • 1989-92 Works for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons.
  • 1992-94 Works in France for Bernard Loiseau and Joël Robuchon.
  • 1994 Employed in his first role as head chef at Gidleigh Park near Exeter on the recommendation of Paul Bocuse, succeeding Shaun Hill. Loses arm in a car accident. Returns to the kitchen part-time two weeks later and full-time a fortnight after that.
  • 1995 Retains Gidleigh Park's Michelin star.
  • 1999 Gains second Michelin star. Establishes Michael Caines Restaurants and sets up second restaurant at the Royal Clarence hotel in Exeter in a deal with Corus & Regal hotels.
  • 2000 Becomes chef-consultant for contract caterer Baxter Platts, a role he held until 2004.
  • 2003 Sets up signature restaurant at Bristol Marriott Royal hotel, where he installs head chef Shane Goodway and acts as chef-consultant. Teams up with Andrew Brownsword to buy the Royal Clarence, which Corus & Regal had put up for sale and Caines had had an offer for rejected earlier. The pair form Abode Hotels and begin a £3m refurbishment of the site.
  • 2005 The pair relaunch the Royal Clarence as the Exeter Abode. Abode Glasgow opens the same year.
  • 2006 Appointed MBE for services to the hospitality industry. Abode Canterbury opens.
  • 2008 Abode Manchester opens.
  • 2009 Sets up eponymous restaurant at the Bath Priory hotel.

Heading up Bath Priory

James Sheridan, Michael Caines's sous chef at Gidleigh Park, will take over as head chef at the Bath Priory and look after the day-to-day running of the kitchen for the 80-seat restaurant.

Because there are a higher number of local residents at the Bath Priory, Caines also wants to push Sunday roasts at the hotel. But, as he stresses, the food offering extends past what he and Sheridan will cook for the restaurant. "My food isn't about shocking people or playing with your mind," he says. "It's about people coming away relaxed, having eaten great food - having had a good breakfast, good biscuits with their tea, good sandwiches for lunch and, on top of that, a Michelin-starred meal in the evening.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the time everything has to be spot-on, and that 1% of slippage is all you can ever afford."

l To celebrate Caines and Sheridan's arrival, the Bath Priory is hosting a celebratory wine dinner on 1 April, when the duo will be preparing a four-course dinner with wines to match. Tickets are priced at £125. Contact the hotel on 01225 331922.

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