It's every chef's dream: to be given a multi-million pound budget and a blank canvas to build a kitchen from scratch. That's what has been keeping chef John Campbell busy at the Dorchester Collection's Coworth Park. He shows James Stagg round his new kitchen
It's rare for any chef to be offered a completely blank canvas in which to design and build a kitchen. So to have eight months in which to consider every detail must seem positively luxurious.
But such is the magnificence behind the development of the Dorchester Collection's Coworth Park that John Campbell has been given all the time, and a multi-million pound budget, required to make sure that the kitchen is as efficient and suited to his methodology and food style as possible.
"It's an amazing opportunity to start with a blank canvas," Campbell explains. "You can get something that is incredibly close to how you operate as a chef. We can build a kitchen that suits the brand and the style of food."
|###### The Bonnet Maestro range has built-in Clifton water baths|
Surprisingly - given the scope of service required of the hotel kitchen - the space is smaller than the Vineyard at Stockcross, the restaurant with rooms at which Campbell had such success. Not only does the new kitchen serve the 38-seat à la carte John Campbell at Coworth Park, but also two 90-cover private dining rooms, the hotel's Tower House and a marquee on the lawn that can cater for 350. "It's a little smaller [than the Vineyard at Stockcross] but over time you learn how to get more out of a kitchen," Campbell says. "The space we have here is real estate and we need to get the maximum productivity from each square metre. We have been quite clever in the way the kitchen has been designed to suit the property."
That design process was as rigorous as you would expect from a chef well known for his painstakingly meticulous approach to the business of running a kitchen. It took eight weeks to work with the designers to establish and refine a design, and a further eight months before the kitchen was fully operational.
"We wanted to design a kitchen with the future in mind, so we needed to forecast where the food style is going," Campbell adds. "We're using new equipment, new cooking methods and new routes to market - how we're getting it from the gate to the plate - because we've had 12 months to consider it. That has dictated the design."
|###### At the pass the chef doesn't overheat because the grill switches on only when in use|
Everything about the kitchen is based on efficiency, both in terms of its productivity and its environmental impact. In keeping with Coworth Park's green philosophy (see below) the kitchen includes the most leading-edge equipment available, making the work of food production easier for the chefs and lighter on energy bills. "Everything in this kitchen is about efficiency," Campbell continues. "It's how it's designed, what it does, what the output is. We want peak performance."
One of the biggest challenges Campbell is working on overcoming is that of productivity. In order to achieve peak performance he has designed a weekly schedule in which no moment is wasted. Suppliers deliver from Monday to Sunday, but there is a greater volume of business at weekends, with high input of mise en place. His aspiration is to ensure Friday evening is as calm and structured as Monday afternoon.
"The business might peak at weekends, the rota might peak elsewhere and the suppliers somewhere else," he says.
In order to flatten the service schedule a great deal of preparation is built into the working week, which has the knock-on effect that the staffing levels can be flattened, too. The idea is that no day is different, or any more hectic, than another.
To ensure consistency of the finished product, no matter when it's prepared, the kitchen features a Caplain prover/retarder. For instance, instead of employing an overnight baker, dough for the bread a Coworth Park is made the day before it's needed, left to retard, prove and bake the next morning.
"What we serve on Friday and Saturday could have been in on Monday and prepped on Tuesday," Campbell adds. "Nothing is in time. We have a huge buffer on mise en place. This offers consistency and our processes mean we will only have improved the product."
FRIDGE OR FREEZER
To ensure all fresh produce stays that way, supplies are stored in one of the 18 under-counter Adande refrigeration units across the site. These units can operate as either a fridge or freezer and feature a curtain of air to maintain a constant temperature.
Food is then prepped at a central production unit that has butchery on one side and fish on the other. "The central island preparation bench allows us to bulk prepare, keeping us two or three days ahead," Campbell says.
Close by are two Kuppersbuch electric stock kettles and a Kuppersbuch electric bratt pan. "Each kettle holds 110 litres, which we reduce down to three to six litres, depending on collagen content," Campbell adds.
At the heart of the kitchen is the unit containing the Bonnet Maestro range with five built-in water baths, one containing water and the others containing oils and butter. Campbell was so specific in the unit's design that he took a trip to France to monitor the progress.
Everything in the kitchen is electric, which lends itself to a more comfortable working environment, according to Campbell. As well as heat being reduced by just one compressor serving all the refrigeration units, the grill behind the chef at the pass turns on only when the grill pan is inserted. "Most chefs would agree that working at the pass with a grill behind you makes your neck quite warm to say the least," Campbell says. "This switches on only when in use so it saves energy and keeps the kitchen cool."
The only area that Campbell has had to work to retain heat is in the transfer of finished dishes from the basement kitchen to the restaurants. As well as monitoring the fine-dining restaurant with a split screen offering a view of the pass upstairs and the restaurant to ensure instant delivery, some dishes are finished in the top pantry that also contains a salamander grill.
"Communication is key," Campbell says. "We need to know what's going on in the restaurant without a telephone call or someone running down the stairs. The screens are there for instant communication.
"The restaurant dictates how the kitchen runs. We know the restaurant team are better informed than us on when the guest wants food."
HOW CAMPBELL'S COOKING HAS CHANGED
With 12 months out of the kitchen, Campbell has had plenty of time to consider how to progress his cuisine and further refine his style.
At Coworth Park there are a number of levels of dining, from fine dining to room service, and Campbell is determined to ensure they all carry the same quality stamp.
Campbell explains his philosophy of quality in terms of a car company: "You look an Audi - from an A1 up to an A8 - and no matter which level you buy at you know it's an Audi. It's the brand, it's the quality. It's the same here: we want our customers to be reassured that they are only getting the best, whatever level they're at."
In terms of his food style, Campbell says there's now a little bit less on the plate. "Also, if something's in season for four weeks, we might only use the two middle weeks," he adds. "We will only take ingredients at their best."
Those seasonal ingredients may be manipulated, too. "There's a bit of misdirection in the food," Campbell says. "A little bit of cleverness, fun perhaps. It's not quirky, just enough fun to say it's fun but with enough respect for the ingredients."
Coworth Park features two private dining rooms, with 80-90 covers in each. Along with room service and the fine dining restaurant, they are all served by the one kitchen.
This presents logistical challenges beyond that of producing the food, particularly in the case of the Garden Room, which is some distance from the kitchen. So to ensure the food is served warm, the room has its own pass designed to hold trolley decks with regeneration plates that are kept warm by a thermal jacket.
"The food can be prepared in the kitchen, wheeled down to the pass and the trolley serves as a double hotplate so we can get the food out quickly," Campbell explains.
Much of that food is prepared in one of five Rational SelfCooking Centers, equipment Campbell describes as "worth their weight in gold".
"The interface is simple and we can accurately control regeneration time, fan speed and the temperature," he adds. "We can determine how much steam is in there and even grill fish with bar marks. They even clean themselves."
COUNTING DOWN THE COURSES
With a basement kitchen, Campbell's 54-strong brigade can keep an eye on the restaurant and top pantry with a spit screen. They will also know exactly when each dish should leave the kitchen, thanks to a second screen that provides timings for each fine-dining table.
"People tend to eat at the same pace so one a guest has an amuse bouche, six minutes later they are ready for the starter. Anything between 11 and 14 minutes is the norm for that and then around 26 minutes for a main," Campbell explains. "A guest buys that window so that the whole kitchen is focusing on them for that moment in time."
To ensure that happens, an electronic system counts down from the moment the guest arrives, enabling the chefs to know exactly what stage each table has reached.
"The chef de rong just presses the touch screen on a particular table and the process begins," Campbell says. "So we know that if an amuse goes out at 7:01pm, the starter must go out at 7:07pm and so on. Everyone knows what's next."
COWORTH PARK'S ENVIRONMENTAL LEGACY
Central to the philosophy at Coworth Park is an energy management strategy that extends to all areas of the business, including the kitchens.
It is the first hotel in the UK to grow its own willow for use in a biomass boiler, while a ground-source heat pump provides cooling for the hotel and solar thermal glazing manages heat gain.
In the kitchen the equipment installed is as efficient as possible, but in addition serious attention has been paid to joining up pieces of equipment to minimise their environmental impact. So as well as the salamander grill at the pass that only heats up when food is put in, all the refrigeration units are run on a pack system.
"Rather than having compressors for each unit we have one big one buried under ground. This means we don't have any hot air being produced by many compressors in the kitchen itself," Campbell explains.
The sustainable strategy is evident in the food as well, with a focus on seasonality and as much local produce as possible. Everything is made on site, even the beer, while chocolates include hay from the hotel's fields.
WATCH THE VIDEO: JOHN CAMPBELL ON HIS NEW KITCHEN