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The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview: Alex Aiken, chef-restaurateur

29 March 2013 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview: Alex Aiken, chef-restaurateur

This year chef-restaurateur Alex Aitken celebrates 30 years in hospitality in Hampshire and Dorset. The former Michelin star holder talks to Joanna Wood about his new project with Harbour Hotels and reflects on the New Forest restaurant scene

You are currently consulting for the Harbour Hotels Collection and running its high profile restaurant the Jetty at Christchurch Harbour hotel. How did this come about?

What's the deal?
The deal is a retainer for my services as a consultant. I get a wage for that and I also get a percentage of operating profit. Then from last year a rent was added but it's doing so well now that I get handsomely looked after. And I run it like my own.

The Jetty used to be in Gary Rhodes' restaurant portfolio as Rhodes South. Why do you think you've been more successful here than Gary?
Gary was never here enough. And also, when I took over, there was a head chef, a kitchen manager, a bar manager and a restaurant manager. It was top heavy but there was no-one in sole charge, and no real direction. When I took it on, I brought in my son, Alex Joseph, as general manager. He'd worked at Le Poussin in my kitchens and restaurants. He's another part of the jigsaw of the Jetty's success.

Can you quantify the success of the Jetty for us?
It's a 60-cover restaurant, and we do 70-100 lunch covers and 100 evening covers on Saturdays. Midweek it's a bit quieter, but yesterday (a Tuesday in January) we did 34 for lunch and 40 for dinner. We're open for Sunday lunch as well and we'll do up to 150 sometimes. Rhodes South didn't open on a Sunday but in the country you have to open on a Sunday.

How do those covers translate into hard cash?
Rhodes South was losing a substantial amount a year. The first year we were here (2011) we had in excess of £220,000 profit. This year, we've done around £330,000 to £340,000 bottom line, which is a huge turnaround.

So local knowledge has been vital?
I've been in the New Forest area for more 
than 25 years and know the customer profile and the local suppliers. There are pockets of good corporate business around Christchurch, but there are a lot of retired people as well. You have to embrace it all.
I'd say 70-80% of our customers are locals.We get a lot of people from Bournemouth and Winchester, too, and what's really nice is that people have followed me over from the New Forest, from Le Poussin and Lime Wood.

The rumour is you try to buy 90% local produce for the restaurant
We try for 90% in a 40-mile radius for the Jetty. It's about a 15-mile radius for the King's Arms hotel (our sister business in Christchurch, which I'm also responsible for).
I buy fish direct from the fishermen here on a daily basis, from five different boats - we're right by the sea. We've got a refrigerated van that I take down to the quay and I pay the 
fishermen myself, then bill the company, because the fishermen have to get paid the day you pick the fish up. I buy all the by-catch for a fixed price that's better than they get at market, but it's still cheaper for me than using a middle man. I get boxes of the most wonderful fish.

Do you still find new local suppliers?
Yes. The best places for finding suppliers are the local farmers' markets. I've discovered an amazing bread supplier for the King's Arms that way. We make our own bread at the Jetty but this guy makes the most phenomenal sourdough. He used to work for Sally Clarke in London.

Is it true you once did time on a trawler in your pre-culinary life? I was a wicked little boy and was going in the wrong direction, so I was sent up to Scotland to my grandmother during the summer holidays one year, to take me out of the crowd I was in. It was in my penultimate year at school. I went out on a trip as cabin boy on a boat, then started helping the fishermen with the catch and then went on to shoot the nets away. I ended up doing holiday cover for some of 
the guys.

I went back to school six weeks late and the minute my last exam finished I jumped on a train and went back up to do a few months on the trawlers. I earned £100 a week 40 years ago that was probably worth £1,000 a week! What did it teach me? Hard work and drinking! And it means I probably know more about fish than most people.

Lime Wood, the boutique hotel in Lyndhurst, used to be Le Poussin at Parkhill, the restaurant-with-rooms where you held your Michelin star. The redevelopment was very much your project; why did you leave?
The Lime Wood development was four years in the end and at the same time I was also involved in Le Portetta - a refurbishment project at Courchevel in the French Alps, which my business partner, Jim Ratcliffe, owned.
I was out in France every week. It was great fun, but by the time Lime Wood opened, I just thought: "I've done too much over the last five years, I want some 'me' time." To be honest I probably knew two years into the Lime Wood project that I wouldn't be staying. But I didn't tell anyone; I didn't even admit it to myself for a while.

So you were happy when Robin Hutson was brought on board at Lime Wood?
I totally endorsed Robin coming in as chairman. He and I were singing from the same hymn sheet. But there's only room for one big ego on a project like that! And as I said, by 2009 I was ready to move on. That year was the line in the sand. I resigned as director of cuisine and sold my shares in the business. I sold everything - my stake in Lime Wood, Whitley Ridge in Brockenhurst [which became the Pig], Latimers in Southampton [which is now Pig in the Wall].

Why didn't you put your name above the door in Christchurch? We went through branding "Alex Aitken" at Lime Wood when it opened, with Dining Room Alex Aitken. I had plates with my name on them - I really didn't like it. When I came here to the Jetty I wasn't just a food consultant, I was also a business consultant. And it would have been silly to hang it on my name, because it might not have worked.

You do a lot of event dinners. Why?
They're really good in the off season. If you can put together something that is not over the top expensive and gives people a reason to come out then you keep ticking over. For instance, on Burns Night, we had 85 covers booked.

What are Harbour Hotels' future plans? There's a new build going on in Ocean Marina Village in Southampton, a £4m refurbishment in Salcombe and there are other properties in St Ives and Sidmouth. I'm consulting on the whole group. The Jetty concept is going into Salcombe and it'll go into Ocean Village too. The hotels are all on the waterfront. They're normally linked to a property development, which funds the hotel.

Are you consulting purely on the culinary side? I get involved in some of the design as well. For instance, at the King's Arms I redesigned the restaurant. I based it on the successful Scullery concept at Lime Wood, which was my idea. In the 18 months I've been running King's it's gone from losing buckets of money to turning a profit of about £140,000. On New Year's Eve we took £20,000, and it was full of locals. That was pleasing because the locals had turned away from it and we had to win them back.

What's on your wish list for the Jetty? I'd like a summer where we could do more outside dining. We don't want to put our prices up; we want to stay very accessible. The economy is still very static, so it's very hard to see real growth in turnover. I'd be happy to maintain what we've achieved.

Alex Aitken's essential business tips

â- Don't put your name above the door or on plates unless you own 100% of your business.

â- Remember - location is not just a beautiful view/building, but accessibility to customers.

â- Beware of over publicity. Keep under the radar and exceed expectations.
â- "Feel the love" for local customers who keep you in business in off-peak times. Cater for them.

â- Open seven days a week if you're in the country.

â- Find local suppliers through farmers' markets.

â- Get the right staff - with high standards but, especially front of house, with personality and enthusiasm.

â- Train, train, train and reward, reward, reward your staff.

â- Don't try and please everyone. Be mindful of your customer base, but cook the food you want to eat yourself. You will be happier and customers will get consistency.

Essential Factsâ- 1983 Alex and Caroline Aitken buy Le Poussin in Brockenhurst, in the New Forest, Hampshire

â- 1995 Le Poussin gains a Michelin star

â- 1999 Expands Le Poussin into the Parkhill hotel, Lyndhurst (also in the New Forest) and goes on to regain the Michelin star

â- 2004 Buys Whitley Ridge hotel in Brockenhurst in order to transfer Le Poussin there while Parkhill is refurbished into a boutique hotel and spa

â- 2009 Parkhill reopens as Lime Wood and Aitken sells his share in the business, but stays on as director of cuisine

â- 2010 (March) Resigns 
as director of cuisine, 
Lime Wood

â- 2010 (August) Takes on a consultancy role with Harbour Hotels Collection and begins to run the Jetty and the King's Arms, both in Christchurch, Dorset

â- 2012 The Jetty wins Best Seafood Restaurant & Best Midweek Lunch at the Christchurch Best of the 
Best Awards and Taste of 
the South West - Gold 
Award at the 2011/2012 Southwest Tourism Excellence Awards

â- 2013 Aitken is consultant on Harbour Hotels properties being refurbished/built, including Salcombe Harbour Hotel & Spa in Devon, opening summer 2013

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