Two years ago, 27-year-old Jimmy Desrivieres arrived at Hampshire's Westover Hall unable to speak a word of English. Having left his birthplace of Martinique at the age of 18, he spent the next 10 years working in France, including stints at such famed restaurants as Georges Blanc, Hlne Darroze and the Htel Meurice in Paris.
However, England was where he wanted to be. "I like a challenge. It was something different, and I wanted to learn English," he says. "And I wanted to learn what English people like to eat."
Swapping the security of Michelin-starred French restaurants for the relative unknowns of the South Coast - and English hotel food - has, however, paid off. Earlier this year, Westover's owners - brother and sister Stewart Mechem and Nicola Musetti - promoted Desrivieres to head chef, giving him the chance to combine what he had learnt thus far about English tastes with his own kitchen style.
Take his marinated rack of lamb with mint crote. "The boss was always saying that he wanted mint sauce with the lamb, so I thought I had to try it," says Desrivieres. "I liked the taste, but it wasn't my food." So, instead of mint sauce, he now serves a rack of lamb with a mint crust. "It's me, just with an English influence," he says.
The dish is on the evening la carte menu, which costs £38.50 for three courses. He serves it with crisp violet potatoes on a tian of Mediterranean vegetables, with three small pieces of potato arranged down the middle of the plate.
In fact, Desrivieres likes to load each dish with a number of different elements, to provide variety and contrasts in colour, temperature and texture. A starter of globe artichoke velout thus comes with foie gras ice-cream, tomato cake and grissini sticks, while the soup itself is bolstered by chunks of artichoke. "I don't like plain soups," Desrivieres says. "I like something to eat in it, too, with different textures."
The foie gras ice-cream derives from the classic combination of foie gras and artichoke terrine, while the tomato cake is a nod to foie gras and brioche - only different. "I don't like always to cook according to classic tastes," Desrivieres says. The cake was also inspired by Caribbean cooking, where cakes and sweeter flavours are common.
The other lesson Desrivieres brought with him from home was how to cook meat. His mother was also a chef and started him cooking at 12. "The most important thing she said was to cook the meat slowly," he says. "You can't argue with that. She's your mum!"
The lamb is put at the bottom of the oven at about 120C, while pork gets the eight-hour vac-pac treatment, at 56°C. "I colour the meat in butter and olive oil with thyme, garlic and rosemary," Desrivieres says, "then vacuum-pack it with carrot, leek and bouquet garni, and it comes out very juicy."
Desrivieres says he has been impressed by the quality of the produce around him. Organic meats come from Lymington farm Warborne's, while the fish comes from day-boats fishing in the Solent, which is barely more than 50m from the front of the property. "I was worried before I came, thinking I can't have all the ingredients in England I am used to," he says. "But I was surprised. I can."
Despite a few savoury ice-creams and some more extravagant touches - rosemary ganache, mulled wine jelly and pink Champagne soup, for example - Desrivieres says he is keeping things simple for the time being. He says: "You always want to go to the next level, but you have to think how many you have available in the kitchen, and for the time being my team do very well."
There are seven chefs in total, with four on at each service, sometimes more on the busiest services on Fridays and Saturdays. Lunchtimes tend to attract the older, more local Milford-on-Sea crowd, but evenings and weekends see an influx of younger couples on weekend breaks.
Desrivieres also puts on a cheaper lunch menu of three courses for 25, plus a brasserie-style bar menu which includes home-made burgers and Caesar salads.
"I would like to get three rosettes," he says, "but, at the moment, I am just trying to make people happy and let them see what we can give."
When you make lamb jus, instead of butter, add aubergine caviar to thicken it, plus a little olive oil to add extra shine
What's on the menu
- Crab à la Parisienne, fresh green apple granité, avocado, and hazelnut sauce
- Lemon conference pear salad and Ibérico ham
- Sautéd calamari with lime and poached egg, Chinese sauce
- Local wild sea bass on broccoli, pata negra, Jabugo and fresh haricot blanc fricassée, braised oxtail jus
- Grilled fillet of beef, truffle-glazed vegetable bouquetière, Maderia jus
- Red fruit and pink Champagne soup
- Tower of grittine tiramisù, mocha ice-cream
- Hot chocolate coulis with rosemary ganache, fromage blanc sorbet