A former Knorr National Chef of the Year and Roux Scholar, Steve Love is back in a hotel kitchen at the Cotswold House hotel after two stints as a chef-proprietor. Tom Vaughan reports
"Simon Hulstone has ruined my PR," claims Steve Love. Sitting in the restyled chic of fine-dining restaurant Juliana's in the Cotswold House hotel in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, he explains that Hulstone's victory in the Knorr National Chef of the Year awards two weeks ago means that Love is no longer the only chef able to promote himself as winner of both that competition and the prestigious Roux Scholarship.
But it's really only banter. They're both veterans of the competition circuit and know each other to be magnanimous professionals, constantly on the phone to each other for news and advice. In truth, Love admits to being delighted for the newly crowned Hulstone.
It has been four years since Love lifted the Chef of the Year title, and 11 since the Roux Scholarship led him to a three-month stage with Alain Ducasse in France.
He has seen a few sites since then, most recently as chef-patron of the College Arms in Lower Quinton, Stratford-upon-Avon, and his own eponymous restaurant, Love's, in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. He initially joined the Cotswold House hotel at the end of last year as a temporary measure, to help out following the departure of the previous head chef, but he made the position permanent in the New Year.
It's a great setting for Love's modern British cuisine. The hotel changed hands earlier in the year, being bought by Concorde Hotel Management, and with the changeover came a whole new look. Behind the hotel's burlywood Georgian facade it's a weekend tripper's dream and, in Chipping Campden, boasts on its doorstep one of the most bucolic retreats this side of TV's Heartbeat.
As well as overseeing Juliana's, Love is in charge of the Hicks' brasserie as well as providing breakfast and room service.
His menu at Juliana's is innovative 21st-century British food. The short menu offers five starters, five mains and five desserts, priced at £39.50 for two courses or £49.50 for three, with each dish intriguing enough to excuse the brevity.
Take the nougat of duck foie gras the 85%-chocolate concoction is mixed like a ganache, but with fat from the foie gras folded in instead of cream, and it is served with caraway and sweet and sour figs. The result is exactly as you would expect: a sweet, smooth dish of chocolatey foie gras, paired well with the gentle tartness of the figs. It is likely to form the backbone of the chocolate tasting menu that Love is considering.
The mains are littered with touches of Love's former mentors. Lighthorne lamb - "the best lamb I've ever tasted," he says - is broken down into a loin, a braised shoulder and a Ducasse-style "epigramme": slices of the braised, breadcrumbed and fried-off belly served with sweetbreads, leeks, mint jelly and girolles.
The beautifully presented slow-roasted squab pigeon, arranged on a strip of smeared 72% chocolate, is based on a dish developed with Gary Jones when the two were together at Waldo's in Cliveden, Berkshire. Jones is now head chef of Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons. There's a breast, a ballottine leg, a farce of white pudding and pigeon livers, sugary caramelised winglets, sweet corn and Ducasse-style cylinders of fondant potato.
It's a brave man who allows Brussels sprouts on to a fine-dining menu. Love serves them - along with chestnuts, spiced apple, smoked potato purée and coffee brittle - with his Finnebrogue venison loin, a dish as simple as the pigeon dish is fiddly.
Also notable is the appearance of blackberries on the dessert menu, themselves regularly ignored as an autumnal treat. The plump, bloated berries - sourced from a local farm, like the rest of Love's fruit and veg - are marinated in port, adorned with gold leaf and served with vanilla cream, pink Champagne jelly, smoked macadamia nuts and a yogurt sorbet.
Love's food has a real attitude. It's assured, creative and seasonal, and is marked by a boldness of character. It's fitting that, in a destination village, Love should be shaping a destination restaurant.
What's on the menu
- Langoustine with cucumber sorbet, papaya, cucumber soup and Royal Baeri caviar
- Ibérico ham, compressed Charentais melon, caviar pearls, tawny port
- Line-caught Cornish sea bass, Cotswold crayfish, Hass avocado, pork belly, Paris mushroom, sauce verte
- Line-caught brill, brandade croquettes, celeriac, local peas, cumin dates, sherry caramel autumn truffles
- 21-day matured beef, braised ox cheek, 4oz Herefordshire fillet, oyster, garlic, blackberries, onions, coffee brittle
- Marinated poached pineapple, coconut porridge, sesame seed crisp
- William pear and ginger cake, caramelised poached pear, jelly and custard, fromage blanc sorbet
- Dark chocolate mousse, hazelnut sponge, pear sorbet, muscovado foam
Away from the stove
"Nathan Outlaw [in Fowey, Cornwall] was the most recent great meal. The setting, the simple flavours, the uncomplicated, unfussy food. It is what it is."
Juliana's, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire GL55 6AN. Tel: 01386 840330www.cotswoldhouse.com