Former Simpsons head chef Matt Cheal has taken on an historic cottage for his latest venture. Lisa Jenkins reports
Matt Cheal, who was previously head chef of Simpsons in Birmingham, has positioned himself well within an affluent area of Warwickshire: approximately 15 miles south-east of Birmingham and nine miles north of Stratford-upon-Avon.
It was always the chef's ambition to have a restaurant of his own and he'd always imagined a fine-dining restaurant with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Cheal's opened in October 2015 after a complete refurbishment, and he and his father Tony, the sole investor in the business, seem to have achieved their goal, with good local support and glowing TripAdvisor reviews.
Yannick Raymond (also ex-Simpsons) is restaurant manager and the chef attributes some of the excellent reviews to him. "We knew Yannick would be popular front of house - he's a real character and we work really well together. He has a great sense of humour, which gives us a formal restaurant that's also human and down to earth," says Cheal.
The menu also sets the tone. The experienced chef, who was at Simpsons for 17 years, uses seasonal ingredients and local produce as much as possible. "I'm a clean and tidy chef, and quite precise. Yes, there's a Simpsons influence, but I also take inspiration from my time at Lettonie with Martin Blunos."
"Our family eat out a lot and I encourage the team to do the same. We've recently eaten at Hibiscus in London, Quique Dacosta in Dénia in Spain, at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, and Pied Á Terre last week," he adds.
The crispy duck egg, onion risotto, goats' cheese and watercress dish is elegant in its simplicity. But it's the rack of lamb, toasted grains, carrots, yogurt, apricot and ras el hanout that the chef describes as his favourite dish on the menu. "It's a beautiful dish, with exceptional ingredients and great flavour combinations - it's also quite a departure for me."
The restaurant offers a fixed-price lunch (£30) and dinner menu (£40), an Á la carte menu (three-courses for £50) and a nine-course tasting menu (£80), all excluding wine. Sunday roasts are popular and require a £10 supplement to the lunch menu.
The property in Henley-in-Arden has a promising lineage - Le Filbert Cottage had one star and Edmunds by chef Andy Walters also claimed a star in the same spot. Walters also held the role of head chef at Simpsons.
"There are obviously synergies and a great bloodline here," says Cheal. The old, beamed building is steeped in history and, if rumour is to be believed, is home to a friendly ghost. It has been converted into an elegant space with 35 seats and with exquisite tableware sourced in part from the family's travels. Cheal's brother refurbished the restaurant, and his mum, Julie, designed and dressed the interiors.
Cheal is 35 and, having made the move from a busy city centre restaurant, now feels more relaxed. But, he says: "We need to maintain our standards. We have trained everyone to Michelin level."
With his wife Emma working as a hotel manager and his father's background in hotels (he was previously owner of the Arden Hotel in Birmingham), all the clues are pointing to a Michelin-starred future for Cheal's.
"Yes, of course, it would be a dream come true for me one day, but at the moment, it's about paying the bills and putting bums on seats," says the chef.
"I was sous chef when I started at Simpsons and ever since then I've worked at a Michelin level. However, when I left Simpsons it was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It's nice to have some breathing space right now, in spite of the benefits a Michelin star can bring. Having said that, it would be the biggest pat on the back for the team."
The chef counts Simpsons' Luke Tipping and Andreas Antona as friends, and says he's looking forward to them coming to visit. "I'm pretty confident I've made this my own," he says.
From the menu
Starters â- Pork cheek, parsnip, kale, sultanas, capers, marjoram
â- Lobster and salmon ravioli, fennel, avruga caviar
Mains â- Duo of beef, fillet and cheek, salt-baked celeriac, pickled walnuts, grapes
â- Sea bass, brown shrimps, clams, broccoli, black quinoa, seaweed beurre blanc
Desserts â- Gipsy tart, caramelised banana, lemon sorbet
â- Honey parfait, Earl Grey cremeux, orange and liquorice sorbet
Prixe fixe lunch: £30; prixe fixe dinner: £40; Á la carte: £50 for three courses, £65 for five and £80 for nine
Cheal's of Henley, 65 High Street, Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire B95 5BX
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