There's enthusiastic chefs and there's Chris Horridge. He's the new head chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Bath Priory, the country house hotel owned by Andrew Brownsword, the proprietor of Gidleigh Park. He's also, surely, the fastest-talking chef in the West.
So when Horridge, 35, says "I can be a bit of a whirlwind to work with", you know he's not posturing. "I make all the chefs carry notepads around because I bounce ideas off them all day long. They're like secretaries. At the end we sit down and discuss the notes."
Judging by my notepad, each chef is going to need a whole ream of paper to keep up. Horridge, you see, has lots to say and lots of ideas. After leaving his job as senior sous chef at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons two years ago, he spent two years as a private chef for a Canadian entrepreneur. "It was a chance to get out of the 18 hours a day chef life, have a rest and try out new things," he says. Recharged? More like turbocharged.
On his arrival at the 64-cover restaurant, two dishes were changed every week. Just over a month later the menu is all his. Not that Horridge is claiming a revolution. "I want to play with people's palates and senses within the boundaries of the country house hotel," he says. "After all, people have got to come back the next morning and have breakfast in the same room. But it's amazing what you can do within those boundaries."
Combinations are therefore quite classic: tomatoes with aubergine and basil; turbot with fennel; duck with pickled figs. But there are flashes of much, much more. A pudding of panna cotta and wild strawberry sorbet comes with black olives that have been macerated in sugar and alcohol and blended into a sweet "tapenade". Salad of quail comes with cpe "tobacco", which materialised when the kitchen was making cpe powder: "We sliced it thinner and dried it, and when I pulled on one corner it kept on coming. It was like dried tobacco leaf, and had a bitter taste like it," says Horridge.
A few attempts later and the kitchen - he stresses the teamwork involved in creating dishes - got the flavour balanced. But Horridge isn't telling how. Not because he's smug about his secret. Rather, he seems shy about claiming any great discoveries in the kitchen at such an early stage. "We're not rushing here," he says, "just trying to build on solid foundations."
Diners already seem happy with the results, and bookings are steady. One early favourite is the slow-poached best end of lamb with baby new potatoes, shallot froth and mint oil. He marinates the lamb in rosemary, garlic and olive oil, then sous-vides it and cooks it in a bain-marie two hours before service, at 45-50C. To serve, the meat is then caramelised in frothing butter with more rosemary and garlic.
Somewhat out of character with the author, menu descriptions are extremely understated: roasted scallops with broad beans, courgette and lemon pure to start, say; tranche of turbot with lentils and fennel pollen and fennel velout as a main.
"I don't like flowery language," says Horridge. "This way, when the dish comes out, the diner gets something more."
This does, however, reflect a precise, disciplined approach to the kitchen. Horridge spent 10 years in the RAF before joining Le Petit Blanc at 27, from where he was hand-picked to join Le Manoir. The approach means he's teaching all his seven chefs about taste to the extent of making them learn diagrams of the tongue. "RB and Gary Jones taught me cooking was all about palate, palate, palate - and this is how I show the brigade," says Horridge. All front-of-house staff are getting the same lessons, and even some of his suppliers. "I just want us all to run together," he says.
Another great educational tool is the kitchen garden, where Jane Moore, a silver medal winner at the Chelsea Flower Show, produces all the vegetables, herbs and flowers for the kitchen: pea shoots, broad beans, new potatoes, chive flowers and geraniums, to name a few.
"Being able to run down during service to get more mint is great for the younger chefs," he says. And for him? "I always tell the brigade there are no experts; we're all learning."
My favourite knnife is my French wooden-handled Laguiole (pronounced "layle") pocket knife. It has onlt a 4in blade but it's always on me and I use it for everything: cutting herbs, slicing foie gras. It is not a recognised chef's knife, but it is the sharpest thing in the kitchen.
What's on the menu
Three courses, £49.50
- Risotto of clams, lemon grass and ginger with corriander oil
- Torchon of foie gras with hazelnuts and roasted foie gras, rhuburb chutney
- Lion of pork, tortellini of braised belly with apple and crackling pencil, sage emulsion
- Brochette of Gressingham duck with pickled figs and Calvados jus
- Warm Valrhona chocolate fondant, lavender yogurt sorbet
- Aniseed parfait, candied fennel and pear lime sauce
The Bath Priory, Weston Road, Bath BA1 2XT. Tel: 01225 331922