Former L'Ortolan head chef Nik Chappell has taken the reins at the Tudor Room in Egham, Surrey. He tells Neil Gerrard why he is relishing the opportunity to stamp his own brand of fine dining on this intimate 25-cover restaurant
But the somewhat pokey kitchen did nothing to put Chappell off taking the job, and when you take a quick look at the wider surroundings - an opulent hotel fashioned out of what was once a royal hunting lodge dating back to 1550 with spectacular grounds and within easy reach of the nearby M25 - it is not hard to see why.
"I fell in love with the property straight away," says Chappell.
"Richard John [the managing director of Great Fosters] invited me over and by the time I had left that day, I had accepted the job." Chappell took over in January, and it is a marked change from his last posting as head chef of L'Ortolan under Alan Murchison, which he left in summer last year, and where he was catering to 50-60 covers. The elegant Tudor Room - with its imposing stone fireplace, half-timbered ceiling and brightly coloured tapestry adorning the wall - has just 25 covers.
The chef, who also spent eight years at Mallory Court under Simon Haigh prior to L'Ortolan, sees his new role as a chance to showcase his cooking at a volume that allows him to keep a strong grip on consistency.
He has also been allowed the freedom to set the menu in the way he thinks is best. The dinner menu takes the form of a threecourse Á la carte or a six-course tasting menu (both £60 per person) - available on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, or an eight-course tasting menu (£75 per person) on Tuesday to Saturday evenings.
Changes the chef has made include getting rid of the white plates and replacing them with new crockery that fits with his style of food: refined British cuisine with an Asian influence.
"That is how I see Britian today," he says. "We all have a Chinese or a Thai from time to time and we are influenced by the flavours. I cook like I like to eat - nothing too sweet, quite savoury, and using lots of different elements from around the world." That influence is plain to see on certain dishes in the eight-course tasting menu, such as the 'Asian broth, roasted chicken', or the 'sesame-crusted tuna loin, watermelon, soy and wasabi'.
More subtle, perhaps, is the theme of aniseed and liquorice in the eight-course menu (with the theme of garlic running through the six-course). "Even though you are not tasting the liquorice throughout the menu, there is a bit in every dish just to make it flow," says Chappell. For instance, the chef adds a tiny amount to the watermelon in the tuna loin dish, features it more prominently in the 'sirloin, smoked shin of beef, onions, turnip, liquorice', and adds a touch again to the caramel jelly in 'textures of caramel, lemongrass and lime leaf ice-cream'.
When it comes to the produce he uses, Chappell's Yorkshire roots shine through, with dishes such as the unlikely but successful pairing of poached Yorkshire rhubarb with tonka bean and ginger parkin - something Chappell has refined over several years at L'Ortolan. Then there's the delicious riot of textures and flavours that is 'truffled Tunworth, panfried crumpet, honey, quince'.
Chappell explains: "Cheese and crumpets is very much my grandma's influence. I ate truffled cheese at Sat Bains last year, and the truffled Tunworth very much came from there." The aim is to get up to 35-40 covers a day, five days a week, which Chappell feels is "completely achievable". And he takes obvious pride from the fact his name is now essentially 'above the door'.
"Even though, for so long, I have been doing pretty much what I wanted to do, the responsibility lay slightly off my shoulders.
Now it's squarely on me. It is what I perceive as right and wrong.
Hopefully, we are getting it right."
The Tudor Room
Great Fosters, Stroude Road Egham, Surrey TW20 9UR
Sample dishes from the menu
- Olive oil dressed crab, brown crab custard, passion fruit
- Roasted quail, morels, wild garlic, truffle
- Poached loin of salt pollack, fennel, sea herbs
- Breast and confit of Goosnargh duck, pineapple, ginger
- Gariguette strawberries and cream (below)
- White coffee parfait, coffee and cardamon cake
Six-course tasting menu: £60