As a member of an exclusive club of five chefs aged under 30 to hold a Michelin star, Manor House's executive chef Richard Davies is one to watch. Tom Vaughan reports.
When the news of the Michelin stars leaked out five days early in January, many outside the South-west might have skimmed over the inclusion of the Manor House hotel in Castle Combe, Wiltshire, at one-star level. However, for those who've paid witness to executive chef Richard Davies's career trajectory, there was little surprise that he had joined an exclusive club of just five chefs under-30 to hold a star this year.
His CV already boasts stints at Homeward Park hotel, Bath, as junior sous chef; Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, London, as chef de partie; and the Vineyard at Stockcross, Berkshire, as executive sous chef in the space of four years; plus attaining a Michelin star within five months of arriving in his first head chef role at Sawyards Restaurant in Storrington, West Sussex. So to win a star within 18 months of taking over as executive chef at a 48-bedroom hotel is no mean feat.
"To do all that is involved with an executive chef role - breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, room service - with no staff following me from before, to do all of the that and achieve a star it was much more meaningful this time round," says Davies.
The 70-cover Bybrook Restaurant is the jewel in the crown of the hotel, an expansive room of oil paintings and mullioned windows that is surprisingly airy for a listed building.
"I've tried to take the best bits from the kitchens I've worked in," says Davies describing his style, and the references to Ramsay and John Campbell are obvious. Take the slow fillet of beef cooked in a water bath whole for an hour and a half and served rare; so far so John Campbell, with a similar dish on the Vineyard menu. But its accompaniments, wild mushroom ravioli and red wine jus, are pure Ramsay.
"Working with Gordon taught me self-discipline and standards," says Davies. "If you go to any of his restaurants and eat a dish what stands out is the tidiness, the cleanness and precision: everything is spotless, there's nothing out of place, no fingerprints on the plate. Whereas John taught me to be more modern, more forward-thinking. He questions everything - things like cooking temperatures - and understanding all of that plays a big part in kitchens so far."
And his menu exudes these influences. The fillet of wild halibut with baby fennel with a tomato confit and tomato jelly - set with agar-agar rather than gelatine - and vanilla emulsion has that combination of French classicism and modern techniques, as does the belly of pork cooked in a water bath at 60e_SDgrC for 24 hours and served with Stornoway black pudding, shallot mashed potato, apple and vanilla.
The menu is priced £45 for three à la carte courses, or £65 for the seven-course tasting menu, both backed up by a well paired selection of wines by the glass. The starter of seared hand-dived scallops with butternut squash, chorizo and poached pear comes with a Lebanese chardonnay wine - White Château Musar, Bekaa Valley 2000 - that's surprisingly dark yet subtle enough to bring out the sweet and salt of the scallops and chorizo. The torchon of duck liver, pear chutney and Monbazillac jelly comes with a 2004 German Riesling from Egon Müller, Schwarzhof, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.
The showpiece dessert is the warm Valrhona chocolate fondant which Davies worked on with Campbell and is in his words "one of the best around". It comes with simple tonka bean ice cream and is paired with a 2007 Elysium black Muscat from California.
Davies's strength is in his moderation; nothing is over-complicated. There might be a foam here or a jelly there, but any urge to lavish the plates in frills is restrained, and Michelin has rightly noticed his undoubted technical ability. At just 29 he has managed a remarkable feat by gaining a star while heading up all the facets of a luxury hotel kitchen.
In Davies and Matt Gillan, head chef at sister property South Lodge's restaurant The Pass, near Horsham, West Sussex, (see Menuwatch, 22 May) Exclusive Hotels have two real emerging talents. And with so much achieved by the Davies over the past five years, you can't help but feel there is plenty more to come.
Bybrook Restaurant, Manor House Hotel and Golf Club, Castle Combe, near Bath, Wiltshire SN14 7HR.
Tel: 01249 782206
ALSO ON THE MENU