The return of Martin Blunos

Monday 11th October 2004 17:36
From 1993 until 2002, Martin Blunos was one of an elite few chef-proprietors in the UK to hold two Michelin stars. Then, at the end of 2002, things went pear-shaped and he slipped from view. At least, that's what the industry's perception was. After all, if you're not behind the stove or running a restaurant, you're invisible - isn't that so?
 

Actually, no. But it's clearly an assumption that puzzles, even irks, Blunos. "People keep asking me what I've been doing, and it's nice because you always think that they don't give a monkey's," he explains politely in his distinctive West Country vowels. "But just because I wasn't behind the stove for 18 months doesn't mean I was doing nothing. I was really busy with consultancy and television work."

We're sitting amid the quaintness of the Lygon Arms in Worcestershire, where, since January this year, Blunos has been getting his hands dirty in the kitchen again. If you've not been paying attention (Caterer, 15 January, page 6), he was brought in by the hotel's new owner, Furlong Hotels (which purchased the renowned property from Blackstone last year), to restore the Lygon's food operation to its former glory.

Let's backtrack a bit. Bath boy Blunos first hit the culinary headlines in 1992 when his Bristol restaurant, Lettonie, gained a Michelin star. Two years later, that was upped to two stars and, when he and wife, Siân (also a chef), moved the restaurant to his home town in 1997, transforming it into a restaurant with rooms, the accolade went with him. When they closed Lettonie in 2001 and opened another restaurant in Bath, Blinis, for hoteliers Sebastian and Philippa Hughes (Chase Hotels), the stars followed. The shock came when the Hugheses decided to close down Blinis in September 2002. That was the end of the two-star road.

The Hugheses said at the time that they wished to consolidate their hotel business, but that didn't stop the industry speculating on what could have soured their relationship with Blunos. He will not comment, other than to say that he is in the middle of a court case alleging unfair dismissal. We'll have to wait for that mystery to be cleared up.

Ask Blunos about any other subject, though, and there are no hidden corners. Whether it's Michelin, Lettonie, his family, what he's trying to achieve at the Lygon, Bristol Rovers FC ("his" club, aka the Robins), future TV projects - he has plenty to say on all of them.

We'll start with Michelin - or, to be precise, other chefs' reaction to the stellar guide. Blunos is fully aware that, when he began to hit the headlines 11 years ago, there were plenty in the industry who hadn't a clue who he was (his parents are Latvian, by the way) or what his food was like (modern classical French with Baltic references).

He wasn't a prot‚g‚ of a named chef, and he's not one to go blazing around on the interview trail, so to those outside of the West Country it seemed that he had come from nowhere. Of course, he hadn't (stints in London, Switzerland and as a private chef gave him a strong culinary base), but rumours abounded that he was just a flash in the pan. Naturally, he took satisfaction out of proving everybody wrong.

"We got the accolades and held on to them, which was great," he reflects. "But because I hadn't done a tour of duty, it was easier for people to knock us down. We used to get chefs coming into Lettonie on Friday nights in white socks and a suit they'd only worn for a christening. Their eyes would be hanging out and they'd be picking over the food looking for holes, and I used to think, 'How come you're in here on a Friday night and not in your kitchen?"

The dedication demanded to retain two stars had a considerable impact on family life, leaving Blunos little time to enjoy the company of either his wife or their two sons - and it eventually made the decision to give up chef-proprietorship easy. "It's only because Siƒn and I were working together that we're still married," he says candidly. "Food was my life and my blinkers were my hotplate - and although I gave the boys time, it wasn't the right kind of time. I missed out. So when our daughter, Coco, came along, three years ago, it gave both Siƒn and me a chance to stand back and assess things, and we decided to change our lives and ease down a bit. That's why we sold Lettonie."

Despite the rocky period leading up to when Blunos joined forces with the Lygon, it's obvious that he hasn't regretted that decision. Giving himself room to breathe has meant he has had time to teach special-needs students how to cook, for instance ("bloody hard work, because they take things so literally, but really rewarding"), although he has had to drop that commitment to concentrate on the nuts-and-bolts of upping the ante at the hotel.

That Blunos took on an institution such as the Lygon seemed a strange move, to some. He is an immensely talented chef, but his experience has been in the restaurant sector, running his own operation - not necessarily a perfect fit for a hotel with a bar, a standalone bar/brasserie, a banqueting remit, and a fine-dining operation that had lost its edge. And what about that new freedom to pursue other projects - isn't he signing it all away again?

The short answer is, no. Blunos's contract with the Lygon allows him to go off and film TV series if he's offered them (which he has been). It was never part of the deal that he would be at the hotel seven days a week. But Furlong does require improvement in the food being produced in the Lygon's kitchen, and Blunos is already delivering on that front - the AA has promoted the Lygon's food from two to three rosettes in its 2005 restaurant guide (see page 6).

But why did Blunos take on the job? "It's a challenge," he says. "This place is so well known throughout the world, and it's got great potential. Furlong is really forward-thinking and has spent money on it from day one. The bar and 20 bedrooms have already been refurbished, the Great Hall [the main 66-seat dining room] has been recarpeted and repainted, and we're just opening up an area off the back of the Great Hall as a gastronomic restaurant."

The last of these sounds more like Blunos's pitch. The 26-seat Lygon Room, as the gastro-restaurant is called, will enable him to progress his brigade towards cooking sharp, modern food. Expect to see nine-course menus along the lines of chilled shot of tomato water, followed by Blunos's trademark borscht terrine with caraway and onion piragi and soured cream, a smooth pea mousse tortellini with wine cream sauce and mint oil, slow-cooked honey-glazed belly of pork (another Lettonie-rooted dish), roast Chƒteaubriand with thyme and tomato fondue, sea bass and scallops with vegetable butter sauce, goats' cheese raviolo with raisin pur‚e and a signature Blunos "boiled egg", and plum souffl‚ with cardamom ice-cream.

There has been a big turnaround in the Lygon's brigade since Blunos took over the food operation, but sous chef Nigel Mendham has remained in place, eager to learn new skills and play his part in the hotel's hoped-for revival. "He's great," Blunos says. "He understands why I've changed some of the building blocks in the kitchen, so I don't have to preach to him."

By way of example, Blunos points to the way the kitchen used to make stocks - over a period of three days - when he joined. "All the glue went out into the bloody stock," he says, "so I made one in less time to show how you get a lighter sauce with a purer flavour, and got the guys to taste it. Once people realised the difference, they wanted to change anyway."

The chefs who couldn't get to grips with the shift in culinary emphasis, it seems, have gradually left over the past nine months. That has created a problem - 13 chefs instead of a brigade of 18 - but Blunos is determined to bring in new blood that will strengthen the skills-base. "I don't just want to fill the place with bodies, I want to go for quality," he says.

Blunos's initial contract at the Lygon is for two years. He is one-third of the way through and it's clear he is already well down the road to putting the hotel back on the culinary map. Furlong's commitment to the hotel's future is keeping his enthusiasm for the project fuelled - it has spent £1.1m on refurbishing to date; £3m has been set aside in total.

More importantly, the chef-hotel relationship is clearly healthy - and the fact that the Lygon allows Blunos the freedom to pursue one or two freelance projects is a canny move on the hotel's part, particularly if those projects are television series. Blunos gets a more interesting and varied career, while the hotel basks in any reflected glory (and free marketing) that's going. Already this year, in March he filmed a 10-part series exploring the history of food in the UK, shown by West Country broadcaster HTV. Called Tasting Times, it looked at what was on the daily menu from medieval to Victorian times.

On the back of Tasting Times, Blunos has been commissioned to make another food series in 2005, to be broadcast nationally, which will take him back to his family roots in Latvia. Under the working title Baltic Blunos, the series will look at the food of his parents' homeland, and the food of the other countries that ring the Baltic Sea. It looks like Blunos won't be disappearing from our view for a while yet.


Blunos on...
A possible smoking ban in restaurants: "I think it'll come. But if there's a ban, people will still want to smoke somewhere, so what would you do? Have a separate private smoking lounge away from the public places?"

Salt: "My parents don't take too much salt these days, for health reasons. At first, I thought it was awful, but you adjust and start tasting the real food eventually, and now I think I use less salt in cooking. Natural salt is all right, but the processed stuff - biscuits, baked beans - they're bloody packed with it. Thing is, when you're born you've got no taste; your palate is educated as you grow up. But if you took it out of cooking, you'd miss out on a lot - all those cured hams, for a start."

Letting his kids go into the industry: "My oldest, Leon [who's 14], asked me recently and I'm a bit wary that he thinks it's all glam, because he's seen Siƒn and I both do telly. The problem is, I know what the pitfalls are - but if he does decide he wants to be a chef, I'd put him in the right kitchens to train, of course."



Five things you didn't know about Martin Blunos
- Out of the kitchen, he's the roadie for son Max's progressive rock band, Zilch. "Max is the drummer," says Blunos. "He's 12 - the others are 16 and 18, but he's so good they wanted him in. We call him Animal 'cos he's got red hair and, when he gets stuck in, all you see are arms and hair..."

- He once shaved off his trademark moustache and it took his then-future wife, Siƒn, three days to notice. "I'll have to get rid of it if I ever cut my hair short," he says. "It's the gay thing - I'd look like someone out the Village People if I kept the moustache. The next thing would be a leather cycle cap..."

- He hates tripe. "I've tried doing it the French way and the English way," he says. "I just can't get on with it."

- He loves dry-cured bacon. "Yeah - bit of middle back, nice bit of streaky," he says. "That's the business."

- He's a "Robins" fanatic - a die-hard Bristols Rovers FC fan (well, you can't be perfect). He recalls: "I cooked them my version of a Robin Pie once - red chilli jam with poached chicken and coconut sauce."


Blunos at the Lygon: the dishes
- Confit of salmon with lobster, Russian salad and caviar dressing

- Mackerel and aubergine millefeuille with peppers and shellfish oil

- Roast partridge with sage and apple fritters and a cider sauce

- Slow-cooked stuffed leg of rabbit with braised lettuce and garlic cream

- Vanilla parfait with blackberry sauce


Roast fillet of venison with wild mushroom tortellinis and a lemon thyme sauce

Ingredients
(Serves eight)
Main ingredients
Salt and pepper
Venison fillet
For the sauce
Venison trimmings
Clarified butter
1 shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 sprig lemon thyme
Wild mushroom trimmings, clean
1tbs red wine vinegar
1tbs crab apple jelly
½ bottle red wine
250ml game stock
250ml chicken stock
250ml veal stock
Salt and pepper
For the tortellini
Basic pasta dough
1 chicken breast, skinned and trimmed
1 egg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Fresh ground nutmeg, to taste
Lemon juice
150ml double cream
Butter
150g wild mushrooms
½ clove garlic, chopped
1 small shallot, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Curly parsley, picked

Method
For the sauce, saut‚ venison trimmings in a pan with a little clarified butter until coloured. Add the shallot, garlic, thyme and mushrooms. Cook for a few minutes. Add vinegar and jelly. Pour over red wine and reduce by two-thirds. Add stocks and bring to boil; skim. Lower heat and simmer gently until reduced by half; skim. Adjust seasoning and pass through a fine chinois and muslin.

For the tortellini, process chicken breast with egg, cayenne and nutmeg. Rub through a sieve. Chill and process with a squeeze of lemon juice and double cream. Saut‚ in a pan with a little butter, wild mushrooms, garlic and shallot. Finish with a teaspoon of lemon juice. Season well and roughly chop. Blanch, refresh and roughly chop 1/4 bunch of picked parsley. Mix together. Make tortellinis.

Season venison fillet and sear in a little hot oil and butter until coloured on all sides. Place in hot oven (180¼C) for about seven or eight minutes, remove and allow to rest. Poach tortellinis in boiling water for three minutes. Drain well. Serve with the rested fillet and a little sauce. Finish dish with a few saut‚d mushrooms, shallots and sprigs of lemon thyme.

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