Fingers crossed, the AA Best Restaurants 1997 will show Overton Grange Hotel as having two rosettes for the food at its restaurant. This after only two months of trading under new ownership, with a new creative mind in the kitchen.
The lucky recipients are 30-year-old chef Adrian Jones and his partner Ignacio "Igi" Gonzalez, who took over Overton Grange, near Ludlow, Shropshire, on 7 May. Their aim is to make a name for themselves on the basis of Jones's cooking at the Grange's restaurant, Les Marches, and the rosettes are a good start.
"Of course we're excited," says Jones, "but we always want more. It's just us striving for perfection."
Described by some as "modern British cuisine with European influences", Jones's cooking is a radical change from that of the former owners.
Out went prawn cocktail, pâté on toast, fillets of steak and escalope of pork and in came herrings with tapenade toast, grilled scallops with split peas, and pigeon with black pudding and caraway cabbage. Out went three freezers (plus the pre-portioned food inside) and microwave and in came three new ovens, hobs and rings, a new grill, hood and three fridges.
The two remaining freezers now contain Jones's home-made bread and pastries. The larder is now stocked with aromatic fresh fennel, real Spanish chorizo sausage and black truffles. The sparkling white fridges are minimally stocked with fresh ingredients such as asparagus.
Jones has eliminated the à la carte menu, working instead on a set menu of three choices per course and a set price of £19.50 for three courses, including coffee and petits fours. He is clear about his personal aims: "I do not want to be famous, I want to be regarded. I want to be an integral part of this business so people come to eat in this restaurant."
While Jones and his cooking may become the focus for Overton Grange's reputation, guests will be hard pushed to miss the effervescent Gonzalez, likely to greet them wearing his Mr Happy slippers. At 37, Gonzalez feels he has put in his time under others and now wants his own place. He has worked at the Dorchester, the Savoy and the Grosvenor House, managed the 151 Club in Chelsea's Kings Road, cruised the world and latterly spent seven years as restaurant manager at Tylney Hall in Hampshire.
As with any takeover of a going concern, there have been hiccups. Inherited bookings have already put the pair, especially Jones, to the test.
In early June the agreed menu for a wedding reception consisted of vegetable soup, roast turkey and Black Forest gƒteau. For Jones, this was like selling his soul to the devil. The outspoken chef, who has worked under Gary Rhodes, Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffmann and Shaun Hill, knows what he likes, and vegetable soup and prawn cocktail are not among his top 10.
Dealing with pre-arranged budget leisure breaks is another area for angst, this time financial. The agreed room rate falls below their rack rate of £41 per person and greatly reduces their earning potential. Gonzalez has come up with one solution: introducing continental breakfast as the included meal, while full English breakfast costs extra.
Gonzalez is taking a firm line on discounts and promotions of rooms, knowing that money is made on the rooms, not the food. "We are not going to give the room away and have them eat in the restaurant," he says. "I'd rather do bed and breakfast and have them eat elsewhere."
Annoyances aside, Jones and Gonzalez are concentrating on getting Overton Grange properly staffed. For the first month-and-a-half, Les Marches did not open for lunch. Jones has now recruited a sous chef, John Whelan, who started on 24 June, the first day lunches were served. A waitress was due to join at the beginning of July, allowing Gonzalez and Jones some breathing space.
Considering the hassles and hold-ups - the very first week the kitchen had to be rewired, and the gas ovens and hobs replaced - Overton Grange looks financially promising. The first three weeks' takings totalled £10,843, including the five-day closure.
The break-even target each month is £15,000. This will cover staff costs, including salaries for Gonzalez and Jones, plus utility bills, food, drink, laundry costs and business rates. Indeed, owing to the help of a sleeping partner wishing to remain anonymous, Gonzalez and Jones have not had to invest any personal money.
The 16-bedroom freehold property cost £475,000, which with goodwill and fixtures thrown in came to £525,000, leaving the pair with £60,000 to spend on refurbishment, immediate maintenance and marketing and legal fees.
The plan will be to pay a dividend on profits after the first year to their benefactor, with Gonzalez eventually buying some of the shares. Jones has no plans to acquire a share in the business.
While the main building dates to the turn of the century, the south-facing Shropshire Suite is a 1960s extension for which Gonzalez has big plans. Already a new wooden dance floor has been laid and Gonzalez wants to replace the large picture windows overlooking the gardens with leaded ones, and install large doors to open on to the grounds. The room has its own bar and can accommodate up to 150 at a sit-down meal.
The restaurant, which seats 36, will undergo a revamp with £5,000 worth of new tables, doors and a paint job. New cutlery and wine glasses have already been bought. Jones and Gonzalez are debating whether to live with the dusk-rose floral carpet and chairs, which fall far short of creating the look they are after.
Further down the road, planning permission exists to convert the stables into between six and 10 bedrooms, and the pair want to cash in on the wedding bonanza, but will need to landscape the garden and possibly build a gazebo to comply with the local council's requirement of "two walls and a roof" for the site of a wedding.
The word is already going out about Overton Grange. Jones was featured as Chef of the Month in the Shropshire Life on a Tuesday, and bookings for that Friday and Saturday doubled.
There's been a push to market the hotel as having new owners. Local papers in the region have been targeted with press releases, and Overton Grange has a listing on the Internet, which has already resulted in two bookings. Clearly, AArecognition (Best Restaurants 1997 is due to be published on 28 October, priced £13.99) is another welcome boost.
Next visit to Overton Grange: 8 August