Ripley Castle in North Yorkshire seems to cast something of a spell over the chefs who work there because, once they cross the drawbridge, few of them ever seem to leave.
Steve Chesnutt crossed over six years ago after traversing the Pennines from the Victoria & Albert hotel in Manchester, and asserts that he still has no thoughts of leaving. Admittedly, his working life has changed a great deal since he arrived at the castle - his chef's whites have been swapped for a smart suit, a sign of his promotion to operations manager and chef-patron.
Another chef who knocked around the North-east of England, with stints at establishments including Gosforth Park, Hollins Hall and Wood Hall, before he arrived at Ripley Castle four years ago is Jason Main. And he too has enjoyed a promotion since starting there, taking over last year from Chesnutt as head chef of Ripley Castle's foodie pub, the Boar's Head. What's more, he too claims to be enchanted by the environment and plans to stay for the foreseeable future.
Chesnutt puts the main reason for chefs wanting to stay down to the style of management of Ripley Castle's hereditary owners, Sir Thomas and Lady Emma Ingilby. Both are committed to traditional English hospitality and believe in investment, empowerment and good food. "Sir Thomas and Lady Emma love to eat and love to travel," Chesnutt explains. "They travel the world, then come back with ideas. Then we tell them how these can work in the Boar's Head."
But learning through travelling is not something the Ingilbys always do alone. They recently went on a promotional visit to Australia - to demonstrate traditional English food and hospitality - and took Chesnutt with them. This, he says, is the kind of opportunity that few other businesses would offer their chefs.
Main, meanwhile, explains why, after a career spent on the move, he currently does not have itchy feet. "The menu here is changing all the time, nothing stays the same," he says. "And you have the time and space to learn, not just about cooking but about time skills and management skills. You don't get that in big hotels, with their rigid formula. That's why a lot of young chefs move about so much - they get bored."
Another reason why chefs move on is the strained atmosphere that can exist between them and their peers. Chesnutt has clear ideas on this. "I have never allowed a shouting, bawling kitchen," he says. "That contributes to staff turnover and there isn't any need for it."
Both chefs say that there is a real passion for ingredients in the kitchen, with a policy of sourcing as much as possible from the local area. Game, for example, which features heavily on the menu in autumn and winter, comes from the castle estate. There is a huge herd of deer and a large variety of game birds, ranging from ducks and partridge to pheasant. Recreational shooting is big business on the estate and the kitchen has the pick of the kill.
But isn't this all starting to sound like a cosy arrangement, where the serious restaurant business comes second to having a good time? Main furiously disputes the suggestion. The food operation at both the Boar's Head pub and its fine-dining restaurant are hard businesses which must deliver profits to maintain the castle and the estate, he says. And if it needs radical thinking and pricing ideas to achieve financial targets, then it is up to him and Chesnutt to come up with those ideas.
Chesnutt has always been careful to ensure that, although the same kitchen serves the pub and its restaurant with the same skills and a lot of common ingredients, a difference is maintained. "You can't afford to close the gap too much," he says, "otherwise customers will just choose the pub because it's the same food, but cheaper than the restaurant."
Yet prices have come down in the restaurant side of the Boar's Head. Gone is the menu gourmand at £35, which, while it gave the kitchen the opportunity to work with expensive ingredients and complex recipes, never sold well. It has been replaced instead by a pricing scheme that has caught the imagination of customers.
Last year, to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Boar's Head, a celebration promotion was put together with a choice of 10 four-course, fixed-price dinner menus, each priced to correlate with a year of the pub's opening, and with the food reflecting what was on the menu that year. The first dinner option, for example, subtitled 1990, included braised lamb shank and was charged at £19.90. The 1991 option included trio of salmon and cost £19.91 and the 2000 dinner option was pan-fried Gressingham duck, priced £20.00.
While this was originally intended as no more than a one-off promotion, it was so successful that it has now been turned into a permanent feature of the menus, leading to greater customer numbers and an increase in turnover. In revenue that is, not staff.