There's no hint of melodrama in the air when Martin Burge tells me that cooking saved him from going completely off the rails as a youngster. Flamboyance is not part of his personality. Yet the 34-year-old head chef of the Whatley Manor hotel in the Cotswolds confesses he was a "totally wayward" teenager in danger of falling into serious trouble. "I clearly remember a geography teacher turning to me at school and telling me I was going to fail absolutely everything," he says. "Suddenly, the penny dropped and I focused. Cooking was the thing that felt right." It's not really an unusual scenario - many chefs have experienced similar road to Damascus-type conversions.
What is unusual about Burge, though, is the fact that he's the son of deaf parents, so his was an unusual and "pretty tough" upbringing. "Having deaf parents slows up your rate of learning as a child, because you grow up learning to sign at the same time as learning to speak," he says. "So at school I tended to be a bit behind, but was good at practical things like sport, art and cooking."
In fact, he became one of only two boys in his class to study home economics, and clearly remembers pedalling home on his bike, proudly carrying the dishes he'd made. "My mum really encouraged me with cooking, as my grandfather had been a chef in the Army," he says. "And when I did work experience in a professional kitchen at the age of 15, that was it. There was no question of what I was going to do - I absolutely loved it."
Since those early days and that "much-needed kick up the backside", Burge has scarcely looked back, going from strength to strength, with stints in some of the country's most illustrious kitchens.
Strangely, it was a stroke of misfortune that landed Burge his job at Whatley Manor. He had been working for John Burton Race for six years; first at L'Ortolan in Berkshire, then as head chef at Burton Race's two-Michelin-starred restaurant in London's Landmark hotel, when the latter was put into liquidation. "The timing couldn't have been worse," Burge remembers. "John made the decision the day after my wife Julie had given birth to our second child."
A call from friend and fellow chef Alan Murchison tipped off Burge about the Whatley Manor position shortly afterwards, in January 2003. The property was under construction and Burge recalls having an interview with the owner and general manager, wearing Wellington boots in the middle of a building site. "I remember driving away from that, wanting the job but feeling like it had gone badly," he says. He was wrong. He got the post and began his tenure at Whatley in February 2003, four months before the hotel opened.
Recruiting a 15-strong brigade from scratch, ordering equipment and organising the layout of the kitchen were Burge's key tasks before Whatley's opening. Once the hotel was up and running, his first few months in charge of the kitchen were spent getting the food to a level he was happy with in both the brasserie-style Le Mazot and the fine-dining restaurant, the Dining Room.
The hard work paid off a year later in January 2005 when, just 18 months after opening, Whatley Manor won a Michelin star for the Dining Room food. The hotel has also secured a rating of seven out of 10 in the Good Food Guide, and three AA rosettes.
Burge is proud of the food he is serving in both restaurants - there's no hint that he feels Le Mazot is the poor relation. "We produce bloody good food in there," he says. "We do a belly of pork that is braised forever, for instance, and everything is done properly. The only difference is that the dishes are simpler than in the Dining Room, with about six components in a dish compared with 10."
Most people wouldn't describe a dish with six elements as simple, and there's no doubt that Burge's food for the Dining Room showcases his skill and pedigree as a chef. As you'd expect (his most impressionable years were spent at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire and with Le Manoir-influenced chefs), Burge's menu is characterised by classically based, modern European cooking which nods to the wider world. A best-selling starter - hand-dived Scottish scallops with a pumpkin purée, crispy bacon and a light curry oil infusion - typifies the style.
"Raymond Blanc went through a crazy fusion stage at Le Manoir," Burge recalls, "and I remember playing about with the ingredients with him. John Burton Race did it too, so it's inevitable that I do it - I like to use different ingredients, but without being silly. The key is restraint: balance is everything."
Burge is fortunate to have complete freedom at Whatley to cook whatever he wants, using the best ingredients available. "The owner, Christian Landolt [a former international event rider], is in this for the long term and wants us to be the best we can be," he says. "He gives me the opportunity to use prime ingredients and sets realistic GP targets. So many places squash what their chefs are capable of, but here it's the total opposite."
Burge has also relished the move from London to the countryside. He is currently working hard on establishing a kitchen garden, growing baby leeks, carrots, beetroot, courgettes, lettuces and herbs. The hotel's greenhouses yield peppers, cucumbers and melons. "We certainly don't grow everything for our menus," Burge says, "but it's so satisfying when we use our own produce."
He has ambition aplenty for Whatley and makes no secret of being hungry for more awards. "I'd like to go up a level with every accolade we have," he says. "It would be fantastic to win another AA rosette and amazing to win two Michelin stars. I'm not a three-star chaser, but I'd love to join the lucky 12 and become number 13 with two stars."
Martin Burge: career path
Brought up in Bristol, Martin Burge went to Brunel Technical College at the age of 16 to take his City & Guilds qualifications as a chef. Emerging with distinctions in his 706/2 exams, he got a job as a commis at the Royal Crescent hotel in Bath under Michael Croft and, on his day off, studied for the 706/3 in pastry.
When Croft moved to run the kitchens of London's Mirabelle, the 21-year-old Burge went with him, but soon moved to Pied à Terre under Richard Neat. He says: "I spent 13 months there. It was the most tough, intense kitchen I've ever worked in."
Neat got Burge his next job, at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. Ultimately, he worked his way up to junior sous chef. "I worked under Raymond Blanc and his then head chef, Clive Fretwell," he says. "I owe them both huge thanks for what I've become."
After three years, an opportunity came up to go to Raffles in Singapore to help John Burton Race out with a food promotion. Burge says: "I saw his cooking out there and thought he had a lot to offer, so then went to work at L'Ortolan as senior sous chef."
Soon after joining Burton Race, Burge was elevated to head chef, aged 27, and spent six years with him, moving to the Landmark in London when Burton-Race transferred there. "For the last year [before it closed], I was running it while John was away in France, and I feel a great sense of achievement that we retained the two Michelin stars," he says.
Whatley Manor: fact file
Recipes by Martin Burge
Rhubarb and raspberry souffle, pate de fruits and raspberry sorbet
For the raspberry pâté de fruits (makes enough for about
250g raspberry purée (Boiron frozen or equivalent)
10g yellow pectin
30g sugar, to coat pâté de fruits
For the rhubarb pâté de fruits (enough for about 32)
250g rhubarb purée (Boiron frozen or equivalent)
10g yellow pectin
30g sugar, to coat pâté de fruits
For the raspberry sorbet
180g raspberry purée
18g glucose syrup
54g caster sugar
For the rhubarb base
1kg rhubarb, chopped
150g caster sugar
For the crème pâtissière
125g whole milk
2 egg yolks
8g corn flour
8g plain flour
For the marinated raspberries
120g fresh raspberries
75g raspberry liqueur
For the glazed raspberries
50g raspberry purée
1g lemon juice
200g fresh raspberries
For the raspberry and rhubarb soufflé
50g soft butter for soufflé moulds
225g egg whites
150g rhubarb purée (see above)
200g crème pâtissière (see above)
60g marinated raspberries (see above)
For the pâté de fruits, boil the raspberry purée with the glucose, until the mix reaches 107°C. Mix the 25g of sugar and pectin together, then add to the pan. Add the 228g of sugar. Continue to cook until the sugar dissolves then hand-blend the mixture for two minutes. Continue cooking until the mixture reaches 107°C. Pour mixture into a rectangular mould and allow to set. Once set, cut into 2.5cm cubes and roll in the 30g sugar before serving. Make the rhubarb pâté de fruits in the same way.
For the raspberry sorbet, boil all the ingredients together. Strain through a fine sieve. Cool in a bowl over ice. Mix in a sorbet machine and store in freezer, ready for use.
For the rhubarb pureé base, cook the rhubarb and sugar over a low heat until the rhubarb begins to soften and release its juices. Increase the heat slightly and continue to cook for about an hour until the rhubarb is completely broken down. Reduce the heat again and cook for another 30 minutes to completely dry out the purée. Cool in a bowl over ice and store ready for use.
For the crème pâtissière, bring the milk to the boil. In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and flours. Pour the hot milk over the above mixture and whisk until smooth. Return mixture to the pan and cook until thickened. Remove from the heat and strain through a chinois. Cool down.
For the marinated raspberries, place the raspberries in a small mixing bowl, pour on liqueur and marinate for 15 minutes.
For the glazed raspberries, boil the raspberry purée, sugar, water and lemon juice together until the sugar has dissolved to make a coulis. Pour the fruit coulis into a bowl over ice to cool. Place the 200g of raspberries into a bowl and pour on the cold fruit coulis and gently mix until the raspberries are glazed.
For the soufflé, butter four soufflé moulds and refrigerate. Whisk the egg whites with the sugar to form a meringue (medium to firm peaks). In a large bowl, whisk the rhubarb purée, crème pâtissière and marinated raspberries together to form a smooth paste. Whisk a small amount of the meringue into the fruit purée mixture, to soften it. Fold the remaining meringue into the softened mixture. Fill the soufflé moulds up halfway, place three marinated raspberries in each and continue to fill evenly. Cook at 180°C, for about 11 minutes.
To assemble, serve the soufflés straight from the oven. Garnish with the fresh glazed raspberries, pâté de fruits and raspberry sorbet.
A selection of dishes from the menu at Le Mazot
From the menu at The Dining Room
Three courses, £60