The renovation and setting up of Hotel du Vin & Bistro is well under way. Sponsorship by wine companies has generated a welcome boost to cash flow and the property has already found its way into 10 guides.
It is no great surprise that many of the new recruits to Robin Hutson and Gerard Basset's Hotel du Vin & Bistro are former colleagues or personal contacts. Staffing a new business is a daunting task and employing people you know takes away much of the uncertainty.
Head chef at the operation, which opens next month, is to be 23-year-old James Martin. He has just completed a fixed-term contract at Chewton Glen in New Milton, Hampshire, the country house hotel where Hutson and Basset were managing director and chef sommelier respectively, until earlier this month.
But before Chewton Glen, Martin was at Bistrot 190 with Antony Worrall Thompson, the chef whose style of food has significantly influenced Hutson and Basset's plans for their own operation.
Although Martin was always a strong contender for the job, Hutson and Basset also considered other young talent before making him an offer. They visited establishments in London where they knew of suitable candidates, and they invited people to cook for them at Chewton Glen.
But Martin's enthusiasm was what distinguished him. Typical of his energy was his response to a request for sample dishes: "I asked him for a few ideas and he came up with 120 starters, 120 main courses and 80 desserts," says Hutson.
Joining Martin in the kitchen is Gail Collier, who moves from the Carved Angel in Dartmouth, Devon, and Christopher Holt who joins from Woolley Grange in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire.
Four general assistants have been recruited to work a rota of duties between the hotel and the bistro. They are: Kate Jones, a former housekeeper at Chewton Glen; Nigel Buchanon, the graduate who held the fort at Hotel du Vin while Hutson and Basset worked out their notice; Frank Massard, a former Chewton Glen sommelier; and Karen Cox, a graphic designer making a career change. On reception will be Nicky Stone who joins from Taplow House hotel, Taplow, Berkshire.
The most difficult posts to fill were those of kitchen porter and chambermaid. Finally, however, an advertisement in a local newspaper brought forward Trevor Lane and Tammy McNeil who have been offered the posts.
With paint now on the walls and the building really taking shape, Hutson and Basset have been turning their attention to fixtures and fittings - and not without a degree of frustration.
"It's worrying having to rely on so many little orders turning up on time," says Hutson. "Only this morning I got a telephone call from the manufacturers of the outside lights we ordered weeks ago to say they couldn't fulfil the order."
Also on the frustrations list is the discovery that the switchboard inherited from the hotel's former owners had broken. A new one will add an unanticipated £4,000 to the final bill.
Having been used to the back-up of a secretary and a fully-equipped office in the job he has just left, Hutson is finding organising such things particularly vexing. "It's never a case of just ordering something, there's always so much chasing to be done," he says.
One supplier's tardiness has paid off, however. Having become tired of waiting for a sample table-top to arrive, Hutson drove to the company's warehouse in Cambridge. There he discovered that, as well as selling the reproduction tables he had planned to buy, the company sold reclaimed tables from other hotels. "We saved quite a bit of money and have achieved the look we wanted - essentially a collection of furniture that gives the impression of having been built up over a period of time," he says.
Chairs will be reproduction, although they will also have a random appearance.
Antiques are also important to give the hotel an established look, and Hutson and Basset have found a helpful supplier in Avril Bailey of Choice Antiques in Warminster. She sends them a polaroid of any pieces she thinks might be suitable and, if Hutson and Basset give the go-ahead, she puts them aside for them. They have also found a good picture supplier in Mayfair who is making copies of some 40-50 pen and ink drawings on wine- related subjects.
The wine theming has paid off handsomely in terms of donations from wine companies. The room sponsors have been particularly forthcoming and have sent boxes of prints and wine-making equipment for display around the hotel.
On the subject of wine, Basset has been busy filling the hotel's cellar and compiling the wine list. Recent weeks have been spent on tastings and negotiations with suppliers. He expects to end up with 130 bins offering a somewhat alternative wine list.
Both Hutson and Basset's thoughts are now turned towards opening day. An opening for friends and other people who don't mind being practised upon is planned for the 27, 28 and 29 September. That will be followed by a day of closure before the official opening party on 1 October for around 100 people.
With opening day so close, the recent arrival of official planning permission to renovate the building is welcome news, although something about which Hutson and Basset have remained nonchalant. "We were in close contact with the planning officer all the way through and were confident about where we stood," says Hutson. "It just wouldn't have been feasible to wait months for planning permission before we started."