Toby Hill sighs as he drops into an armchair in the hotel's main lounge area. He orders his "usual", a herbal tea, lights a cigarette and chucks the packet across the coffee table in front of him.
Hill is clearly reluctant to be away from his kitchen, but as chef-manager of the recently awarded one-Michelin-starred Gordleton Mill Hotel, situated just outside Lymington, Hampshire, he accepts that he has to court journalists - an element of PR goes with the territory.
"I know I'm supposed to be in charge of the whole place, but if I'm not in the kitchen I know something will go wrong," he explains. "I've built the kitchen to revolve around me."
Gordleton Mill Hotel is in fact a restaurant with seven bedrooms - a converted 17th-century water mill, with the characteristics of an auberge. Its 55-seat restaurant, Provence, has a profile of its own, raised initially by Jean-Christophe Novelli who presided over the kitchen in the early 1990s and brought the property its first Michelin star.
When Novelli left Gordleton Mill in the summer of 1993, he was succeeded by Didier Heyl, who appointed Hill in October the following year as sous chef with responsibility for the pastry section. But shortly after Hill's arrival at the property, Heyl left and Hill was appointed chef-manager.
The appointment catapulted Hill's career in a new direction. For the previous six years, while working at the Walnut Tree Inn, Abergavenny; the Bell Inn, Aston Clinton; Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons; and Hartwell House in Aylesbury, Hill had specialised in pastry. But he admits that he had not intended to be a pastry chef: "It was just the course my life was taking."
Hill's life has taken many sharp turns for a man of only 27 years. At the age of 16, cooking could not have been further from his mind. His passion was horses, and as a professional three-day eventer Hill was selected for a 10-year training programme with the British equestrian team for the 1996 Olympics.
But Hill's family could not give him the kind of financial support that three-day eventing required and he was forced to find another profession. Describing himself as a "problem child", he explains that he hated school and consequently left with few alternative career options. So, like many, he chose catering and enrolled with Aylesbury College where he studied for a BTEC National Diploma in hotel management and gained a Professional Chef diploma.
Although Hill says he has no regrets about withdrawing from three-day eventing, it is hard not to draw similarities between that and what he does now.
"Working with horses gave me the ability to understand something that could not speak to me - so I think I am quick to pick up on the way people think."
And he undoubtedly keeps a tight rein on his brigade. "Cooking is very much about life. It teaches you to be physically and mentally strong. It teaches you about natural produce and it teaches you about seasons. It soon sorts the men from the boys," says Hill, who admits to pushing brigade members "almost to the point of suicide" before easing off.
He likens himself to John Burton-Race of L'Ortolan, whom he describes as a role model. "Look at the pure genius of his food. A truly passionate chef has to be a little bit mad."
Hill's food may not be described as having genius just yet - he admits that many of his dishes are based on French classics, such as his pear Belle-Hélène (£9) - but he can be admired for the standard at which he delivers. He claims to concentrate only on the raw ingredient - "fish does not come into my kitchen unless it's still moving" - but his dishes are prepared with such precision that they unwittingly ooze style.
He describes his pan-fried fillets of red mullet and sea scallops with squid ink risotto and an essence of red peppers (£19.50) as a dish that "just came to him". "I had eaten Marco's squid ink risotto and thought it was a clever idea and I decided to use red mullet and sea scallops because they are two of my favourite ingredients.
"It is a very colourful dish and the initial impact is extremely visual. You expect it to be full ofdramatic flavours, but it is a well-balanced, subtle dish - you need a well-educated palate to appreciate it."
The pear dessert is Hill's version of Escoffier's classic. "The basics are still there - the pear, chocolate sauce and vanilla ice-cream," says Hill. "But I've taken the toasted almonds from the original dish to make a marzipan basket." And he is quick to point out that the garnishes (crystallized hazelnuts, orange julienne and crystallized redcurrants) are there to add flavour and texture, "not just for prettiness".
Although the name Provence suggests a truly French restaurant - as does its decor - Hill has taken steps to draw the restaurant away from its original brief.
For example, many of the dishes now have a hint of the Mediterranean, such as starters of roast sea scallops with calamari and a pumpkin sauce (£13.50), carpaccio of tuna with a salad of dried tomatoes and quail's egg with a balsamic vinaigrette (£11.50), or main courses of roast fillet of cod with chorizo, tian of aubergine, tomato farái and a ratatouille sauce (£19).
"There has to be a certain amount of emphasis on French food here, but I don't believe it should be the only cooking that I do. Although my cooking has a classic French background, I want to introduce produce for quality and freshness."
Provence also carries an impressive British and Irish cheeseboard, albeit alongside a similar-sized French one. The 15-strong cheese trolley includes Devon Blue, Caerphilly, Cooleeney, Rosary Dazel, Gubbeen, Spenwood and Tymsboro from the UK and Ireland.
"Not everyone has the same knowledge of cheese that we have in the trade, so we offer a cheese menu to customers which provides information on the origins and flavours of the cheese we serve," explains Hill. "If I have to make three trips a week in order to bring in freshly-produced cheese, I will." Cheese is served with home-made walnut and raisin bread, two types of home-made biscuits (water and digestive), as well as Poilane bread. An unlimited plate of cheese costs £7.50.
Hill runs Gordleton Mill - which is owned by Bill Stone, co-founder of Macarthy and Stone retirement homes - with his fiancée Melanie Philbey, who is responsible for administration, PR and marketing activities. Other key staff are restaurant manager Jason Freezer, sommelier Keith Adam and sous chef James Parkinson, who Hill says is the only other chef he knows who can read his mind.
As Hill relaxes into his PR role, it becomes clear that he has matured well ahead of his years since his appointment. "When I first arrived here I was quite arrogant. My attitude towards the customers was, 'This is what I'm going to do, like it or leave it'. But then I wondered where all the customers had gone!"
As a result, the clientele changed and Gordleton Mill soon rebuilt its own little following from London and the locality. However, an appearance on BBC2's Food and Drink programme recently changed all this, sending business through the roof.
"The Michelin star has definitely brought in more business for the property, but it was my appearance on TV a few weeks ago that has ensured that the restaurant has been full every day at lunch and dinner."
Hill is currently in negotiations with Stone about buying the business. He hopes to buy a majority share by the end of the year and says that there are a number of people who are interested in putting finance behind him, although he will not be drawn further on this point.
"My role at the moment as chef-manager is already very much like that of a chef-patron," concludes Hill, who plans to double his brigade of four by the summer in an attempt to chase a second Michelin star.
Additional research by Janet Harmer.
Pan-fried, Fillets of red, Mullet and sea, Scallops with, Squid ink, Risotto and an, Essence of red, Peppers
2 x 18oz red mullet, descaled, filleted and pinboned, 12 x No14 (large)hand-dived seascallops, 1 baby calamari, skinned and prepped, 4 baby calamari, skinned and prepped, Olive oil, Fleur de Sel, For the red pepper base sauce, 6 ripe red peppers, deseeded, 1 shallot, peeled and diced, 2 cloves garlic, Olive oil, 100ml Noilly Prat, 100ml white wine, 200ml fish stock, 4 ripe tomatoes, deseeded, 4 basil leaves, 4 coriander leaves, For the squid ink base sauce, 4 packets squid ink, 50ml white wine, 50ml vegetable stock, 1 clove garlic, Garnish ingredients, 1 carrot, peeled, sliced and cut into julienne, 12 bulbs of baby fennel, lightly blanched for 11/2 minutes, 120g Arborio rice, 2 packets of squid ink, 240ml vegetable stock, 20g shallots, diced, Basil oil, Olive oil, Salt and pepper, Lemon juice, Chervil
To make the red pepper base sauce, sauté the peppers, garlic and shallot in a little olive oil until soft. Deglaze with Noilly Prat and reduce. Add the white wine and reduce again. Add the fish stock, tomatoes, basil and coriander and simmer for seven minutes. Liquidise and pass three times through a chinois.
To make the squid ink base sauce, put all ingredients in a pan and bring to the boil. Reduce until desired consistency is reached and pass through a muslin cloth.
In a separate pan, sweat the shallot in a little olive oil until soft. Add the risotto rice and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Add the vegetable stock and cook out. Finish with olive oil and squid ink, stirring vigorously. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice.
Brush the scallops and red mullet with olive oil to prevent sticking. Pre-heat a non-stick pan until it is very hot and seal the scallops and squid on both sides for about 30 seconds. Add the red mullet and cook for one minute on each side. Remove from the pan and season with Fleur de Sel and lemon juice.
To serve, place a mound of risotto in the centre of each plate. Blanch the carrot julienne and place on top of the risotto, then place the squid on top of this. Arrange the red mullet, scallops and fennel around the risotto.
Reheat the sauces and emulsify each with a little olive oil. Re-season with salt and lemon juice and drizzle a little of each sauce around each plate. Separate the sauces with a little basil oil and decorate with sprigs of chervil.
Pear Belle- Helene
For the marzipan basket, 150g marzipan (50:50 almond paste), 50g icing sugar, 4 waxed William pears, cored and peeled
1 litre water, 1kg granulated sugar, Juice of one lemon, 2 vanilla pods, For the vanillaice-cream, 500ml milk, 1 vanilla pod
75g granulated sugar, 5 egg yolks, For the chocolate sauce, 250ml water, 250g granulated sugar, 100g bitter chocolate couverture, 50g bitter cocoa powder, For the garnish, 150g whole shelled hazelnuts, 150g sugar, 50ml water, Zest of one orange, cut into juliennes, 150g granulated sugar, 50m water, 3 bunches redcurrants, 2oz caster sugar (dip small bunches of redcurrants in the caster sugar), Small sprigs of fresh mint
For the marzipan basket, roll out the marzipan to 2mm thick. Press into four tartlet moulds, dust with icing sugar. With a blow torch, caramelise the insides. Then turn out and caramelise the outsides.
To poach the pear, split and scrape the two vanilla pods into the water, bring to the boil with the sugar and lemon juice. Place the peeled, cored pears into the liquid and cover with clingfilm. Poach until soft. Leave to cool in the liquid.
Split and scrape a vanilla pod into the milk. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar. Once the milk has boiled, pour on to the egg yolks and sugar, whisking all the time. Return this mixture to the heat and cook out until it coats the back of a spoon. Pass through a chinois, place in a sorbet/ice-cream machine and churn until smooth and frozen.
Boil the sugar and water together, whisk gradually on to the chocolate and cocoa powder. Pass through a chinois. Leave to cool.
Dissolve the sugar into the water, reduce until the water has evaporated and boil to a blond caramel. Add the hazelnuts and stir into the caramel, scraping the crystals from the side of the pan. Stir until all the hazelnuts are coated in crystallized sugar.
Dissolve the sugar in the water, boil until a light golden caramel. Blanch the julienne of orange three times in boiling water. Caramelise in the caramel.
To serve, pour a pool of the chocolate sauce into the centre of a plate. Place one of the marzipan moulds on top and fill with vanilla ice-cream. Place a poached pear on top of the ice-cream. To decorate, place alternately, in a circle around the edge of the plate, a crystallized hazelnut and a bunch of redcurrants. Garnish the redcurrants with a small sprig of mint, and place a piece of caramelised orange julienne on top of the hazelnuts.