Luxury means different things to different people. But does one idea sit at the heart of it? Gusbourne’s Head Winemaker Charlie Holland discusses the high points of life with Whatley Manor's two-Michelin-star Executive Chef and Great British Menu winner Niall Keating.
CH Congratulations on your second Michelin star in two years at Whatley Manor, Niall. Luxury is, perhaps ironically, such a commonplace word nowadays. What for you does the concept of luxury mean in hotel dining these days?
NK Well, you have to start with the givens. Exceptional ingredients, as local as possible. Kitchen staff at the top of their game. Front of house who know how to make customers feel special. Actually, having said that, those things are not always given, they're not always received by guests. I think we've all been to "luxury" establishments with big reputations and left not feeling special at all.
CH I mean, as a customer it's really simple what you want. You want an experience that gives you a great memory of feeling properly looked after – that you've experienced the craftsmanship of hospitality.
NK Exactly. And that's the principle behind what we do at Whatley Manor in The Dining Room with our gastronomic menu. After some appetisers in the lounge, we invite guests through to the kitchen where we have three – just three – beautiful hand-crafted tables set up. Next to that we have what I call the Gusbourne baby bath – a huge gold and black chiller (vasque) – and I invite guests to have a glass or two of Blanc de Blancs, which is our house English Sparkling. We're not even selling those glasses, they're a gift from me.
CH Wonderful. That's just what I mean by hospitality having generosity at its heart. And giving of your time. Never making people feel rushed. You try and go over and above. Your customers are your greatest ambassadors. Here at Gusbourne when we do tastings at The Nest, it's important to us not to give people measly samples. We want them to remember the experience as being full of generosity. Luxury isn't defined by things per se, it's more about making people feel welcome and giving of yourself.
NK And that's a mindset you have to encourage in staff as well. So say you have chefs who are used to working quietly in the background and never see the guests they're cooking for. Once you get them talking to guests in the kitchen, as we do, they're suddenly not so timid. Their confidence grows, and that's a lovely thing to see. The other thing is that luxury doesn't need to mean expensive. For example, we do a really fabulous three-course lunch for £29 with wines by the glass in the Brasserie. We want to be accessible for everyone. So you want to offer a range. We're as happy to see people arriving on their bicycle as others landing on the helipad.
CH Niall, talking of local, what's your take on ingredients? I mean, we often associate luxury with things like wagyu beef and caviar, which are typically imported. How important is using local Wiltshire products at Whatley Manor?
NK Well, during this lockdown I've been thinking really hard about our menu for when we reopen. And the first thing is, as you mentioned, wagyu beef. It's an incredible product, absolutely fantastic. But why wouldn't I serve instead the 100% pure-bred organic Aberdeen Angus from across the hedge at the hotel? And while there are English farms producing wagyu, it's all cross-bred. And for me it has to be pure. The industry will need to respond to a different way of thinking post-Covid. And preferring local to imported products is certainly part of that shift.
CH I completely agree. The idea of authenticity is becoming more and more key for consumers. And that's a story you have to tell. Some winemakers buy grapes in from any number of sources. At Gusbourne every grape we use is grown on our own land. From the quality point of view, that means everything is within our control. So yes, authenticity and of course the credibility of offering a product that's totally local – pure bred, as you say.
NK That's why I wanted to create the kitchen experience, so that guests can speak to us and share stories and get to understand where the ingredients come from. Which takes us back to the specialness of an experience being built around the generosity of time.
Exceptional quality ingredients should be a given. But the real mark of luxury lies in generosity of spirit and personal time. Customers feel doubly valued and occasions become more memorable when we offer hospitality that expresses true thoughtfulness and care.
Gusbourne is delighted to be the exclusive English Sparkling Wine served at Whatley Manor's gastronomic Dining Room experience.
Appointed Executive Chef at Whatley Manor at the age of 25, Niall has gained two Michelin stars for the Cotswolds hotel in just two years. He presented the fish course at the 2020 Great British Menu banquet and at the event finale was voted Champion of Champions. Niall was also named 2018 Michelin European Young Chef of the Year.
Head Winemaker at Kent’s Gusbourne Estate since 2013, Charlie has spent 20 years making wine in some of the world’s finest vineyards, from Australia and the US to France and Germany.
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