It’s hard to work out which is more fortunate – the Priory Bay Hotel to have found Carlos Garcia for its head chef, or Carlos Garcia to have found the Priory Bay Hotel. They are made for each other.
It is eight o’clock in the morning and, being August, the rain is pouring down. Carlos, oblivious to the weather, takes me through the three vegetable gardens in the grounds of the hotel, breaking off a herb here, an edible flower there, an Isle of Wight tomato, a blueberry. He breaths in their scent, sighs at their flavour, each herb sparking a description of the meat it will go to marinade or salad it will enhance.
Carlos has been with the Priory Bay for five months. For five years he had been sous chef to Alexis Gauthier, executive chef of the hotel’s London restaurant, the Rousillon, until Gauthier decided Carlos was the man to change the hotel in line with his own emphasis on quick, clean food with fresh, local ingredients. Carlos’s enthusiasm for what he does – and where he is – can scarcely be contained within his quiet demeanour and charming Spanish accent. His grandfather was both a farmer and a chef, and his breadth of knowledge was honed when, on leaving catering school, he took himself off on an odyssey of gastronomic learning. “I went to Barcelona, Madrid, the south coast, to the Pyrenees . I went south, north, west – just to see other kinds of food, and traditions.”
His regional skills were distilled at the Rousillion. “Once I had the basic techniques, I play around with what my grandmother cooked for me, I use those flavours, that feeling. So, with the right technique and knowledge you can develop a successful dish.”
The search has left him with the confidence to produce food untrammelled by complication. The menus in both the “Gastronomic” restaurant and the less formal brasserie – are nothing but a celebration of pure flavour. “This summer we had the red mullet or sea bream, with just cos lettuce, green and yellow courgette, comfit tomatoes, olive oil, salt pepper,[here he effects the sczhh sxzhh sound of the pepper grinder], with Isle of Wight garlic. It’s light, it’s fresh, you eat it on the terrace.” And although we both look at the sheets of rain falling outside, I can almost see the colours and smell the flavours. “We don’t do creamy,” he adds. “If you have courgette soup, it’s courgettes, a bit of leek, herbs – its courgette soup, that’s what it is!”
His menu is governed by season – he cannot understand the presence of asparagus or raspberries when their time is up – and by location. “Yesterday a fisherman came, bringing mackerel and sea bass. Oh my God, I am so lucky, such beautiful fish!” A customer recently told him there should be less fish on the menu. “I said that was impossible. Here we are, there is the sea,” waving a hand towards the beautiful bay just beyond the hotel’s terrace and golf course. Which says it all, really.
Although the hotel is one of the most acclaimed on the Island the kitchen is flexible. Guests can choose their fish or meat, their preferred method of cooking and take an accompaniment from elsewhere on the menu. “I know not everybody likes everything,” says Carlos. “Sometimes I look through the window to see their faces when the waiter brings them their plate.” He smiles his boyish smile. “I like to see them happy.”
Priory Bay Hotel, Priory Drive, Seaview, 01983 613146