Mike Green spent 7 years as head chef of the Seaview Hotel until he decided it was time to move on. After spending over a year ‘time-out’ he has now invested all of his life savings into his new restaurant/pub.
“The big mistake the restaurant industry makes is to pigeonhole people. You might come in and spend a fiver on coffee and a sandwich. But the next day you might bring six friends to dinner – you’re the same person! I want my customers to feel like a king, however much they spend.”
So says Mike Green, former head chef of the Seaview hotel. He left the Island for a while, but is now back, with a mission. He and his partner Paula have just bought The Battery in Seaview, and are planning to open it by February.
For years Mike walked past the place, thinking that if someone had the right inclination, and the right sort of money, they could make a proper go of it. “The site is phenomenal, its right by the sea, there’s nothing around it – but it was crying out for attention.” At the time though, he could not see himself in the role of saviour of the Battery. “If you’re an employee, everything you do is for the person you’re working for and working for yourself doesn’t seem a reality. But Paula and I had always meant, one day, to work for ourselves.”
It was in June that he saw that the property – a run-down pub/hotel “limping towards its death-knell” – was on the market. He estimates it wasn’t turning over as much as £1,000 a week in peak season. “If you were looking for somewhere to eat or drink, you would not have gone in there!”
At present the place is gutted throughout. A third of the way through the building work, they estimate the total spend to be in the region of half a million, excluding the purchase of the property. But how did they raise the money? Chefs, even head chefs, are not routinely on Forbes’ rich list. “By a lot of hard work. Financially, everything is on the line,” Mike admits. “Two houses, funding from friends, funding from family.”
Do they sleep at night? “Oh I sleep like a baby,” says Mike. “I believe 110 per cent in what I do, or I wouldn’t do it.”
And Paula, does she believe 110 per cent in what Mike does? A pause. Then Mike says to her: “You probably don’t. But that’s why you’re such a good foil to me. I’m more head-on, Paula is more contemplative. We’re the flip sides to each other, which is why we work so well together.” Paula, his business partner who will be front-of-house in the new restaurant, as well as being his partner in life and mother of his two boys Elliott, 14 and Sam 11, agrees. “I do more thinking. And I do have sleepless nights about the money!”
However, they both agree that their decision to invest in a business manager/negotiator from the City of London was a wise move. “He’s guided us through all the pitfalls of dealing with property, and negotiated great deals that we as laymen wouldn’t have been able to.”
But isn’t that a bit, well, un-cheffy, to pay a premium to someone to take their advice? “Absolutely,” says Mike. “The chef way is ‘I’ll do it my way and **** to anyone else’. But in less than six months we’re ahead of schedule. That’s also down to the builders, who’ve been brilliant. But using this guy has broadened my willingness to accept advice.”
Paula visits the site of the refurbishment daily, while Mike’s attention is taken up with a business they took on in Somerset.
The Blagdon Inn in Taunton was only meant to be short term, but taking on an existing business honed certain skills which will be vital in the new project. Getting staff to change the way they do things, while keeping them on side, took as much skill as producing great food. “It’s hard for people to deal with change, especially when it’s through no fault of their own. But we always come down to treating people as we would want to be treated. We learned that from Nick and Nicki Haywood at the Seaview.”
It was the Haywoods who first brought Mike over to the Island from Manchester. “When I met them I knew it was the right job. They work with professionalism, ambition, compassion, and understanding. They have a unique perspective on hospitality. My time there was very successful and enjoyable because their way fitted with my belief in how things should be done.”
But after seven years Mike found he was getting itchy feet. “It was difficult having an employer because my mind was going elsewhere. As a self-employed chef proprietor, my only limitation is my own imagination.”
He had a traditional training in classic French and English cuisine, and for many years kept within those parameters. But since coming to the Island he has developed the confidence to follow his own direction. “I’m most comfortable with northern European food, but I don’t stick within the parameters of any one country’s tradition. As a chef, I almost intuitively mix what’s best with one with what’s best from another – it’s the quality rather than the perceived style of the product that matters. I can’t explain how that works in my head!”
A guided tour inside Mike’s head would certainly be an experience. A particular ingredient will mentally take Mike to the place and time where it is most commonly used. “I look at the feelings people want to satisfy at a given time of the year: why do Swedes smoke salmon? Why do the Spanish salt cod? Then I think about how we in the UK would deal with this, given we’ve lost our sense of history in cooking.”
If this foray through Mike’s thought processes sounds a little other-worldly, he is adamant that he is in touch with what real customers want. At the Seaview he hosted Cook and Eat evenings, where he demonstrated the preparation of a three-course meal for 30-odd paying punters. “I got tons of questions, but also a whole barrage of opinions about restaurants, pubs and hotels. It was kind of market research by default.” The good news is he plans to run similar evenings at his new restaurant, beginning next Autumn.
If he’s so touchy-feely, so intuitive about the needs of staff and customers, is his kitchen a model of peace and calm? He smiles. “Chefs raise their voices, but it’s not about egos or fostering fear. The volume reflects the degree of urgency that things have to be done. It’s a basic way of communicating, but necessary amid the heat and stress. And we’re all in it together, and need to work together.”
One thing about which he and Paula are adamant, and which is bound to ruffle feathers, is the new name for The Battery. “We did some research and, yes of course there was an old battery emplacement, but the building wasn’t part of the outbuildings. Before that it was called Browns. Given that it wasn’t the original name, and we don’t think the name fits with the way we want the restaurant to be, we’re going to call it The Boathouse.”
With a relaxed New England style décor, The Boathouse, they hope, will be whatever people want it to be, a coffee-shop, a bar, a restaurant. But doesn’t that all sound a little casual for the fine dining experience for which Mike has become known? He cringes at the term fine dining. “That suggests egos and snobbery. The food will be hearty, cooked to perfection. If the best food I can provide, the best drink I can provide is called fine dining, then so be it. But I’m not cooking for status, or to impress magazines.
“I’m not cooking for anybody other than my customers.”