His face is everywhere; on the covers of food magazines, on the promotional videos on the ferries, in the Sunday supplements of the national press. And rightly so, for Robert Thompson has consistently bucked the expectations of the food world to achieve the sort of culinary heights usually reserved for chefs with acres of experience behind them. In a word, older chefs.
He is just 27 and since arriving at the Hambrough Hotel in Ventnor he has dragged it out of its time warp and turned it to profit within a year. Oh, and achieved the holy grail of the food world, a Michelin star.
However, there is a problem. In losing the Hambrough’s fusty image he has constructed for it a sense of exclusivity that, if you think about the real meaning of the word, isn’t exactly what a restaurant wants. Those who feel ‘excluded’ only have to roll the word around your mouth – the Hambrough – to imagine the snooty look from the maitre d, the hushed atmosphere of the dining room and those few green beans arranged artfully on a small white plate. All the attributes of the fine dining experience in fact.
“I can’t stand ‘fine dining’” explodes Robert Thompson, and shows me his dinner plates which are the size of cartwheels, and covered by beautifully arranged food. This is surely a change from the previous regime where you’d need a free magnifying glass with every dish. Robert is determined to shake himself free of the ‘fine dining’ tag. “It’s special occasion dining, yes – you’re not going to have a three course meal with appetiser and coffee every night – but that should mean enjoying your evening, relaxing, having a right good laugh.”
He paints a picture of what he doesn’t want his restaurant to be: “You phone a London restaurant to find out its dress code, and you have to put a tie on! Then you spend the evening sitting there, stared at by Manuel in the corner! That’s ridiculous!” Of course he wouldn’t want people turning up to eat in torn shorts, but he is clearly frustrated with the pomposity associated with good food.
“I’ve been to so-called fine dining restaurants that charge similar prices to the Hambrough, even here on the Island, and come home hungry,” he says. “I want my customers to go home feeling full and relaxed. I accept that I don’t pile it high on the plate. But I know when people say to me that they don’t want an appetiser because ‘I’m saving myself for dessert,’ that I’m serving good portions. And no I don’t charge extra for bread with a meal.”
Clearly Robert is a victim of his own success. The style with which he is associated evokes memories of the infamous dining style of the 1980s, ‘nouvelle cuisine’, when a shaving of meat was augmented by three peas and a carrot sliver. Molecular-gastronomy, Heston Blumenthal’s science-based food has been the more recent food fad, and has sent out its own waves of suspicion to the dining public.
“Someone suggested I got some nitrogen to cook steaks with! Why would I want or need something dangerous like that in my kitchen?” What Robert wants to cook, he stresses, is what the customer wants to eat. “My job is not to be a prima donna, but to cook for the customer. To make sure they come in, and whether they stay for a week or just come in for lunch, to ensure they go away thinking ‘I must come back’. To not see people again isn’t good.”
Surely acting the prima donna goes with the territory? Throwing a few tomatoes around, laying into your sous chef with an iron wok? Not for Robert – and for good reason. He was the victim of a chef with an attitude problem and vowed never to adopt his methods.
Even before leaving school Robert was gripped by the idea of cooking. He was born in Bedfordshire – “a culinary desert!” he grins. His mum was a school teaching assistant and his father a quantity surveyor, and he and his brother and sister were always given good, home cooked food.
Of all his school subjects, Robert enjoyed cookery classes the most. His brother, seven years older, worked in restaurants, and despite watching the fiendishly long hours he worked, Robert followed his example, getting a job while still at school, washing up in a hotel kitchen. By the time he’d finished school he’d already been in the kitchen for three years. But although he was adamant by now that the only thing he wanted to be was a chef he still pushed himself to do well in his GCSEs. “I knew full well the only way I was going to get out of going down the A level route was to show my mum and dad quite clearly that I’d got good results to back me up. They’d say: ‘You can count the top chefs in this country on one hand. . . “
He went to college in the Thames Valley, doing a three-year NVQ course – something he soon realised was a pale imitation of the City & Guilds qualification that his brother had gained. He decided he could do the course in two years, and thought he had an agreement that he would be fast tracked, but at the start of the second year he was just given Student of the Year award. “So I walked out.”
His first full-time job was at the L’Ortolan, the Reading restaurant of the notoriously firey John Burton Race. “Not long before I went there he’d been filmed beating a guy up,” says Robert. “He was ridiculous. One of us had to iron his apron when he showed up!”
He describes the atmosphere in the kitchen which nearly brought his ambitions to an end. The sheer daily toil of dragging huge bags of flour and sugar down to the cellar caused inflammation in his hip. Then there was the aggression: “One busy night I saw plates ready to go out except for the sauce. So I sauced them – then suddenly I got pulled backwards by one of Burton Race’s chefs, who pinned me against the stove. My arms were burnt.”
Being bawled out day in day out took its toll. “In the end I couldn’t be bothered with it anymore. It had knocked every bit of confidence out of me.” He left and began earning money by doing a bit of lawn mowing and landscape gardening.
However, getting casual jobs in the kitchens where his brother was working kicked off his love of cooking again: he worked in the Falcon Inn in Bedfordshire, then moved to Chimney’s Restaurant in Doncaster. Then, on September 11th 2001 he had an interview for a pastry chef at Winteringham Fields in North Lincolnshire. “That was my way back into Michelin Star territory,” he says. “I went for six months and stayed six and a half years!”
The Winteringham Fields was owned by a Swiss chef patron who was a complete inspiration to Robert. “He’d owned it for 18 years and by the time he sold it it had two Michelin Stars, had 9 out of 10 in the Good Food Guide and 5 AA rosettes.” When it was sold it lost its stars – it would undermine the credibility of the Michelin system, Robert explains, if awards stayed once the chef who had made the awarded food moved on – but under Robert a star was soon won back, which is a remarkable achievement for someone so young (23 years old).
Robert looks back on his Swiss mentor with great affection, particularly applauding the way he would take him to the dining room to receive the plaudits from satisfied customers in person. However, the new owner had big ideas, and ended up spending hugely on a showpiece restaurant in which Robert felt like a goldfish in a bowl.
So he took a job at the palatial Cliveden House Hotel, owned jointly by English Heritage and National Trust, taking some of his Winteringham Fields people with him. But although he loved the house he was let down by the company who ran the restaurant. “They didn’t pay their suppliers, so often we just ran out of sugar! I had to go.”
At which point his attention was drawn to the Hambrough Hotel on the Isle of Wight. You might wonder why he considered the move for more than a second. After all, he was going from a huge palace to a private hotel which had had its ups and downs, which had just 23 seats and a handful of rooms.
“Yeah, it was the biggest risk – but I made the decision in 10 minutes. I’d been down for the day, met the owner, saw the beach with everyone crammed on it.” Most important for him, after his Winteringham Fields and Cliveden experience, was to ensure management kept out his kitchen. “I had to be allowed to put my own stamp on it. I had to have them say ‘there’s your stage, off you go.”
So this is his stage. Perhaps what we don’t pick up when we see the ferry videos of Robert in the kitchen is that he is responsible for the whole hotel, not just the kitchen. So if a bed isn’t comfortable or the hairdryer doesn’t work, residents come to him. “I get unbelievably cross when I see one of my staff has left a light on in a room,” he grins. “I don’t throw my weight around in the kitchen but I get picky over money being chucked away for no reason. I have to run a tight ship or it can’t be cost effective.”
He admits Michelin starred restaurants are not generally big moneymakers – the sheer cost of ingredients sees to that. Yet, over the course of his first year he had broken even. “Which was my plan,” he says, in his quiet, confident way.
Surely, though, if he’d gone to London rather than the Isle of Wight, he could have all this but with double his salary? “In London you’re a tiny fish in a huge pond. I want to create a venue people will travel to, come and stay spend two or three days, eat and talk about it. In London your reputation’s London. I want to have a reputation in London, but be known for being here.”
He points to Rick Stein and to what he’s done to the fishing village of Padstow in Cornwall. “He’s transformed it, it’s prosperous, look at the amount of TV coverage it’s had.”
So does television beckon? Robert is surprisingly measured in his answer. “I’d like to use TV to enhance what I’m doing here, not be written off because I appeared for a bit and then never again. The worst thing would be to have this restaurant full just because your face was on TV. That’s just not sustainable.”
He is engaged to Diana, his pastry chef, and while that might sound like a relationship recipe for disaster he explains that both understanding the pressures of the kitchen is essential. “At home I cook really simple things,” he says.
And do they eat out? “Oh yes, a lot, and that way I get to know how I should be doing things. Service is crucial.” Their time-off dining is surprisingly simple. “I love Pizza Express but got let down when I brought a group in and they said we were too late for starters – even though I’d checked in advance.” When asked to name a bad place to go he doesn’t hesitate: “Pizza Hut! Absolutely dire. I got into an argument it was so bad – there were no ingredients on the pizza!”
He doesn’t tend to complain in restaurants – except in extreme circumstances – because he doesn’t want a reputation as one who flashes his reputation around. As for reviewers of his own place, he’s fairly indifferent except about those that really matter. “I’ve got a Michelin star, I’m in the Good Food Guide, and got AA stars. These organisations train their inspectors, they’ve got degrees, they’ve been general managers, they’re the people to listen to.” He adds: “If I lost my Michelin star, I’d be devastated.”
So what about the local on-line reviewers? “I never start kicking off saying ‘they don’t know what they’re talking about, even if they say its rubbish. But I get upset because it’s going to affect whether or not people come here.”
He gets the odd challenging customer, or diners who say there’s nothing they like on the menu, order anyway and then complain they didn’t like it. “Far better to tell me what they do like and I’ll do it for them,” he says. Well done steak and chips and ketchup? “Yes if that’s what they want. Though most people just want a tender steak without blood, and that’s a skilled bit of cooking.”
Ingredients are key, but Robert doesn’t pretend to use only local ingredients. “You just couldn’t, it’s so seasonal.” He’s not overly stressed about where produce comes from, as long as it’s fresh and on the plate as quickly as possible. So what is the secret of his success, so far, at the age of 27? “I listen to people. I don’t put salt and pepper on the table so if lots of people ask for salt I know I’ve got a seasoning issue. The way to success is listening to the customer. I understand the business.”
And once Robert Thompson has convinced everyone that the Hambrough isn’t a place for fine dining, but for comfortable special occasions, how long is he going to stay before he sprinkles his magic dust on the next place? “I’ll stay,” he says. “I’m here for the long haul.”