Chef Michael Caines – not to be confused with the chirpy, one-dimensional cockney actor – has long been a Mr & Mrs Smith favourite. After learning his trade in the kitchens of such greats as Raymond Blanc, Bernard Loiseau and Joël Robuchon, Michael became head chef at Gidleigh Park in Devon, where he garnered two Michelin stars for his wonderful Modern European cuisine. He now heads up the Michael Caines Restaurants group – which oversees an enviable portfolio of restaurants, cafés and bars – and is co-owner of ABode Hotels, which offers stylish stays in five UK cities. He’s a busy man alright, which is why we were so delighted when he found a few moments to share his thoughts on all things culinary with us…
When did you first realise you wanted to be a chef?
I’ve always been around food, but I didn’t feel the calling till I was about 16. My dad had a large garden and my mum was always cooking, and I loved helping out in the kitchen – but I had no idea that you could be a chef for a career. Back then, you didn’t have celebrity chefs on TV, so there wasn’t anyone to inspire you. It was only when a friend of mine went off to do work experience in a restaurant kitchen that I started thinking ‘hang on…’
You’ve earned two Michelin stars (as well as plenty of fans) for your imaginative Modern European cooking at luxury country-house hotel Gidleigh Park. How do you go about creating new dishes and tasting menus there?
Like all chefs, I think constantly about food and, for me, the creative process is constant. Inspiration starts with the raw ingredients – a great piece of beef, a fresh fillet of fish – then you have to think about the season you’re in. After that, you decide on the style of cooking; and that inspires the sauce or garnish…
Where do you find inspiration?
Chefs’ minds are always switched onto food, and I find inspiration everywhere. That could be a great Indian meal I’ve had the night before, a herb I come across in the garden. The seasons are so important – I find that I start looking forward to the first asparagus, for example – but cooking isn’t just a local concern. I draw inspiration from cuisines all over the world.
One of Mr & Mrs Smith’s criteria for a truly great hotel experience is that guests should know where they are in the world. How important is a sense of place to your cooking?
I’m from Devon originally, so I’ve always appreciated what a great larder there is in Southwest England. Now that I’m back at Gidleigh Park (below) I’m lucky enough to be able to draw on the area’s wonderful meat, poultry and seafood, and its long and distinguished farming heritage. I would say, though, that to my mind, great produce is inextricably linked to great cuisine. We draw from many different countries’ cuisine now – you don’t have to just create local recipes.
Which other chefs do you most admire, and where would you go to eat if you weren’t at one of your own restaurants?
I think that we all have to pay homage to the greats – Raymond Blanc, the Roux brothers – because they invested so much in this country. In the post-Marco Pierre White era, it’s Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal that spring to mind because of the way their success has changed people’s perception of food. However, there’s a whole new generation of chefs that I admire – Marcus Wareing and Tom Aikens, in particular – and I strongly believe we should do everything we can to encourage them.
Go on, share some secrets from your travel address book with us…
I’m not the kind of person who has a favourite cafe or a restaurant I keep returning to. Life is there for living, and I’m always looking for new and exciting things to try. Sure, I have restaurants I recommend to people because I’ve had an amazing meal there, but why would I go back when there are so many other places to try? Variety is the spice of life.
What is the single most important thing you have learnt about food?
All the great chefs venerate good produce and technical excellence, and all respect the seasons utterly. That’s something I learnt from all my mentors – Raymond Blanc, Bernard Loiseau and Joël Rubuchon. They also taught me that you have to look at your market and understand what people want within it. Affordable food doesn’t have to be sub-standard, you can still create great dishes on a budget. We have cafés, pubs and champagne bars in our portfolio, and you can get great food at all of them.
And what is the most important thing you have learnt about life?
That it’s too short to waste time. You should always make the most of it.
As a figurehead of the ABode group, what are the things you look for in a hotel?
From a hotelier’s point of view, you have to appreciate that you have many different types of people under your roof. There’s no point in trying to be all things to all men. The main thing to get right is the service. I always try to instil a sense of pride in good service into my staff. As a customer, my main bugbear is bad beds. The whole point of a hotel is that you get a good night’s sleep, so how can any hotel compromise on that essential comfort is beyond me. Also, in the big corporate hotels there’s a real lack of respect for food and beverages. It’s often badly prepared and poorly served. That’s something that a hotel has to get right for me…
Describe your dream holiday…
I’ve got two. One involves Vancouver and skiing; getting out onto powdery white slopes every day. The other is being on a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean, looking back at a beautiful shoreline.
What’s the most romantic place you’ve ever been?
Rome – it’s just so stunning and atmospheric. I love history and historical places, and in Rome there are statues and monuments in every piazza. If you mean romance in a couples sense, it would have to be Paris.
What will you have for dinner tonight?
[Laughs] Oh, I don’t know. I won’t be having fish fingers or beans on toast, that’s for sure. I’m not a food snob, though. I’ve got kids, so we do have food like that in my house. But children have got different needs. I’ll probably have a salad if I can find time to make it. The older I get, the more conscious I am of the need to look after myself and eat a balanced diet.