Chef Interview: Phil Yeomans, Lainston House (March 2020)

Phil Yeomans’ career has taken a strong and positive path, having started
as a young commis chef at the Dorchester Grill, he then worked his way through
luxury properties in the USA and Bermuda before finding his kitchen home coming
at Lainston House in Winchester.  Now
into his second spell at the property and this time as Executive Chef, Phil
delivers culinary treats to expectant guests of the Exclusive Group property –
a hotel Group itself led by a man (Danny Pecorelli) who is renowned for his
passion for food.  Here, Phil finds time
to chat to Simon Carter of fine dining guide about his kitchen journeys and
philosophies.  The interview took place
at The Avenue Restaurant, Chef’s Table at Lainston House in early March 2020.

Give a brief overview of your career to date

Phil’s training was at college in Basingstoke before taking the plunge
as an 18-year-old commis chef at The Dorchester Grill. After a successful year
he moved to the original Soho House in Greek Street, both kitchens were
exceptionally busy and provided extraordinary experience for the young chef.  The Fifth Floor at Harvey Nicholls offered
the next role in the days when it served great food and was packed with around
150 covers lunch and dinner every day. 
After three action packed years in London and the turn of the
millennium, it was time for Phil to have a change of scenery.

North Carolina and a Relais & Chateaux AAA Five Diamond property
called Fearrington House Inn, Pittsboro gave Phil an excellent challenge as
well as broadened his horizons.  The
cuisine varied between influences of modern British, southern state American
and Mexican.  After two years, via an
interested guest and a sequence of events, Phil found himself in Bermuda at
Coral Beach club, a famous members club with cottages, which at the time was
next door to the Mandarin Oriental on Elbow Beach.  After a relatively short period Phil was
promoted to Head Chef, which was a real learning curve as the majority of
produce – non seafood – was imported, “If you got your chip order wrong,
there was trouble
” jokes Phil as potatoes were expensive to import.

It was time to settle down and Phil moved back to the UK where his love
affair with Exclusive Group of hotels started. 
Lainston house would be his home for the next eight years, working his
way up to Head Chef and being part of the great ‘food culture’ at the Group –
at the time there were Michelin Stars around the properties with Michael
Wignall, Simon Davies and Matt Gillan (Pennyhill Park, Manor House and South
Lodge respectively) leading the various brigades in the Group.  Phil was ideally looking for the Executive
Chef role and the opportunity arose to fulfil that ambition at Marwell House
where he spent the next five years. However, he had always hankered for the
same role at Lainston House and in mid 2019, when the chance came, he managed
to secure the top position at the property.

Who have been the chef inspirations in your career.

Two decades ago, as a young chef in London, Phil was most inspired by
Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road and Phil Howard’s The Square on Bruton
Street.  Flavour packed food, elevated by
iconic chefs with very strong classical foundations.  Phil respects Royal Hospital Road as it has
continued to evolve and modernise to the present day, while remaining true to
its classical roots.  Andrew MacKenzie at
Lainston House was a mentor during his development and Phil credits the way he runs
a kitchen down to Andrew’s approach – calm, efficient, structured, prepared and
no drama!  He also taught Phil more than
about cooking; how to manage people, manage costs, to manage and consider other
strategic issues like the environment and so on.

How would you describe the desired cuisine at Lainston House

Flavour first with a strong classical base.  There are some modern touches or talking
points that are subtle but not to challenge the diner.  Working with local producers to support the
community as well as utilising the hotel’s kitchen garden.  The identity of the restaurant is in the
identity of the clientele.  Knowing your
audience is half the battle in a country house hotel.  Phil feels perfectly capable of producing more
esoteric dishes, however the house has a classical with a modern twist
identity, an identity which Phil is delighted to deliver to the discerning and
happy guests.

chef's table lainston House

What are your favourite dishes on the menu?

The celeriac dish perhaps pushes the boundaries for me and for
guests.  The feedback is amazing for this
dish and so much time and effort has gone into perfecting this vegetarian feast
of tastes.  A main course that has just
come onto the menu is the pork dish, which is classical, elegant and straight
forward – apple, turnip and pork.  Even
though it is a simpler dish, the same focus has gone into making it just right
and the flavour impact is truly exceptional. 
For dessert, the souffle and sorbet work so well and when constructed
well there’s nothing better, a classic, enough said!

Tell us about the Chefs Academy at Exclusive Group of Hotels?

The Chefs Academy is an amazing project set up around six years ago by
Andrew MacKenzie (who has worked with Exclusive Collection for around thirty
years).  Well supported by Danny
Pecorelli, the opportunity to invest in people has gone hand in hand with the
opportunity to solve the Group’s situation with regards to the general industry
recruitment challenge.

Every year, each of the kitchens in the Exclusive Collection will get
two new year one and two year two trainees. 
In their first year, the trainee chefs are rotated around the kitchen
for a year before moving to a sister property to do the same.  At the end of two years they graduate and are
invited to apply for a full-time position within the Exclusive Hotel Group – a
kind of unofficial year three.

Alongside the practical kitchen work experience, the trainees will be
completing modules of training.  Every
other week, for two days, they will be with Andrew (MacKenzie) learning about
different aspects of the chef profession. 
One such module may involve Portland Shellfish, where they would go down
to Portland, go out on the boats, to see how to pick a crab and so on.  The next day they will return to the in-house
cookery school, where they will learn how to cook, plate and present crab

Likewise, there will be game module, a cheese module and so on, where
the trainees learn in the classroom or out with a supplier or working on the
job to give first class, all round, training and education.  Over the two years they will learn everything
from tempering chocolate to breaking down fish, the kind of apprenticeship that
was had thirty years ago but doesn’t exist elsewhere today.

The Group is proud of the level and strength of quality of learning
provided, so Andrew MacKenzie is able to scout the colleges and get the pick of
the graduating bunch. There is still a highly competitive recruitment process
involving interviews and cook-offs.

Due to the success of the chef academy, Exclusive Group has started a
front of house academy to replicate this success.

Tell us more about the passion driving employee wellbeing from the top?

The food culture and welfare of the chefs filters through from a passion
from the top.  There’s 800 plus employees
in the group and we have a “family” feel and a staff brand called Exclusive
People.  Significant pride is taken in
looking after people, a small but relevant example is in the staff rooms which
are furnished and managed to a standard as if they were front of house.  The wellbeing and morale of staff reflects in
productivity. From a chef perspective, there’s a fixed hours contract and it is
ensured over a period that this balances out to give a proper work/life
balance.  There’s also continuous
investment in people and their work environment, for example we have new
kitchen equipment here at Lainston House as part of a constant awareness that
reinvestment is the answer to staying ahead in modern economic times.

How many front of house and how many are in the kitchen brigade?

Kitchen team is eighteen , front of house eleven in the restaurant and
six in the bar.

What are the menu structures and how often do you change them?

Seasonal, four times a year, although in summer the menus may change to
maximise freshness with the vegetables coming through.  There a seven-course tasting menu with a
vegetarian and vegan option.  The Carte
is a five starter, five main and five dessert choice menu.  The focus is now on dinner, lunch time is now
more geared towards afternoon tea, which is supported by a bar menu.

What are your plans for the future?

Right from the top the drive is to see ahead and deliver on identified
objectives.  Something that is now
mainstream but started at Lainston House ten or so years ago was Exclusively
Green.  For example, in the kitchen Lainston
House have stepped up to be gas efficient. 
Phil hopes to be putting the property firmly on the culinary map, in the
context of achieving the changing requirements that reflect a successful,
modern, relevant and thriving business.

Phil Yeomans is enjoying his Executive Chef role at Lainston House, at
the pinnacle of his career.  Guests of
The Avenue, based on fine dining guide’s experience, leave satisfied in stomach
and impressed by quality in equal measures. 
Long may this continue!

from Fine Dining Guide