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Interviews > Pearls of Wisdom

Robin Hutson: Pearls of Wisdom

By William Drew , 03-Jul-2014

People are scared of most country house hotels... The Pig breaks those barriers down - Robin Hutson

People are scared of most country house hotels... The Pig breaks those barriers down - Robin Hutson

The hotel-restaurant entrepreneur, who co-founded the ground-breaking Hotel du Vin, has built his latest concept The Pig into a successful four-strong group. He discusses kitchen gardens, the power of a name and training young entrepreneurs

In the upper mid-market hotel sector, there’s been no one out there doing anything interesting. There are nice pubs with rooms, and some good things at the top end – Lime Wood, Babington, Le Manoir and so on – but not in-between. I knew from my Hotel du Vin days that this was a sweet spot, hence The Pig was born in 2011.

I grew up in South East London but we moved to Surrey when I was 14, which was disastrous for my exam results as I was suddenly in a mixed school! I liked messing around in the kitchen, so my mum suggested I go to catering college.

Whitley Ridge [now The Pig in the New Forest] was in a dreadful state, but it had a stable yard with some buildings that I reckoned would convert into bedrooms and it had a lovely walled garden that was full of weeds. I thought there was something in this whole walled garden business. 

I’ve been 40 years in the business and seen all sorts of trends. But I still make it my job to know what’s going on out there. That knowledge and appreciation for food and how restaurants work is clearly very useful to have.

The Pig sounds like a pub – and that’s very deliberate. I wanted it to be earthy and representative of the garden-to-plate mentality. People are scared of most country house hotels, worrying about the price, whether they’re going to be dressed properly and so on. The Pig breaks those barriers down.

We have a management training scheme now called Budding Entrepreneurs. We can’t compete with big hotel groups, but we can provide access to real-life entrepreneurial situations. Directors and senior managers mentor those on the scheme and they come with us to every sort of meeting.

We try to touch every plate with something from the kitchen garden and source everything from within 25 miles. It’s not gimmicky; we’re serious about it. 

James Martin was our first head chef at Hotel du Vin in Winchester. He had never run a kitchen before. We cut the menu down to four starters, four mains and three desserts to keep control of the quality. But we were busy from day one. 

I don’t lose sleep over what Hotel du Vin is like now, but I don’t really like the standardisation. The idiosyncrasies were the strength of that business. 

Angela Hartnett coming in at Lime Wood last year has been hugely positive; business is up around 35%. We wanted to offer a more family-style service there rather than it all being plated. Had we done that ourselves without Angela, we might have got knocked-back for being too simple. So having her gives credibility to simplicity.

The objective of the training scheme is to hang on to the talent for longer. I was seeing great kids stay with us for nine months and then disappear, but now we’re locking them in for two or three years by making life more interesting.

It’s not always the chef who is the best person to decide what the menu is all about. Sometimes they don’t go out enough to know what’s going on.

I preach broadly the same philosophy of food now that I did when we opened the first Hotel du Vin 20 years ago: keep it simple; there has to be a bloody good reason to have more than three ingredients on the plate; and a cold smear of something is not generally pleasant to eat.

Nick Jones is one of the most original-thinking people in the business. At Soho House [where Hutson was chairman until 2008]; we encouraged each other to push the boundaries and question things. Why should we do it like that? Why can’t we do it like this?

James Golding oversees the food for The Pigs, but he is absolutely not an executive chef. He doesn’t have a desk and he still cooks. Each of the three head chefs [The Pig on the Beach in Dorset has just opened] have been promoted from within our own kitchens. His job is to protect the spirit of the food offering, but not to dictate the menus.

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