Tell us about I'll Be Mother:
As a company I'll Be Mother is a year and a half old. It was started by myself and Peter Cornwell, who I worked with at The Swan in West Malling. Pete wanted to move away from his other business partners and do his own thing, so he started up the company. We now have The Twenty Six (in Tunbridge Wells), The Beacon (in Tunbridge Wells), The Swan (at Chapel Down Winery in Tenterden), our events business Mother Love and the Mother Truck - An old Citroen H van we use for outside events.
You're head chef and creative director, how do you manage the two roles?
I created the title, because I wanted to make it clear that I cook at The Twenty Six. I can’t be at three restaurants cooking and don’t like to pretend that I do. Some chefs in my position might float between sites, but I don’t want to do that, The Twenty Six is my baby and where I get creative.
I think you have to trust other staff to run kitchens. I’m lucky with Tom at Chapel Down, he was my sous chef at The Swan in West Malling so he knows the score and runs a very good kitchen. The world we live in now makes communication easy. Technology means I can hear and see what staff are doing without being there. The way we have things set up allows me to be chef patron at The Twenty Six and push on with what but also keeping an eye on and having input in the other sites too.
What are your aims with The Twenty-Six?:
My goal for this restaurant is for it to be a place where whatever's happened to you that day - good or bad - is forgotten about. My vision is for all guests to come at 7pm, sit down together and I feed them. There's no menu, you just eat what has been prepared that day.
I grew up surrounded by amazing home-cooked food, but it has to be about more than the food. I remember holidays in Devon at my Nan's house, we'd go and all sit round the table and eat together. My Nan was very stern, but she was a great cook and we'd say 'if she fed you she loved you'. That sentiment is tattooed on my arm now, actually 'to feed you is to love you' and that’s something I want to capture – everyone sat around the table at the same time, enjoying food and having great conversation.
We've been open since the end of 2014 and it took us a few months to settle in. I've been conscious that there's a danger of pushing things too fast, you have to make sure your customers get it first so I'm taking my time. I think it can take three years for a restaurant to get well established so it's not going to happen overnight, but that's my dream.
Many restaurateurs are compelled to turn tables to make a profit, but your vision is at odds with that, how do you see The Twenty Six surviving as a business?:
Twenty Six is called the Test Kitchen for a reason. The reality is I’ve got 26 seats here. This restaurant is not going to make me rich. I won’t be driving around in a Ferrari through this, but it does give us a chance to push the creative side of our business.
Peter and I have worked together for 13 years now and we’ve been through the whole cycle to get to this point. We need to make money, of course. We need to be able to pay our suppliers and staff, but also there’s very little rent and no massive overheads that hold me down, so I think, instead of trying to turn tables let’s try and create that perfect dining experience. We’ve got other strings to the bow for the business that will bring in the money.
What are your plans for the rest of the business?:
At The Beacon, which is set within 17 acres of countryside, we’ve put in for planning permission to have tree houses put up for people to stay in. We’re trying to push the wedding side of things there because its location lends itself well to weddings. Peter's also looking at doing a summer music and food festival.
We’re in the midst of doing a fourth place in Penshurst – The Woodland Kitchen. It will be different again, but we’re still in planning stages with that, so I'm not sure how it will be fitted out or what food we'll serve. We're looking for an organic style there though, so again it will be different from all the others.
How easy is it to grow the business when each site is so different?:
We have no desire to be a chain. We believe that each restaurant kitchen has its own identity and that’s important for the business. The Twenty Six is the Test Kitchen, The Beacon is The Garden Kitchen and The Swan is called the Wine Kitchen because it’s on a vineyard in Tenterden. Yes, they all fit under the I’ll be Mother umbrella but it’s important that their individuality shines through.
We are only talking about four sites and they’re all within a 40 minute distance from each other so we can keep on top of what everyone's doing.
It is important that they are run individually. It would not make sense to come to The Twenty Six and have ham, egg and chips like you'd have at The Beacon, or go to The Beacon and have smoked haddock rarebit.
I think if you've got the right people around you - general managers, head and sous chefs - then why not give them the freedom and growth and ability to be creative and share what they’ve got rather than dictate how it should be done? Myself and Peter will say yes or no, but essentially we’re providing honest hospitality. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.