Interview With Martin Burge – Culinary Director, Farncombe Estates, and Sam Bowser – Head Chef, Dormy House

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of doing my first ever interview! I was pretty nervous walking into it, especially with such highly acclaimed chefs, but it was fantastic. A huge thank you to both Sam and Martin at Dormy House, for making it a pleasant and relaxed experience. I threw lots of varied questions at them (which Martin in particular found amusing) and was hoping that it wasn’t all the usual droll questions that they might encounter, and I think I succeeded (although they definitely managed to challenge be with some of their response questions). They clearly have a huge respect for one another, and it was great to see some of their jovial reactions to each others answers.

Having visited Dormy House back in November last year, and been lucky enough to sample some of Sam’s delicious menu, I can honestly say I’m a huge advocate for both restaurants at Dormy. Since sitting down with both of them, I’m now planning my next trip to one of the other hotels in the Farncombe Estate!

Sam –  You’ve been here a year – are you planning to celebrate?

No – we just keep going. It’s a very busy place, we just want to constantly keep getting better and better, and keep evolving it.

What’s been your highlight so far?

Re-invigorating the garden room and changing the menus in there. We’re slowly turning it into more of a foodie destination. We’re getting there and it’s good.

I’ve only visited since you started, what was The Garden Room like beforehand?

It was labelled as a high-end restaurant, but the price point was lower and it was a standard a-la-carte.  Bringing in Martin & me with our background elevated it and we’re now looking to build a team and keep evolving. It’s going well, we’re getting good feedback.

Which is your favourite restaurant across the Farncombe estate?

Sam: I deal purely with Dormy – so The Potting Shed, The Garden Room and The Spa Restaurant. I like both restaurants for different reasons, The Garden Room is very refined, high-end ingredients which is great fun. But I also really enjoy doing The Potting Shed dishes because it’s simpler, hearty, good cooking. It’s actually really good to have a balance rather than focus on just one.

Martin: I’ll have to agree with Sam on that one. My focus is equal across all of them, to drive all of the standards across each one.

What would be your ideal menu with a different dish from each restaurant?

Sam: Dormy based of course.

Martin: He doesn’t leave, he just stays here.

S: From The Garden Room I would definitely pick the Halibut and the Pidgeon dishes, (Pidgeon is currently off the menu, but Halibut is available), from The Potting Shed I like the sausage roll, cod chowder, things that we do in here that are full of flavour.

M: It’s interesting how we take dishes from each site and do something slightly different. The idea is for each to have it’s own identity which it does, The Shed is very different from The Fish, and The Garden Room is totally different. It would be really hard to pin down a dish at Foxhill because the concept there is eat what you like. So Richard tends to have a few things on the board, but guests can just throw anything at us.

What’s the most interesting dish you’ve had a guest ask for over there?

M: Richard is the best person to ask, but you could literally have anything. It’s 16 covers and you could be doing anything from a shepherd’s pie to a burger to a tasting menu. It’s so diverse down there all on the same night. They’ve had 10, 12, 15 different main courses some nights. Which is a challenge. And the guests can turn up anytime from 3pm asking Richard at 5pm for their evening meal, so it’s a super challenge down there. You just have a big larder of ingredients and you’ve also got Sam & Karl’s kitchens where they can pull from. They might say they’d like a burger and of course Sam’s got burgers made here. It can be a mix. It’s a real good team spirit.

What’s your vision for the future of Farncombe Estates and Dormy House?

M: The plan – no pressure – we’d love to win a Michelin star for Sam. That’s what we’d like to do, that’s the goal. Hopefully improve the Rosettes for Dormy (currently sitting at 2) so looking to push that forward. That’s the goals here, and to get a really good entry into the good food guide. And have busy restaurants most importantly, and happy guests! We’ve already hit the target down at The Fish they’ve hit 2 Rosettes, in a 100-plus seater restaurant so that was an achievement after 5 weeks. We were super chuffed about that. It’s more about standards. If you know what you’re doing a standard is a standard. So it’s just driving the standard.

How are the changes in food trends altering the way you work?

S: Dietaries have really taken off, we deal with a lot of different dietaries and we specifically made a vegan menu for both restaurants, we try and dedicate it to vegan and then we can use that for vegetarian too, but we do have a vegetarian menu anyway. We’re very flexible with what we do. With the vegan options, we try to create dishes rather than just borrowing bits from other dishes and putting it together, so it is a little more planned out. It’s most certainly something you have to deal with these days.

M: The days of chefs making a vegetarian risotto with chicken stock are gone! We don’t do that anymore. It is interesting actually, me and Sam really worked on refining the vegetarian menu. We saw it coming, we kind of pre-empted a lot of it, we’re not surprised. As you said, 24 months ago is pretty much bang on, we thought “hang on” this is really starting to come our way and there’s no point fighting it. You’ve got to embrace it and work with it.

S: It really strengthens you as a chef.

M: I think vegan is a super challenge if I’m honest with you. We can do vegetarian with our eyes closed now, and people don’t roll their eyes and say “oh, is it risotto”. But vegan is tough. So we’re going to go and try it out and be inspired by the vegan lady at the festival!

S: It will be interesting to see what she does, because the one thing I don’t get about veganism is when they try to make things look like the meat products, like vegan sausages or vegan bacon.

M: It’s all mushroom based anyway, so just… eat mushrooms!

If you were to pick each others’ best dish, what would it be?

S: Pidgeon – again. It’s my favourite.

M: It’s a tricky one, I think at the moment we’re working on an a-la-carte for The Garden Room and he’s made courses that are really strong. He’s got this chicken dish which is really good, pork dish which is really good. I think when you look at people’s food journey’s when they eat they tend to have a great starter, the main course is okay, and they have a great dessert. They seem to have a little dip and I think Sam’s main courses are really strong. He puts a lot of energy into that and I think a lot of chefs tend to drop a little bit there.

S: You can be more creative with a starter and a dessert, whereas for a main course people have expectations of meat and veg.

M: You can play with more sweet and sours for starters and desserts and it tends to have that more wow in the pallet. Savoury tends to be more one dimensional, it is what it is but I think Sam really works on that.

If you could go on come dine with me, what would be your menu?

M: These are random questions!

S: I don’t watch it, what do I need to do?

M: Explains the concept… remember it’s home cooking Sam. Although they did do a professional one.

S: Spring vegetable escabeche with mackerel, lamb main with asparagus and wild garlic, pavlova which we do as a special in here which is nice! Everybody loves it and it’s a bit of a crowd pleaser.

Are there other chefs that you’ve worked with who have been an inspiration to you?

S: I draw bits from everybody that I’ve worked for. I’ve worked for Raymond Blanc, Michel Roux Jr., Phil Howard, Gordon Ramsay, I think everybody has brilliant aspects so you take a little bit away from every single person. They’ve all been inspirational in different ways. From ways that they’ve run kitchens, to sourcing ingredients, their dishes, attention to detail, all of that kind of stuff.

M: I’m going to wind the clock back, I think Raymond Blanc was the real deal. It started off Richard (Neat) and me, he’s a real tough cookie and he pushed me to go and work for Raymond. I did that for a few years and he just inspired me to taste things properly, do things correctly, prep things correctly, stuff like that. I moved on from there to work for John Burton Race for six years. He used to work for him. He gave me that freedom to create. You go on these journeys and each chef gives you something. And you then progress and progress and then go and do your own thing.

But you also get inspired by places you eat. I went to New York, sounds glamorous but I don’t do it often! And went to Per Se and that was a huge turning point for me when I was going through my own journey of creating food. After about 5 years I went there and simplicity over quality was the way forward and I was over complicating things.

So from the delivery you just pull it back a bit. Sam’s going through that same journey as what I did. I went from Per Se to pulling it back, and that’s just from eating a meal. You can be inspired that way.

If you could cook anywhere in the world, where would it be?

M: I’d love to go to India. I love spices, I love that sort of food, I’d just love to really understand it. We do it in our way but it’s not the true way. I don’t believe it is until I go on that journey. So I’d be super keen on going to India.

S: I always wanted to go to Japan.

M: That’s another good shout.

S: I think their attention to detail and craftmanship of spending their life doing one thing is quite incredible.

M: There is that influence on Sam’s cuisine.

Where’s your favourite restaurant?

M: I can tell you where I want to go… I definitely want to go to Bibendum. I hear such great feedback about that place and Claude (Bosi). Sam’s eaten there and he was blown away. I’m super keen on going there.

S: I struggle a bit at the moment because I’m married with a young baby. So I don’t really eat out. But I did used to love a restaurant called Trinity in Clapham. I used to live around the corner and ate there 6 or 7 times while I was there. Just the cooking was really good.

Do you find it hard, being a chef, to enjoy a meal without being too critical?

S: I think you definitely critique things when you’re eating out. It depends if you’re being cooked for, I enjoy being cooked for and not having to do it, I really appreciate that. But you are always very critical if you go into a restaurant. Because often you say you’ve got a favourite restaurant, but I tend to pick new places if I go out now so I don’t go back to a lot of them. You go there to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, to see the competition so you are always analysing it and seeing what you can take away from it. To see where you’re at with what you’re doing as well.

M: It depends where you go. It’s all down to price point. If you’re going somewhere it’s uber expensive and they’ve got Michelin stars & high rosettes, you tend to then switch into chef mode and I feel like I’m assessing it. Whereas if I’m just going for a light bite to eat I just enjoy the food and being cooked for. That’s the difference. 

How do you feel about bloggers taking photos in your restaurants?

M: We would definitely not stop people from taking photos here. I’ve had to adjust to it because I’m very particular in how I like food shots to be. I always feel, I think bloggers do it more in a lifestyle way, it’s more natural, it doesn’t have to be perfect. From a creative and artistic point of view it doesn’t always look how we want it to look. So it can be upsetting, and if you’d asked me this question a couple of years ago I’d have probably said “argh no! I’m really upset about it.” But I’ve got used to it now and I’ve had to accept it and it’s something I’ve adjusted to. I take pictures of all of my food. I went to Lympstone Manor from Michael Caines and you want to support places. If you’ve had a great meal you want to support, but I’m very careful of taking the pictures in the right way. And I’ll take 5 or 6 of each shot and pick the best one, and square it up. I do take my time with it before I post it, I don’t just click and send. I have that respect for it.

S: It’s definitely not something we’d ever stop. It’s a little bit snobby to stop people taking pictures. It’s such a massive part of food these days, if you go in restaurants pretty much most people are taking pictures.

M: If you’re in a dim restaurant and you put your flash on it’s not great. You need to be thoughtful to guests around you who are not into it. There’s a balance.

M: Are you finding it more of a resistance now?

Me: Fortunately not myself, but I know of places that have stopped people.

M: I think people are cautious because you might be taking a photo and doing something unpleasant with it. You could take the world’s worst photo of something and put it on Trip Advisor so you can see why it’s a sensitive area.

Do you visit the chain restaurants?

S: I wouldn’t’ say no every now and again. I don’t want to be a snob!

M: Yeah.

Q: Do you have a favourite?

M: Don’t say KFC!

S: No, I’ve never been. Well I haven’t been there in years. I used to like going to Burger King rather than McDonalds if that counts? I just felt they were better, it’s all about the chips! Their chips are better than McDonalds.

M: I think these chains are really good if you’ve got a family because it really hits a price point. Once you start thinking about drinks and kids and partners etc you need to think about the money side. The thing about Jamie Olivers… I like Carluccio’s, I’m a fan, (I went from Jamie Olivers to Carluccios) and I like Cote Brasserie and it’s a good price point. You get nice food for a good price, so I don’t mind.

What 1 item in the kitchen can you not live without?

S: A stove.

M: Ingredient wise it has to be salt.

S: Yeah

Would you choose sweet or savoury?

M: Be honest!

S: Sweet probably. I’ve got a massive sweet tooth.

M: Yeah, I’m the same. If I don’t have something sweet at the end of the meal I feel like I’ve missed something.

Martin – you had 2 Michelin stars in your previous restaurant. Where were you when you first found out?

M: The first one was 18 months into the job, I can’t really remember! The first one came around and Peter – The General Manager –  turned around and said congratulations, I turned around and said “yeah it’s a good start” and he hadn’t quite heard me right and thought’ I’d said “it’s a good star’ but we wanted to push forward and get more than 1. The second one was the time the guide leaked. I got told on a Saturday on the telephone and I went to see the general manager (Peter again) and we went into the bar and I actually cried. From emotions, it was quite emotional. I’m expecting Sam to cry (no pressure Sam!).

Do you have any funny stories / kitchen disasters that have happened?

S: There’s quite a few! I always remember the first week at Le Gavroche – I worked with Michel Roux Jr. and it was the first 2 star place I’d worked in. I was running to the pass with langoustine sauce and I threw it all over the front of him. He swore in French and English. Funny things happen quite a lot.

M: For me there’s loads. My best friend at the time (there was a lot of friction because we were both young commies) and I were always squabbling and competing to get promoted. He was teasing me because he was in the pastry and was saying “I’ve been promoted” and he hadn’t been promoted he was a commie in the pastry section and I was still in the veg section. He got left to make these soufflé’s, it was a function of 20 which is a challenge, and he forgot to make the pastry cream so all these soufflé’s came out and they just collapsed. I was there going “yeah” thumbs up! Sod the guest, I was so happy. I was 19 but was like “yes! That will teach you!”

If there was anyone in the world that you could cook for, who would it be?

S: I’d like it to be the other way around! I’ve cooked for quite a lot of people. I can’t get over this actually, I cooked for Prince once and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. He’s about 5ft tall, big fur coat, big cane with a diamond on the end and these 2 supermodels stood next to him. I can’t remember what we cooked. But I just remember that image in my head.

M: I can’t really top that can I?

Who would you like to cook for you?

S: Somebody like Thomas Keller, that would be quite cool. One-on-one cooking for me, see what he comes up with.

M: I’d echo that. For me that was a turning point for me so that one-on-one cooking for me would be great, I’d love that too.

 Have either of you eaten out in Cheltenham?

S: I’ve only eaten and Champignon Sauvage and I spent 2 weeks working with him a while ago… Actually there’s a burger place that I’ve eaten at in Cheltenham but I can’t remember what it’s called.

M: You can see he’s a true chef, he’s in his kitchen all the time.

S: Probably about 3 years ago! Central, maybe The Tavern but I really can’t remember.

M: Cheltenham is a good shout. Champignon Sauvage is probably my most memorable meal, mainly because I can relate to it. And I know David. And there’s some good food there.

Are there any other people you’re interested in seeing at the festival? (both admit they haven’t had time to do their research, and asks me for recommendations). I mention foraging and that I’m sure they’re good at that…

M: It’s a weak spot for me. I certainly wouldn’t just go out there and start picking things willy nilly. I think Sam’s probably a bit stronger than me.

S: Yeah, there’s certain things I like and I think some people overkill on it, but we certainly use wild garlic which is just down the road, and things like elderflower. Actually there’s some really good produce that we can get for free from the surrounding areas.

M: I certainly wouldn’t want to go around picking mushrooms!

S: I’ve got a real fear of picking mushrooms.

What have the guests at Cheltenham Food Festival got to look forward to from you?

S: We’re doing a demo on Arctic Char which is a dish that we do in The Garden Room which we’ve just taken off. We use Arctic Char because it’s a really interesting ingredient that not a lot of people know about. And it’s a farm fish, really sustainable and they farm it, treat it and kill it in a really interesting way. It’s a good alternative to something like Salmon which people use quite a lot so thought it was quite an interesting ingredient to do it about. So we’re going to do it in a couple of different ways – the actual fish.

M: Yeah – marinade it, cure it, and then give it to them to taste.

So there you have it, all of the most important questions answered!

Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival runs from Friday 15th to Sunday 17th June. Sam and Martin will be cooking up Arctic Char on Friday, at 4.30pm, so get down there and see them.

Email: cheltenhamfoodie@outlook.com

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