Adam Smith joined The Dorchester Collection’s Coworth Park hotel and restaurant as executive chef last year from the Devonshire Arms in North Yorkshire where he was executive chef for three years. Before joining the Devonshire Arms, the 30-year-old father-of-two spent 10 years working with John Williams at The Ritz and during that time was named a Roux Scholar (in 2012) and dubbed ‘one to watch’ by Michel Roux Snr. Other accolades include the British Culinary Federation Young Chef Award 2010 and the Craft Guild of Chefs’ Restaurant Chef of the Year 2015. This year, Adam and his team secured Restaurant Coworth Park a Michelin star.
Congratulations on winning a Michelin star for Coworth Park in October. How did that feel?
Great. For me, personally and for the hotel and the business as a whole. I think most chefs have an ambition to achieve a Michelin star at some point in their career. I was a bit shocked that it happened so quick for us here at Coworth, because I only joined in July 2016, but obviously I’m very chuffed it did. It’s quite flattering to be awarded something that you’ve spent your whole career trying to achieve and when it does happen you can’t quite believe it.
What kind of impact has having the star had on you, your kitchen team and on the business?
We weren’t struggling midweek before, but because of our location, weekdays were quieter than weekends, so since gaining the star we’ve really seen mid-week business pick up.
It’s great for the team and I think that’s probably one of the best things to come from gaining the star. We have a team of people who work very hard, front and back-of-house and it’s great for them to see their hard work and commitment recognised, plus is a bonus for their CVs and careers going forward. Having the Michelin star gives them a real sense of achievement and in the long term means they are committed to us, which ultimately helps us to keep improving on what we’re doing.
You’ve been at Coworth Park for 18 months now, how would you say you’ve put your stamp on the menu and the restaurant?
When I was looking for a new opportunity Coworth Park came up and I felt it was the perfect place for me. I’d been working in a country house hotel, but from my time at The Ritz I realised I needed that five star standard and structure you get in a great company like The Dorchester Collection which would allow me to grow and perform at my best.
My cooking style is based on the classics and built on great sauces and sourcing amazing ingredients treated well, but it’s also relevant to where we are and the sort of things that are in season at the right time of the year. You’ll see some very classic combinations on the menu – beef with mushrooms and onions and oxtail with mashed potato, that kind of thing, but they are interpreted for the modern diner. Classic, with a modern twist you could say.
When I joined I wanted to create a gastronomic destination and a restaurant that people would travel to, not just because it’s in a beautiful hotel within beautiful surroundings, but because the food is beautiful too.
You’ve won lots of awards and titles, what’s the secret to your success in this area?
In my younger days when I was at the Ritz Mr Williams was very much the driving force and that was when I did the Roux Scholarship and the World Skills Programme before that. That started it off for me and gave me the real understanding about what a takes to win a competition. It’s not about turning up on the day and cooking something, it’s about what you do everyday. You can’t perform in a competition if you’re not performing in your day-to-day job. That said, those working in big places like The Ritz and Le Manoir do well, because they make a priority for it and you will have the support of a bigger team.
It does get harder as you progress in your career. I left the Ritz in 2013 and since then the MCA is the only competition I’ve done and that’s more of an award than a competition. You have to make time for a competition and that becomes harder as you become a head or executive chef, because you have less time so you end up coming in on your day off. Ultimately, there’s no guide book – it just takes commitment and dedication.
Michel Roux Snr described you as ‘one to watch’ earlier on in your career, has that helped or put added pressure on?
He said that after I’d won the Roux Scholarship in 2012. It was a great endorsement form an industry legend and quite flattering that he said it. I saw it as a positive thing. Yes, there’s pressure, but you sort of want that, you want people to see what you’re doing. The more people you can get to try what you’re working on every day the better I think. It does add an extra level of expectation, but I only see that as a positive. Pressure is something we’re used to and I like that little bit of pressure to push me forward and keep me going.
So many chefs are quitting the industry early on. As someone who has experienced success at a young age, what would you say to make them stay in the industry?
As chefs and managers we can all complain that young people aren’t lasting in the industry today, but I think it’s up to us to do something about it. We can’t keep blaming everyone else. It’s so important that we realise that the days that we were expected to work 80 hour weeks in a shouty, hostile environment are gone. It’s not like that anymore and it can’t be like that. That doesn’t give the industry longevity and it doesn’t help in the long-term.
Here at Coworth we have some great young people working in the kitchen who are very passionate about food, but we have to provide them with the tools that they need to be able to succeed and stay here. That means offering them a work-life balance and a welcoming work environment.
We try and be supportive and help them do well in their careers. If someone who has worked here for two years says ‘chef I need to move on’ I say ‘great, where do you want to go and what do you want to do?’ and I try and help them make the next step in their career. Hopefully in the future they’ll remember that and return. I’ve had guys who have come back after a year or two away and all for the better. We can’t be short-sighted and only think about today.
Who has been your biggest inspiration in your career?
I was working with John Williams at the Ritz for 10 years and as a man on a personal level and as a cook he has been a massive inspiration to me – his whole approach, ethos, knowledge and understanding. I also have a lot of respect and admiration for the Roux family. When they first opened a restaurant in this country 40 years ago, food wasn’t a big thing, but look at Bray now. Forty years ago it was a sleepy village and now it’s the gastronomic centre of the UK. Now you see that with people like Simon Rogan at l’Enclume in Cartmel and Sat Bains with a small restaurant which, as he puts it is ‘under a pylon just off the motorway’. They have created amazing restaurants that people will travel from all over to visit. It goes to show that if you stick to what you believe in and do what you do really well, you will succeed and rise to the top.
What does the future hold for you?
I think all chefs would like to have their own restaurants at some point, but that’s not for me at the moment. I’ve only been at Coworth Park for 18 months and we’re on quite a journey to make it a gastronomic destination. Gaining the Michelin star has been a great start and we want to keep that moving and ensure that people are coming here, enjoying it, going away, talking about it and wanting to come back again.
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor