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Peter Brooks

Published:  23 July, 2008

What made you come to a small, hard-to-get-to village in the West Country?
Well I should still be organising events at Glyndebourne, Royal Ascot and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, as an operations director at Compass, but the managing director and I fell out. I was empowered to do exactly what he wanted me to do. We knocked spots off each other for three years, so I walked out. I trained as a chef in the '60s, and having seen so many restaurants done so badly, I thought I could do better. I waited for my wife, Sonia, to retire, and we came down here. We looked at a few places in Cornwall, but that seemed a bit far away, so in the end we picked up this place from the chef Martin Hadden, who was moving on to Ockendon Manor. It was a tough act to follow. He had a Michelin star, but the Good Food Guide has just given us five stars, so we're moving in the right direction.

It must have been strange for you to go from a large catering company to a 20-cover restaurant

I've always dealt with excellent products, though. I remember walking around the tops of the hills in Chablis and seeing vines growing out of the fissures of the limestone rock, and thinking how on earth can you make such good wine here? On the other hand, there was a darker side to what ended up in our hands via suppliers. We had this stuff from Pomerol and Nuits-St-Georges that was no better than bog-standard Beaujolais and I kept writing to one particular company to have something done about it. It was hard, because I had no ammunition - the people invited into the boxes at Royal Ascot weren't always the most knowledgeable, and never complained.

So you could give them anything, really?

Except when we rolled 1986 Meursault into 1987. All the secretaries of the bosses for whom we were organising the hospitality were suddenly up in arms. They had their pocket Hugh Johnson guides, in which Hugh had panned 1987 big time. So there were some memorable conversations when they accused us, quite aggressively, of palming them off with an inferior vintage. Funnily enough, when we took over here, Martin had left some '87 Meursault, provided by Bill Baker. I confronted him: How could you possibly encourage someone to put it on their list?' He said: Don't always believe what the critics say.' People who don't get their head around tasting wine rely on Hugh Johnson, and if he says something's rubbish, then they believe him.

Do you still list wines from Reid?

Bill has never given me a bad wine. He was listing Watervale's Cabernet Sauvignon, from Australia but only carried it for 12 months because he thought the following year's vintage was inferior. I thought that was terrific of him.

Your wine knowledge is obviously good, but how has your cooking fared after such a long gap?

Fine, because I had a good apprenticeship. Soon after I qualified in 1962 there was a job going on the Queen Elizabeth that I jumped at. In those days there was tourist class, cabin class, first class and the Veranda Grill on the top deck with 100 covers. We'd be making food for President Eisenhower and there'd be a cold store with a lock on it, and two-and-a-half kilo tins of caviar down there. The only thing was, the stores were 14 decks below. When we arrived in New York harbour, they had regulations that all the kitchens - the fridges included - had to be free of food. So, instead of taking it there the chefs would just send foie gras and caviar down chutes into the Hudson River. They must have been the best-fed fish in the world.

No expense was spared then?

What the customer wanted, you gave them. One chap hooked a barracuda in the Caribbean and we had to cook and dress the thing. He had a massive party to celebrate his catch, and no one ate it: they were too freaked out by this massive beast on a platter.

Did you find that the problem with working on a ship is that there's no escape? You can't leave until it docks.

And after my wedding I had to chuck it all in. Being away for four months at a time is not the best way to start married life. I met my wife at dancing school, doing the foxtrot and the quick-step. That was the social scene in those days, believe it or not. I'd go to the Bellevue and the Princess and in the cafe under the ballroom there'd be teddy boys trying to get me to teach them how to waltz. There'd be great burly guys in crpe-sole shoes, bomber jackets and big sideburns following me around the tables, repeating one-two-three, one-two-three after me. They'd then head back upstairs full of confidence, often misplaced. Back then if you wanted to meet a girl you had to be able to dance.