Matt and Cat\'s Isle of Wight Eating Out Guide
Comment: Robert Thompson Comment: Robert Thompson
By Malcolm Alder-Smith, Island chef and author. Classically trained as a chef by French, Italian and Swiss master chefs, Malcy trains UKSA Marine Hospitality... Comment: Robert Thompson
Malcolm Alder-Smith

By Malcolm Alder-Smith, Island chef and author. Classically trained as a chef by French, Italian and Swiss master chefs, Malcy trains UKSA Marine Hospitality students in the kitchens of The Isle of Wight College; and is author of the popular The Marine Cookery Bible.

I’m not sure who spotted The Hambrough’s potential first back in 2008. Whether it was Robert Thompson or his successful sailing-enthusiast backer Kevin Sussmilch, it was a brilliant piece of opportunism. Robert’s boyish good looks and shy manner were a marketeer’s dream of a perfect front man. Who will forget Julian Winslow’s iconic photo of Robert, appearing to spring forth from the ocean floor brandishing a freshly ‘caught’ sea bass? TV food critic Jay Rayner in 2007 recognised Robert as ‘a chef to watch in the future.’ So I have to ask why, after nearly five years with one Michelin Star has he not achieved a second?

Around the time Robert started at The Hambrough, The George Hotel in Yarmouth – the only other eatery on the Island to have achieved a Michelin Star – had lost its appetite to retain its Michelin status or to strive for higher culinary accolades. Or did the management feel that their food provision would be more profitable without the financial baggage that a Michelin Star can bring?

I have many chef friends in culinary high places on the Island; most ex-students from back in the day when I was a chef and restaurant lecturer at the Isle of Wight College where they learnt their trade. All of them will tell you what a great guy Robert is; how passionate he is about local produce, his brand, Ventnor and the Island itself. I am at loss therefore to say why, apparently right out of the blue, he has decided to up sticks and head off to pastures new at this time of year. I imagine that this is not a decision Robert has taken lightly, so maybe I can throw a bit of light onto it by considering some of the buzz on the street and the characters involved.

Robert is not a close friend but I know him well enough to feel his passion for gaining a second Michelin Star. I am convinced that he did not believe that this could be achieved with the limited resources available to him at The Hambrough. I also believe that the public negativity that was (and continues to be) targeted directly at Robert over the Winter Gardens project was unjust and has taken its toll. Knowing that he was unlikely to achieve a second Michelin Star at The Hambrough, had Robert hung his hopes on the development of a high-end fine-dining experience in the new Winter Gardens project?

We do know that hospitality consultant and guru Steve McManus was bought in in 2012 to assist in running the commercial side of the Hambrough Group and the future developments involved in and around The Winter Gardens project. I have worked for Steve on a number of occasions in the past at international events and know he has extensive knowledge and expertise in the food and beverage and hospitality sectors. His credentials for business growth in the sector are enviable. The ideal person, one would think, to help drive the Hambrough Group and Winter Gardens project forward. However I am now asking myself was Steve the right person for the Hambrough?

The Hambrough’s backer, Kevin Sussmilch has confirmed that the Hambrough Group still owns the Hambrough Hotel and the Winter Gardens. We also know that Kevin Sussmilch’s two new single director companies; Wight House Ltd and Wight Hot Ltd were both registered on 25th October 2012. The five month lead-in time from the formation of these two companies makes me wonder if anything was going on in the background in the kitchens of The Hambrough. Mr Sussmilch is a seriously successful SIGMA 38 sailor and has won various high profile sailing events. But trying to find out anything more about him is difficult.

We know that John Campbell (of John Campbell Restaurants) has taken over the business portfolio from Robert – whatever that means. John’s friend and colleague, renowned chef Olly Rouse will be “heading up the Hambrough team”. John will be overseeing operations while continuing his consultancy work for the Baxterstorey Corporate Catering Company; who have recently been awarded the contract to provide catering at British Airways lounges at airports in the UK.

When I have eaten at The Hambrough previously, the food has met the standard expected and I have generally enjoyed the whole meal experience. The table service has not always been up to scratch, with minor irritations obvious to the discerning diner. Having looked after royalty, heads of state and numerous British prime ministers, I feel well equipped to exercise such criticism when appropriate. Other observers have been disappointed by the interior décor of the public areas at The Hambrough and this is another issue that the new incumbents might want to reflect on over the coming weeks.

Robert Thompson trades as ‘Robert Thompson’, a private company established in 2008 and I look forward to seeing my friend’s name up in lights again in the near future. The Island is losing one of its bright shining young stars, a well-known face and front-man, much loved by his public. I will be sad to see Robert leave us and wish him, John and Olly the very best for their future culinary activities.

Malcolm Alder-Smith
April 2013

Notes from the Hambrough

Matt and Cat asked some questions of The Hambrough this week, and their spokesman was able to give some useful information which we include here – and some of which is relevant to Malcy’s points above.

  • John Campbell will be starting work “the Bank Holiday weekend in May” 2013. Meanwhile it is business as usual for the Hambrough and the Pond at the moment: “Robert is still very much committed to both restaurants and rooms & and is still committed and passionate about the food”.
  • Matt and Cat asked if there would be any change to the overall plans of the group. The Hambrough confirmed there would not be any noticeable change other than the new chef and sous chef. Other schemes still in progress include the Pond Café undergoing a new terrace at the front, the Hambrough rooms will be refurbished in the next few months, and the Winter Gardens project is still set launch in 2014.
  • The Hambrough is keen to continue working towards Michelin accolades, saying that “John has won two stars and hopes to do the same again here”.
  • Matt and Cat asked the same question Malcy poses above about why Robert was choosing to leave, and got an unequivocal answer: “Robert has worked very hard for four years to get the Hambrough on the culinary map and feels it’s time for change. He has enjoyed his time here and remains passionate about island produce and wishes John the very best moving forward. Robert is confident John is the right man to see the business move forward.”
  • Matt says:

    Thanks for all the suggestions. We’ve just had a really great idea. We’re going to make a website with all these recommendations on it!

  • peterkirchem says:

    May I respectfully add The Royal Hotel, Ventnor to your list of good places to eat on the Island, as well as the New Holmwood Hotel in Cowes.
    In particular the Mediterranean Terrace at the Royal Hotel is unique in its location, but only for lunch (given our weather) and meals we have had at the New Holmwood have all been excellent. Thank you.

  • Lester says:

    If your looking for fantastic fayre with no stars but loads of taste and great service my order of must visits would be The Little Gloster in Cowes, Dans Kitchen in St Helens, The Seaview Hotel in Seaview(near Ryde) and The Priory also near Seaview. Hope you enjoy!!

  • IW Regular says:

    Lester – Robert Thompson at The Hambrough was the only Michelin star restauranteur on the island, so to say it was the only ‘quality’ dining establishment wasn’t just my personal opinion. Why not be constructive and suggest to me some places that are, in your opinion, quality dining establishments on the island?

    Note: this comment was edited by a moderator in compliance with Matt & Cat’s commenting policy.

  • Malcolm Alder-Smith says:

    IW Reader
    I spent some time earlier this week at The Pond, chatting to Chris Denney who is heading up the kitchen brigade and his Senior Sous Joe Gould. I understand that The Pond opens this Friday (tomorrow) and they kindly let me have a glimpse at their set and a la carte menus, which certainly looked impressive. I have not eaten at The Pond previously, even when my friend Robert Thompson was involved, as I prefered to eat at The Hambrough for personal reasons. However, having seen the menus and the incredible enthusiasm of these two highly experienced young chefs, I for one will certainly be eating there in the near future – my wife and son will love it. I also hear that they have some great plans for The Pond, but it is not appropriate for me to steal their thunder and share that with you at this time. I am convinced that it will become a popular island dining venue, bringing a new style of cuisine into the town.
    Maybe it’s worth you checking them out, as you are obviously disappointed to have had your reservation at The Habrough cancelled. Happy dining.
    I would like to take this opportunity to wish Chris, Joe and Marta (Front of House) all the best for their opening tomorrow. Malcy

  • Lester says:

    The only ‘quality dining establishment’ is very rude to all those working hard to provide such a great food scene on the Island. Enjoy sitting outside the ‘quality dining experience’ on the cold steps hungry why we all go to the many fantastic places currently on the IW. The Hamborough showed how much they thought of you by letting you down with just days to go…real quality that! Best stay on the Mainland.

  • IW Regular says:

    Update – It is most definitely NOT ‘business as usual’ at The Hambrough. We received a call today cancelling a long standing reservation at just 4 days notice, due to Robert Thompson having left and no replacement yet in situ. What a crying shame. I can see this putting the only true ‘quality’ dining establishment on the IOW out of business.

  • Greg Coleman says:

    Does anyone know if or how the restaurant is really financially supported – Kevin Sussmilch (nee Little)is a man of complete mystery – where does his money come from – have the council in their dealings with him ever carried out any due diligence on him – are the Winter Gardens reaaly safe in his hands – council tax payers could have to take some pain if Mr Sussmilch’s bona fides are not only established but also exposed.

  • Superyachtchef says:

    Those who think they are better disposed than me to comment on a local issue and doubt my credentials ie. Chef Hermes who I understand has (only) 20 years experience, nice one junior, but your opinions are uninformed and way off the mark!

    …good food does not soley revolve around Michelin-rated chefs

    Frank – look and think locally. I lived and worked in France with not one Michelin or Relais Chateaux hotel/restaurant in our Region/dept and many of those restaurants would have rocked the sox off most 1* Michelins in the UK. How many Michelins are there in the UK? You know the numbers as well as I do. I just wish folk would change their mindset and get their heads around the fact that good food does not soley revolve around Michelin-rated chefs. Unfortunately many of the Michelin chefs think it does. Fortunately for you and I Robert Thompson is not one of them. Respect Robert my friend and my best wishes for the future mate. Malcy

  • Chef Hermes says:

    To a certain extent I agree with “Frank Fletcher’s” comment concerning the author’s ability to comment on either Mr Thompson or Mr Campbell in terms of culinary excellence.

    I’d also dis-agree with “Ex-islander1” as well, I was the one who broke the story over Mr Campbell’s departure from Coworth & I can tell you, you don’t know the half of it.

    Restaurant John Campbell achieved a Michelin star in under 12months, whether it would have gained a second is debatable.

    I’ve spoken to Mr Thompson, and anybody who has ever spoke to Rob will tell you he’s one of the nice guys. I was on the island when they first got the keys for The Winter Gardens & he showed me around & was so excited about the future. Mr Thompson took over 2hrs out of his day to talk to me, he needn’t have done that, why would he? after all I’m only a blogger/chef.

    I have a lot of time for both Mr Campbell & Mr Thompson, and I personally think The Hamborough group will be in safe hands & build on the excellent work Mr Thompson has already done.
    I’d like to wish Rob all the best for the future after a well deserved break.

  • Rob (not Thompson) says:

    I’m wondering if Robert was being pushed harder and harder to make the group more profit. With the recent opening of an outside catering company, demos at the Pond and suddenly starting to serve afternoon teas at the Hambrough must have left him very little time for anything else let alone maintaining a star and time spent promoting the island.

    If this is correct and he has decided its all too much then I wouldn’t blame him one jot for packing his bags and heading for pastures new. Having recently eaten at a two star restaurnat that wasn’t as good as the food we had at the Hambrough I’m sure if he can concentrate on one restaurant he will get that second star.

  • Chris says:

    The guy in Macdonalds who served me the other day had 5 stars, so beat that!

  • Frank Fletcher says:

    Malcom you may have ” looked after royalty, heads of state and numerous British prime ministers”but as far as I am aware you have never had a star, it is a great achievement to keep a star for five years – your comment suggests a petty jealousy of a great chef running a great restaurant. Best of luck Robert you’ll be missed and thank you Kevin for continuing to invest in a Island business

  • Peter Kirchem says:

    A most interesting article.
    From my own experience of eating at the Hambrough once, and from what I hear from others …. your penultimate paragraph probably sums up the situation pretty well
    But hey … “Most people commenting on this matter have not a clue of what they are talking about” …
    I certainly don’t!

  • Exislander1 says:

    By the way, Sussmilch had owned The Hambrough from several years before 2008, but he has used the different chefs names as facade and has always made them say they “own” the place.

  • Exislander1 says:

    The only problem The Hambrough has is its owner. I very much doubt Robert is leaving the island by his own decision.

    It is going to be very interesting to see how Campbell gets on with Susslmich. He won’t be putting his name and reputation on the line, as Robert did.

    I don’t see that relationship lasting very long, as it didn’t with Coworth Park.

    Most people commenting on this matter have not a clue of what they are talking about.

    Great shame the islanders have not appreciated what they had until they lost it.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.