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.
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.”