The award-winning chef-patron of glamorous Georgian country-house hotel Lympstone Manor in Devon talks exclusively to hellomagazine.com about gaining a passion for food and cooking from his mum, his home county and why all good things happen for a reason…
“Devon is my home, and it’s not often that you can find a job that you can perform at such a high level whilst championing all that’s great around you,” says chef Michael Caines when we meet him in the picturesque surrounds of his stunning country hotel, Lympstone Manor, overlooking the mouth of the Exe river. "Most people eventually find their way back home and for me here in the South West, it’s a beautiful place to live and work, and I have my family and my friends."
Michael Caines opened the stunning Lympstone Manor in 2017
The fully renovated 21-bedroom, grade II-listed building only opened its doors to guests in April last year after undergoing an 18-month transformation, personally overseen by Michael. The elegant Georgian manor house retains a "home from home" feel and is full of thoughtful touches, paying homage to the locality. Each room is named after an Exe estuary bird and is designed and decorated in its namesake’s colouring, while on the walls hang whimsical paintings of the birds by acclaimed local artist Rachel Toll.
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The master suite, The Heron, captures the majesty of one of the grandest denizens of the Exe, with sweeping views that can be enjoyed from two copper baths, sitting side by side in the spacious en suite. Each room has its own "gin tray" and the five Estuary Suites boast terraces with an outdoor bath and fire pit, which can be enjoyed all year round.
"You could not find a better location," says Michael. "The Manor is nestled into a place of outstanding natural beauty, with panoramic views across the rolling hills of Devon and the estuary, a vineyard, Michelin-starred restaurant, matchless service and luxurious guestrooms and suites. We offer a combination of the best of everything: great travel connections – Lympstone Manor is just a short distance from Exeter Airport and a mainline train station, along with good motorway links – beautiful setting and views that are difficult to match."
The Michelin-starred chef said the Georgian manor house has a "home from home" feel
Then, of course, there is the food – one of the primary reasons this hotel has boasted high occupancy rates from the word go. The restaurant – which has three dining rooms, named after Devon landmarks across the water: Powderham, Mamhead and Berry Head – won its Michelin star and Relais & Chateaux status only six months after opening.
A love of cooking is in Michael’s blood: "I come from a large and loving family of six – I was the youngest – and we grew fruit and veg in the garden, mum made jams and we all helped with the chores. We didn’t have much but we didn’t want for anything. Mum always cooked, nothing fancy, good wholesome meals, and we always sat around the table together at meal times. The pleasure for me was baking with mum, but I never realised something I loved at home could become a career, and I was heading for a future in the military. I do sometimes wonder what life would have been like had I taken the military route, but it wasn’t to be." Instead Michael went to Exeter College, where he started his career in the food and hospitality industry.
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He wows diners with immaculate, detailed presentation, but his culinary style is above all influenced by his surroundings in the South West of England, using local and seasonal produce. When HELLO! visited, we were impressed by the Exmouth lobster salad, butter-poached Brixham turbot and the finale – a stunning hot pistachio soufflé that literally melted in the mouth.
Michael's passion for cooking comes from his family
"Over time there have been many signature dishes, as I focus on getting great flavours on the plate," he explains. "Modern European is probably the best way to describe my style – but my dishes are also dictated by the amazing regional food we have here, right on our doorstep, as well as food miles and the impact on our environment, along with the seasons.
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"During the wonderful summer months, lobster and seafood are in abundance – at Lympstone Manor we are blessed by having the best fish from boats that land their catch here in the South West. Our food evolves all the time. As we head into September and October, it’s beef from a local farm with shallot and red wine sauce and winter offerings of game, venison… our food isn’t about fashion and trends, we put the ingredients first and create food that people want to eat and something that appeals to everyone."
Michael trained and worked with some of the world’s most famous chefs, including Raymond Blanc, Joël Robuchon and Bernard Loiseau. Is there one he would credit as his greatest influence? "For me Joël Robuchon was the watchmaker of cooking, with his precision, while the late and great Bernard Loiseau brought incredible flavours into his cooking,” he says. “However, it is Raymond Blanc who has mentored me throughout my career. He is so passionate. He has become a very dear friend and is always there for me, through thick and thin."
The hotel overlooks the mouth of the Exe river
Having been executive chef at the prestigious Gidleigh Park hotel on Dartmoor from 1994 to 2016 – during which time he earned an MBE for services to the hospitality industry as well as being declared AA Chef of the Year – it was a big decision for Michael to dedicate himself to the creation of Lympstone Manor.
"I was at Gidleigh Park for 21½ years," he says. "It was a love affair and when I asked it to marry me, it said no, so I knew the time was right to move on and that this was the right opportunity to create something for myself. All good things happen for a reason – I met Lympstone Manor and it was perfect for me at that time. If it had been earlier in my life, perhaps it wouldn't have been."
Michael is also involved with a number of local charities; he is patron of Families for Children (familiesforchildren.org.uk) and vice-president of Farms for City Children (farmsforcitychildren.org), and he is proud to support the Exeter Chiefs rugby union side’s Exeter Foundation (exeterfoundation.org.uk).
"Despite the challenges we have, people need to take the chance to enjoy life and hospitality presents that," he explains. "We are never going to get tired of spending time sitting around a table sharing food and conversation. Among the many things you learn as you get older, it is that life is fragile and time is precious."
For exclusive recipes from Michael Caines, pick up a copy of this week’s HELLO!. Nightly rates at Lympstone Manor (lympstonemanor.co.uk / 01395 202040) start at £315 per night, based on two people sharing on a bed and breakfast basis.