Among hundreds of acres of East Sussex woodland, those famously written about by AA Milne in the Winnie The Pooh books, the Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club is an illustration of the classic country house hotel.
Originally built in 1693, the history of its ownership is a complex tale involving periods as a convent of the Order of Notre Dame nuns, a wartime hospital and many stints as the home of wealthy landowners. On site there is a church, lake, sports and leisure club and llama farm… why wouldn’t you?
Having been owned by Elite Hotels since 1993, four-star Ashdown Park has been a successful business and there have been many developments to its 106 rooms and suites. Luxury interiors blend stained-glass windows with top-spec bathrooms and floral wing-back chairs with pod coffee machines as olde England meets modern hospitality beautifully.
But under new executive chef Byron Hayter, the hotel is about to undergo a new phase of development to bring its F&B offer right up to date.
The hotel currently houses the two-AA-rosette Anderida Restaurant. Its fine-dining, traditionally British-style dishes are paired with the high windows framed by heavy drapes, candlelight, piano accompaniment, white tablecloths and formal service. Jackets for gentlemen are preferred and formal dress for ladies. While it offers great food, it’s old-school and could benefit from a refresh.
Plans are in place for the Anderida fine-dining to remain in some sense, while a larger, more modern concept will be added as a second dining facility – an absolute must for any hotel going for a five-star rating.
“It will become a bistro/brasserie, that is what has been discussed,” says Hayter. “It needs to be more relaxed and informal. As things move and become more modern, we need to adapt; people are looking for a change.”
After starting work as a chef in Sandbanks, Dorset, Hayter’s career has been littered with progressive moves both for himslf and the businesses in which he works.
Having become the youngest executive chef at Channel Islands’ restaurant L’Horizon Beach, where he received the Gold Award for Channel Isles Chef of The Year and was a semi-finalist in the National Chef of The Yea competition, the chef went on to hold the executive chef position at Rhinefield House in the New Forest and Eastwell Manor in Kent.
“It’s all about luxury and providing a service that people cannot get at home,” he explains. “That is the most important thing for us. Whether that is with white tablecloths, I don’t know yet. But as long as people feel they have had value for money and an experience that they can’t get in the local hotel or pub, and leave happy with a smile on their face, then I think that is job done.”
Having arrived in the summer of 2017, Hayter has spent his first few months getting to grips with the Ashdown park F&B offer, which includes the restaurant (breakfast, lunch and dinner), a very healthy afternoon tea service, private dining, weddings and large functions, with upwards of 300 covers a day.
“I started in July, so we were straight into summer, and it’s busy, so we haven’t really had too much time to change anything just yet,” he explains.
But with a handpicked team of new staff in, things are starting to get under way.
“There are a lot of changes planned. A new banqueting kitchen is being created, which will mean I can produce a lot more food a lot quicker and more efficiently with less staff.
“Once that is done, we will be reconstructing our restaurant offer. We are looking for the bistro to have an open kitchen with customers able to see the chefs, and see the food coming out. It will be less covers, so you can put more detail into it and spend more time on presentation and ingredients.”
This will be quite a change from the shining cutlery and silver serving dishes of the current Anderida, and Hayter believes it will inject new life into the concept.
“You want to go somewhere that different to everywhere else,” he says. “We have just had the AA here and they were very happy with what’s going on at the minute. But this time next year, it will be a different place.
“We are becoming more of a family hotel. You can see more kids around, and that’s exactly what we want because we have everything on-site. There is the leisure element, with tennis, the pool, gym, golf and a llama farm. There is acres for them to run around in. You can come, park your car and not have to go anywhere.”
As executive chef, Hayter has set about aligning the style and attitude of the F&B at the hotel to his own, from his accessibility to customers to pushing the creativity of his staff.
“There are many places where chefs are hidden away, but I come out into the dining room quite a lot,” he says. “I like to head out most lunchtimes and evenings and take a walk during afternoon tea just to make sure everyone is all right. It allows me to gather feedback and if there is a problem I can rectify it. I can also go back to my team and we can build on what we have learned.
“I’m also hoping to get to a point where it will be the team writing the menus. We have now got a full team, and they are understanding that it is no longer me cooking, it is them. So they should be writing a menu that they want to produce. I want them to put themselves on the plate, and if it’s good we can put it on the menu.”
In the executive chef role, Hayter has much more to think about than what is on the plate. But he relishes it.
“I’m very lucky that I have a very good sous chef, who has been with me a long time,” he explains. “He knows exactly what I am looking for in the restaurant, so I can let him get on with it.
“For the executive chef role, you are a social worker, a banker, a councillor, a friend, a taxi and a chef. Yeah, there is still the hands-on bit in the kitchen, but people come to you and talk about other things that go on in their lives. It is a lot more about managing people.”
One of those responsibilities is the development of new talent. Hayter and Ashdown Park work closely with Bournemouth College, and are offering apprenticeships at the hotel to encourage and train new chefs in a highly professional environment.
“Like many others, I am concerned about Brexit,” he explains. “Many of my staff are made up from Eastern European nationals, and if they decide to leave, I could end up with three of us in the kitchen. So we need to develop young chefs coming through.
“We will take on an apprentice from Bournemouth College every year; for me that is very important and it is something I have really got stuck into.
“I currently have three chefs going through their NVQ via HIT Training as well. If they are developed and interested, then they will stick with me for longer. As long as you can promote from within and make them feel like they are achieving something, then there is longevity in it for all of us.”
And the training doesn’t stop at the kitchen, with Hayter taking his sous chef and chef de partie to Petrus in London, and the pastry chefs to The Langham for afternoon tea.
“I try to get out as much as I possibly can to see what is going on in the industry and experience different styles,” he says.
With Hayter at the helm, Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club’s F&B will have a new style to take it forward.