The Grosvenor hotel: the only way is up

John Burton Race at The Grosvenor, Torquay

John Burton Race at The Grosvenor, Torquay - Credit: Archant

It’s been labelled the worst hotel in the world, but has John Burton Race bitten off more than he can chew?, asks Catherine Courtenay

John Burton Race at The Grosvenor, Torquay

John Burton Race at The Grosvenor, Torquay - Credit: Archant

Two days before opening and The Grosvenor hotel is a frenzy of activity. Carpenters and delivery drivers jostle with chefs who are experimenting with dishes in the kitchen - and then John Burton Race emerges, at the centre of it all.

Well, not actually the centre, as he’s keen to emphasize, because there is a team of managers and staff putting their all into this venture. The aim is to turn around the fortunes of what in the past was labelled the country’s worst hotel. If The Grosvenor had been able to score minus rosettes, then it would.

Likened to the TV sitcom Fawlty Towers, The Grosvenor along with its former manager achieved notoriety in a Channel 4 reality TV series The Hotel. The catalogue of disasters played out in the programmes entertained viewers but led to some anger from the wider town which felt Torquay was getting a bad name.

Then Devon hotelier Keith Richardson stepped in and bought the hotel; he already owned Torquay’s The Grand and three hotels in Cornwall (and has recently added the Beacon in Exmouth). He’d known Burton Race for some time, and in December last year managed to persuade the celebrity chef to join the group as head chef at The Grosvenor, and executive chef of all its hotels.

Although it’s so close to opening day, Burton Race, one of the most critical and outspoken, but brilliant chefs in the country has a smile on his face and is bursting with enthusiasm.

“It’s a complete role reversal for me,” he explains as we find our way to a quiet-ish corner to talk. “Before, everywhere I worked and everywhere I owned, it was all about the food driving the business; here, the hotel will drive the footfall into the restaurant.”

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“The challenge I have is to look at the price point. It has to be much more affordable and it has to be good,” he adds.

So, whereas before Burton Race could “do what I like and charge you” the hotel world means he has to create affordable menus to encourage guests to eat in. He can do this he says, by using local, seasonal, and therefore cheaper, ingredients and by utilising his vast culinary knowledge to quickly create a superb dish.

“I can create something beautiful but I don’t have to create something that’s so labour intensive and so expensive in the raw state. I’m not painting in gold dust any more, I’m painting with real food. And that’s it, that’s the diffence.”

John Burton Race at The Grosvenor, Torquay

John Burton Race at The Grosvenor, Torquay - Credit: Archant

But why take it on? Why would a chef who can achieve two Michelin stars in a restaurant with apparent ease, want to step in and help what people have widely regarded as a hopeless case?

“It’s been voted the worst hotel in the world, not Devon – the world! That is the attraction for me. It’s the challenge!” he says.

All The Grosvenor’s former staff have been kept on. Were they nervous at the thought of working with Burton Race?

“Terrified is the word,” says John. Then grinning adds: “I like it that they’re terrifed – it’s great for my image!”

General manager Joe Hibberd, who has joined us, admits he was apprehensive when first introduced, but all the staff have “really embraced John”. And this is coming from the man who not only holds the kitchen’s purse strings, but also had to tell chef he needed to crack on and prepare Christmas and Mother’s Day menus in advance.

It’s surprising to hear the fiercely independent Burton Race say: “I’m learning something completely different and Joe’s helping me through and guiding me to learn how to achieve it. It’s very, very new.”

“I’ve got to do afternoon tea,” he adds, the way he annunciates the words suggesting it’s a new and intriguing concept. “And has he done breakfasts before?” I tentatively ask?

“Only in Barbados, Cobblers Cove, but it was a slightly different spec as they expected loads of lovely tropical fruits,” he says. “Here, I’ve got my old French baker to go into The Grand, the bakery, and we’re opening that in a week’s time. And I will have the best French bread in the bay.”

It turns out that sister hotel The Grand’s basement is a big bakery, and now with a £150,000 refurbishment, it’s about to get even bigger. John is bringing in his own chefs to bake loaves, croissants and breakfast goods which, as well as serving The Grand, will be brought down each day to The Grosvenor.

“The Grand has 300 people for breakfast every day! God it’s a bloody factory! But we’ll save money as we’re making our own and we’ll have a product that’s 15 times better than what you’d buy and we’ve opened up a micro industry training people in the bay.”

As well as encouraging youngsters to get into the industry, he’s had a ball in the last two weeks, visiting the other Richardson hotels and working with their chefs on new menu ideas – which includes a revamped vegetarian option.

“Things have moved on; times have changed,” he says. “You’d better react and have some vegetarian dishes on your menu; and I don’t mean a bloody risotto! I mean something you’ve thought about.

“You can be terribly, terribly creative and make it look terribly pretty on the plate and be terribly nutritious; and so what’s your problem? It’s just a few ignorant chefs that can’t be bothered, or don’t bother because they’ve never had to; but more fool them because nowadays you have to bother. Even a dinosaur like me has to learn.”

It’s been a long time since his Dartmouth restaurant The New Angel closed but John Burton Race is back. Friends may have warned him not to touch the Grosvenor (he had plenty of phone calls he tells me) but he’s ready and waiting.

“Watch this space; you watch this place,” he says before issuing a cheeky challenge. “While they’re laughing they’d better be careful because it’s going to change. It sounds terribly arrogant (which I am), but I’d be really worried if I had a hotel restaurant in Torbay.”

And with that he’s off, back to the kitchen.

John Burton Race lives near Strete in South Devon but he was born in Singapore in 1957. His early years were spent travelling with his diplomat father, absorbing a host of culinary influences.

He trained in a number of London restaurants including Quaglino’s, Hotel Meurice London, and La Sorbonne and has worked alongside some of the world’s most celebrated chefs including Raymond Blanc.

He was head chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Buckinghamshire, when it was awarded a first

Michelin star in 1983.

He was awarded two Michelin stars for his own restaurant, L’Ortolan in Berkshire, an achievement which he then repeated at the John Burton Race Restaurant at the Landmark Hotel in 2000.

He became known on TV for his role in the Channel 4 documentary series French Leave, after which he returned to the UK and opened The New Angel restaurant in Dartmouth in 2004.

Within a year it was awarded a Michelin Star, but it was closed dramatically in 2010 by his then wife who he was divorcing from at the time while he was out of the country appearing in I’m a celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.

In recent years John Burton Race opened The New Angel in Notting Hill, which gained three AA Rosettes before closing.

Back home in Devon last year he created a private dining venture with chef Chris Sherville which they call Two Grumpy Chefs.

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