How Michael Caines MBE became Devon’s best- known chef
- Credit: Richard Austin
He’s the founder of Exeter’s upcoming Food Festival and Devon’s best-known chef. Susan Clark asks how Mr Michael Caines made it to the top of his game
He’s the man with the Midas touch in the kitchen and Devon’s best-known home-grown celebrity chef. But Mr Michael Caines is also the first person to acknowledge his culinary journey to the top was not a solo trip but inspired by a handful of people who helped him put in place all the building blocks that paved the way for the two Michelin stars he gained and held on to at Gidleigh Park.
I’m always interested in who is behind the success of anyone I meet and so asked Michael – the founder of the popular Exeter Festival of Food & Drink which takes place again in the Cathedral city this month – to name six of the key influences on his journey to become one of the country’s most talented and talked about chefs.
Here, in chronological order and in his own words, is his list and his memories of some of the stand out dishes that each of these six cooks and chefs taught him to make to perfection:
1 My Mum: I didn’t know I would end up choosing catering as a career but as the youngest child in a family of six kids, baking was always a fun-filled activity in our home. My mum, Patricia, taught me the value of home baking and of eating a meal together as a family and dad grew much of the fruit and veg we cooked with so again, I was picking up the idea that home-grown and homemade were not only delicious but core concepts to good eating and good food. The bake I remember best from my childhood is a fruit cake we used to make. In fact I still love fruit cake!
2 Bill Heads: Bill was one of the tutors at Exeter College where I studied catering. He was a great inspiration to me and had a lot of influence on how I began to think about food but over and above all of that, he taught me one of life’s greatest lessons which was how to take criticism constructively. He was a great cook himself and when he told me my food was okay I was crushed but then he added that he believed I could do a lot better which inspired me to aim higher in a way I would not have done without that comment. The dish I remember feeling proud to cook at this time was Chicken Chasseur.
3 Stephen Goodlad: After my training I moved to London where I cooked for a year-and-a- half under the guidance of this Yorkshireman who had a Michelin star. He was, as you would expect from a Yorkshireman, pretty straight talking but it was here, cooking in the kitchens at Grosvenor House, that I started to understand the difference between working, say, in a big hotel and a much smaller kitchen environment and to understand what it meant to work in a small but highly focused team. It was, if you like, my introduction to Fine Dining and the dish I remember most from this time of my life is Stephen’s Sea Bass cooked in a thick salt paste that I used to carefully cut away.
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4 Raymond Blanc: I spent three years working at Le Manoir de Quatre Saisons in Oxfordshire which, at the time, held two Michelin stars. Raymond Blanc was, and still is, an amazing mentor to me and became a close personal friend. He really taught me the importance of seasonality, along with what it took to cook at the level of two Michelin stars. It was here that I first fell in love with the idea of cooking as part of the team running a country hotel property and the standout dish for me from this time was Raymond’s daring Sole Souffle which we served with crab, lemongrass and ginger.
5 Bernard Loiseau: I left Le Manoir to carry on developing my skills cooking the French classics and moved to Saulieu, France, where the chef held three Michelin stars. Here, I learned the importance of regionality in Fine Dining and also the true meaning of what the French call ‘terroir’ which is a sense of place or belonging. I started to understand that three Michelin-star cooking was not necessarily more complicated but it was more exacting and that the quality of the ingredients being used was paramount. There are so many dishes I remember cooking from this time including Loiseau’s signature Frogs Legs with Parsley and Garlic but the dish that still influences my own cooking now was his Truffle Potato Puree which depended entirely on using the right kind of Dutch potatoes – a variety called Binge.
6 Joel Rubichon: I moved to Paris to cook alongside Joel Rubichon; a perfectionist who was also technically brilliant. Joel ran a very, very disciplined kitchen and so it was from him that I refined my ideas about the type of kitchen I would like to run myself. Joel was the last chef I cooked with before moving to Gidleigh Park and the dish I think of when I think back to that time is the Lobster Jelly with Caviar and Cauliflower Cream. Again, the emphasis was on regionality which is something I have maintained through my own cooking.