James Sommerin is little frustrated. Today is the day that he and I had hoped would be the day that he showed me round his new restaurant. A restaurant that was just going through the finishing touches before opening in a few days. Alas Restaurant James Sommerin, already beset with delays, has suffered one more.
This time it is not the developers or the planners who are at fault it’s the weather. The terrible storms that have lashed us over the last few weeks have had an effect. Fortunately there was no flooding but the storms hit before the windows had been installed in the upper floors of the Beachcliff development on the Penarth Seafront that will be home to James’ new venture. This meant water damage from above and with no glass in place dehumidifiers are useless and so there is nothing to do but wait.
“How long?” I ask.
“The earliest I will get the keys is April 7th”, he says. “Providing they finish getting the windows in and we don’t get any snow. I’m really hoping to be open in time for Easter.”
So rather than looking at an actual restaurant we sit down with a cup of coffee, a pot of tea and a set of plans.
Restaurant James Sommerin will have a 55 cover main dining area, a 12 seat private dining room and a 4 seat chef’s table. Additionally there will be 9 bedrooms. With his name above the door, James has planned every aspect of the restaurant from the kitchen equipment to the tableware in the dining room. There will be a lot of natural wood in the restaurant and bar surfaces will be made of slate but because slate is soft and easily scratched they will be topped with glass.
The design of the kitchen has obviously been done with great care and James has been able to specify top of the range equipment. You can’t cook to Michelin standard on a Camping Gaz and so James is installing a Bonnet Maestro Classic Range costing £70k. Now you start to realise why fine dining doesn’t come cheap. There will be no gas in the kitchen either as James has opted to go induction. One of the reasons for this is that a lack of flame means a cooler kitchen and a cooler kitchen makes for a much more pleasant working environment for the kitchen staff.
In the restaurant the private dining area will be separated from the main area by a sliding glass wall, which can be retracted to extend the main area if required. There will be a lot of glass, including a large window that will afford the diners a view into the kitchen itself. In the kitchen the chef’s table will be right in the heart, just a few feet from the range. Another reason he’s gone for the induction system.
Behind the restaurants small reception area is the lift that allows access to the bedrooms, which will open shortly after the restaurant. Each of the nine bedrooms is large enough to qualify for a five star rating. The bedrooms will be spread over 3 floors. There will be 3 on the first floor, one of which will be an accessible room, 4 on the second floor and 2 suites on the third floor. The suites are large enough to accommodate a table for six if you really, really want to dine in private. A portable station will allow a chef and a waiter to be despatched to a suite for truly personal service.
After we had finished looking at the plans I asked James a few questions about the new restaurant and about himself.
MA: James, I don’t want to dwell on the trials of the past but your name is synonymous with the old Crown at Whitebrook, where you gained and held a Michelin Star for 7 years. We all know that the Crown closed in March 2013 but there had been rumours you were looking for your own place for a while before that happened. True or false?
JS: True! I suppose I had decided about 2 years prior that I wanted to move on at some point but that would be subject to finding the right venue. I actually handed my notice in the January, with a view to leaving in the October to give them time to find a replacement for me, but they took the decision to close it in the March.
MA: So what have you been doing with yourself since then?
JS: Well initially all my effort was put into the new site, but due to some of the delays I’ve been able to do some consultancy work in places like Cumbria. I’ve also had the opportunity to eat at a lot more places. One of the problems with chef’s hours is that you rarely get time off to eat in other establishments so I’ve taken the opportunity to eat out a lot more.
MA: All in the name of research! As you say the project has suffered a number of delays which must be very frustrating and costly for you, the latest being caused by the recent storms. How have you coped and are you confident that Easter is a realistic goal?
JS: All good things come to those who wait. Isn’t that the phrase? I’ve had more time to consider what I want, but it has been annoying not being able to order and fit the things as I’ve decided on them. I am confident that we can open for Easter, once the windows go in on the upper floors and the building becomes watertight we can move ahead at a pace. The other thing is that my style of food is generally light so it will be great to launch with a nice Spring menu.
MA: Speaking of menus, how will the food at Restaurant James Sommerin differ from that at The Crown?
JS: Well my style of cooking is still my style of cooking, so don’t expect a complete re-invention because that won’t happen. However, my role at The Crown was to be Head Chef and run the kitchen but there were still things I couldn’t do. Here it’s all me and I can pretty much do what I want so that will be different. Also, as I said, I have had a chance to look at what other people are doing even at Michelin 3 Star level.
MA: So can you give us a bit more of a clue what we can expect?
JS: The primary focus will be on the ingredients.
MA: Quality, Local?
JS: Yes but the quality is the most important part. I’m all for using local ingredients but if the local ingredients are poor then there’s no point. So it’s quality first for me.
JS: Well I’ve been experimenting with new methods, I’ve got this great way of making pasta that’s not really pasta but you can get it super thin. You’ll love it. My style is quite intricate, but I think you’ll see more planning and less process. The dishes will be simplified to let the ingredients speak for themselves, hence the focus on quality ingredients.
MA: Any other differences?
JS: Well there will be no à la carte in the evening, it will be tasting menu only.
MA: Just the one?
JS: No I’m thinking that we will offer 3 different tasting menu’s starting with a 5 course, then a 7 course and finally a 10 course. The 5 and 7 course will be written and the 10 course will probably be blind as it will be based around the freshest daily ingredients and we won’t know what is available until the day.
MA: Do you have a price point in mind?
JS: Yes, the 5 course will be priced at £55 and the 10 course will be £85.
MA: Considering the picture you’ve painted of the restaurant and the fact that I’ve had the good fortune to eat your food in the past that sounds quite reasonable. Now what about lunch times?
JS: We’ll probably offer a 3 course light lunch menu for about £25 and we will also offer a quick turn round for the corporate customer who needs a business lunch in a reasonable time frame.
MA: Excellent. Now you did mention your chef’s table, can you tell me more?
JS: Yes, the chef’s table will be a true experience. Unlike a lot of restaurants that have a chef’s table in a room near the kitchenn ours in right in the heart of it. You’ll have to come through the restaurant like everyone else, enter the kitchen, walk right through it to the table which is just behind the range. You’ll be in the thick of things. No waiters, you’ll be served both food and wine by the chefs. There is no limit on courses the food will just come as we cook. You’ll be able to see the cooking and the plating right up close and talk with the chefs throughout the service.
MA: Sounds amazing, dare I ask how much?
JS: Well it’s only a table of four so you won’t be stuck with trying to find a group of a dozen to come along or be faced with paying a grand or so to have it for a couple. You’ll be able to book it as a couple or a group of four at £150 per head and for that you can stay in the kitchen all night from the beginning of service to the very end.
MA: Well I now know where my wife and I will be going for her birthday this year!
MA: Now The Crown had quite an extensive cellar, what’s your take on wine?
JS: I’ve been doing a lot more with wine and food pairing now I’ve had some time, which has been very interesting and I’ve learned a lot. I don’t want to try and hold a massive cellar stock like The Crown did, but we are having a custom built wine fridge fitted and a purpose made area to store the reds. I see the majority of our wines being in the £25 – £40 range with a few better ones available for special occasions.
MA: One more question about the food. Michelin?
JS: I make no secret of the fact that I want my star back.
MA: I didn’t doubt it. So can we talk about service?
MA: Not to upset you but the last time I was at The Crown I was very unhappy with the service, not because it was bad but because it was so stuffy. In fact I ate my food really feeling that the waitress disapproved of us for some reason. Now, how is your quest for quality going to reflect itself at the front of house?
JS: The service has to be first class, but I’m much more relaxed and so it won’t be stuffy. I want an atmosphere and a buzz not a whispered silence. The wait staff will be friendly, although not familiar, but they will all be excellent at what they do. I’m starting to interview at the moment and I know the kind of people I’m looking for. Also we will have music in the dining room, which we would never have had at The Crown. I’ve even been putting some playlists together.
MA: From what you’ve said about the restaurant, the food and the ethos I can’t wait for you to open.
JS: Neither can I! (laughs)
MA: For those people that don’t know you, didn’t visit The Crown and have never eaten your food, can I ask you a few things about you?
MA: You were born in Caerleon, you worked in Scotland, came back to Wales, started at The Crown as sous chef in 2000, became head chef in 2003 and won your Michelin Star in 2007. Yet you credit your grandmother as being a huge influence on you, what was the most important thing she taught you?
JS: Well she was the one that taught me how to cook when I was a child and gave me an appreciation for good food. I would spend every Saturday at her house and we would cook together.
MA: In late 2007, just after you had won your Star, Jay Rayner in the Observer said you were a ‘chef to watch’. At the time you were quoted as saying that your ambition was to win another star. Would you still like to be the first Michelin two-star in Wales?
JS: I would love to hold two stars, I would love to be the first in Wales to do so, but if I don’t I’ll happily be the second.
MA: James, what is your favourite comfort food?
JS: Shepherd’s Pie. It’s a real ‘hugger’ and proper home cooking.
MA: What’s your essential kitchen item?
JS: I have two. A good quality knife and a Pacojet.
MA: How do you pick your suppliers?
JS: Well obviously they must supply quality products but I look for people with the same ethos as I do, that have a quality service, are honest and want to support me because that, ultimately, supports them.
MA: What’s your favourite restaurant?
JS: The Ledbury.
MA: Money no object, where do you want to eat that you haven’t?
JS: Coi in San Francisco (Chef Daniel Patterson, 2 Michelin Stars)
MA: You’ve cited Gordon Ramsey as someone you admire, are you as shouty/sweary in the kitchen?
JS: No I admire him for the business he’s created. I’m a lot more relaxed, I like a laugh and a joke in the kitchen, and I like music in my kitchen. I do have very high expectations of my staff, but if I ask them to pull an 18 hour shift I’ll be there side by side with them.
MA: How have customers changed during your career?
JS: Well they are lot more informed than when I started and I think they have a better appreciation of good food. Nowadays they understand the process more and I also think that they are proud of the industry, and realise how much work and effort is put in.
MA: What about cookery on TV, with Masterchef in all its forms, GBBO, The Taste etc. is that good or bad?
JS: Good, I’m sure it’s a bubble but it’s good and is partly why the customer has changed. Oh and I love Bake Off!
MA: (Laughs) Would you do more?
JS: If they asked me.
MA: How do you cope with bad reviews? Do you read them? What about Trip Advisor?
JS: I try not to fixate on them. I think for any chef that is creating dishes, a knock on their food is hard to swallow because we take it so personally. I try to step back and remember that they are a window looking in and they may see it differently to me. Sometimes it offers an opportunity to improve.
MA: And what about food bloggers? (Smiles.)
JS: Well you guys are new territory really. My first real exposure was when I was reviewed by the Critical Couple when at The Crown. That was a positive experience. Hopefully, passionate people writing about food are always a good thing.
MA: Well James, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you and Restaurant James Sommerin definitely sounds like it will be worth the wait. I’m really excited by what you’ve told me, I can’t wait to come back in a few weeks for an actual guided tour and, more so, I can’t wait to be able to book a table.
JS: Well actually I’ve already had some enquiries and so I’ve opened a diary and I’ve taken some bookings already.
MA: You mean people can book now? I’m sure there will readers of this blog that have been chomping at the bit waiting for you to open so they can get a table. If they can do that now, we need to tell them and give them the number.
JS: Right. Okay. Let’s do it. They can call on 07722 216727
Restaurant James Sommerin
(Opens Late April, exact date TBC)
To pre-book call 07722 216727