Michael Caines is lord of his own manor and relishing every minute of it. Lympstone Manor opened amidst much fanfare 18 months ago, and it really is Michael’s baby. He lovingly restored the crumbling Georgian pile on the Exe Estuary, putting his culinary swagger front and centre. Within six months it earned a much deserved first Michelin star.
As well as running the show at Lympstone, Michael is also the driving force behind Exeter Festival of South West Food and Drink and the Michael Caines Academy at Exeter College. He also lends his name and works, in a consultancy capacity, at The Coach House at Kentisbury Grange; pops up on TV shows like Saturday Kitchen and MasterChef; and does guest cooking spots at prestigious restaurants across the country. Oh, and since 2011 he’s also worked with Williams F1 Team, bringing food and hospitality to the team and their entourage over race weekends.
But, despite his hectic lifestyle, Michael considers himself more rooted than ever.
“I haven’t been as settled or stable in a property ever in my life,” he says. “I’m at Lympstone six days a week, unless I’m away on business, at a Grand Prix or doing an event. My office is here, and my main day-to-day tasks and focus are on Lympstone Manor.”
Chatting with Michael, it’s clear that he’s all about the vision – executing those big ideas. After leaving Gidleigh in January 2016, following 21 years of service, there was only ever one objective: to create and run a place of his own.
“I never knew Lympstone Manor existed,” he says. “It was previously called Courtlands Estate, and someone suggested I look here back in 2014. I found an amazing property that was pretty rundown, with a fabulous view and landscape. It was instinctive that I knew it would make a great hotel, restaurant and vineyard.”
With the confidence of investors behind him, he set about reinventing the manor for a 21st-century clientele, opening its doors in January 2017. Eighteen months on, he’s pleased to say its exceeding his expectations.
“This time last year it still felt very raw, but now it feels a lot easier,” he says. “We do have issues with staffing in our industry, but we’re dealing with them and building a better base of experience. We’re ahead of last year and now pushing on. I can’t lie, though: I got everything I wanted out of my first year. We’ve financially exceeded our expectations and achieved the goals I set – we are members of Relais & Châteaux, and we’ve got one Michelin star and a five-star AA rating. I also wanted to get the vineyard planted, which has added a huge amount of interest and value to the business.”
Ah yes, the vineyard. Having trained in France under the tutelage of esteemed chefs Bernard Loiseau and Joël Robuchon, Michael always dreamed that one day he’d be able to emulate the style of the classic French chateaux, marrying fabulous food with first-rate, homegrown wine. Thankfully, Lympstone Manor’s location lends itself well to growing grapes, with south facing slopes right by the river, a low altitude and (most of the time) a good climate.
“There’s a proverb, ‘the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second-best time is now.’ The sooner we planted the vineyard, the sooner we can get the benefit of it. I want to produce classic English sparkling wines made with the grapes of Champagne – Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay. We plan to make a rosé and a brut, and maybe even a couple of still wines on occasion. We’ve planted 17,500 vines in 10.5 acres and our first grapes will be ready in 2020.”
To run the vineyard, Michael has employed James Matyear, who previously worked as viticulturalist at Hattingley Valley Wines. All going well, the first bottles will be ready for consumption in 2024.
“We’re excited to see what the characteristics of the wine will be,” Michael says. “Being by the estuary, it might have some lovely saline notes to it, as well as the minerality. People come here and they say, ‘Where’s the vineyard?’, and I say, ‘See that field out there? It will be over there.’”
For Michael, this is very much his Field of Dreams moment, and he’s confident that the vineyard will attract customers from far and wide. “It’s so nice to see it finally take shape,” he says.
While he waits for his own vines to bear fruit, he’s putting his energies this autumn into celebrating the Burgundy and Bordeaux wine regions of France. As well as offering some exceptional and rare vintages by the glass, he will be showcasing the wines by hosting two special wine dinners.
“We’ve got an amazing line-up of wines that have been selected by Steven Edwards, our operations director, and Marko Mägi, our head sommelier,” says Michael. “The yields in Burgundy and Bordeaux have been poor, plus there’s an increased demand from places like China, so we’ve paid top dollar to invest in them. We have a wine room that allows us to dispense 24 wines by the glass. We’ll put these rare wines on the machines, so customers can have a wine that usually costs hundreds or thousands of pounds per bottle in a smaller measure. We’ll also do a bit of tutoring, as well. For me, there are things you can do in life that are a one-off, and this is one of them. It’s very rare that you’ll see this quality, selection and vintage of wines. We’re very lucky.”
Focusing on quality and the finer detail are very much hallmarks of the Michael Caines brand – a brand that he confidently controls from the front. Not a chef to hide away in the kitchen, he understands the value of being visible. He gets that it’s him that people come to see as much as his hotel, and says: “The persona of ‘celebrity’ is often misunderstood or misquoted but, at the end of the day, people say, ‘We love you, we love your food, we enjoy watching you on TV, so we’re here.’ When people read about you and you are absent from your business, that’s noticeable, so that’s why I spend a lot of my time here, because when people come they want to see me. The house is an extension of my personality and my imagination in every sense.”
Entrepreneurialism, drive and an uncompromising creative vision… Doesn’t it all get a bit wearing? Carrying the burden of so much pressure and expectation surely must get tiresome at times. What, I ask, drives Michael Caines to get out of bed in the morning, and to work so hard at what he does?
“Fear of failure. For a long time, I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I describe Gidleigh as a love affair. I asked it to marry me, it said no, so I didn’t know what I was going to do. Now, when you open something, the fear of failure – of letting down not just yourself, but the people who work for you – drives you to do a better job.”
With so much business chat, it’s almost easy to forget the food. Michael is known for his contemporary spin on classic European cooking, so what’s influencing him right now? “As a chef I have been classically trained by great chefs, but I apply it in a contemporary way. For me, food is all about great flavour. When I worked and lived in France, you understand that the culture of eating food is equally as important as creating it.
“If you’re in London, everybody is watching what everyone else is doing and copying each other, but I don’t worry about that: I have my style, and cook what I want to. Some might call it ego, but it’s unashamedly my vision. We’ve got a repertoire of great ideas that keep evolving. I’m all about fine dining in a relaxed setting – I call it casual-fine. When I go out, I don’t necessarily want to sit on a wooden chair with a reindeer hide because the owners have been to Noma; we’re British, so my style is quintessentially British. The fashion in food these days leans towards presentation – the plates, crockery and so on – but the ideas behind the food are much more long-standing.”
With Devon very much Michael’s home, he’s keen to see the county get the credit it deserves for its culinary pedigree.
“The Devon food scene is the most exciting it’s been for a while,” he says. “In terms of Michelin star restaurants, we’ve got Thomas Carr up in Ilfracombe, we’ve got Simon Hulstone in Torquay, we’ve got Mark Dobson at The Masons Arms… Lympstone is the first Michelin star restaurant in East Devon ever, which is good. Behind that, we’ve got places like the Dartmoor Inn, The Salutation Inn, Jack in the Green, The Rusty Pig… all doing great things. There are lots of nice little eateries around the Devon coastline, too.
“I don’t know why people go all the way down to Cornwall, frankly, when they can come here. Devon offers more, but it still has a lot to do in terms of promoting its regional identity. It’s all about getting the right chefs in and creating the right culture, and that comes down to the owners and the investment these places need to make.”
As our chat draws to a close, it strikes me that Michael hasn’t once mentioned life beyond the manor. Does he have the clichéd ideal of a work/life balance? “Oh shit,” he says. “I don’t worry about it. You don’t manage it – you just get on with it.”
Spoken like a true chef. We’ll raise a glass to that.
To find out more about the Burgandy and Bordeaux events at Lympstone Manor visit lympstonemanor.co.uk