Peel’s at Hampton Manor: a country house like no other

Peel’s at Hampton Manor: a country house like no other

by Tom Shingler 12 December 2018

Despite having never worked in a Michelin-starred kitchen before, chef Rob Palmer won one at the grand Hampton Manor in 2016 – an accolade he has retained ever since. Tom Shingler talks to him to find out how.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

When it comes to Michelin-starred dining, Birmingham and its surrounding areas have things pretty sewn up. The likes of Simpsons, Purnell’s, Carters of Moseley and The Cross at Kenilworth each offer menus the inspectors have deemed worthy of a star, with everything from great pub food and classically influenced cooking to more playful, contemporary cuisine. Peel’s Restaurant – located within the beautiful Hampton Manor just south of Solihill – is one of the latest to join the ranks. But while the country house hotel (now rebranded as a restaurant with rooms) may make you think of stiff service catering to an older generation, the reality is anything but.

This is thanks to head chef Rob Palmer, who worked his way up the ranks in the kitchen to create a stripped back, refined, contemporary interpretation of modern British cooking that takes influences from all over the world. Swapping out classical fare for dishes like mallard with turnips and a damson hoi sin sauce, he’s put Peel’s on the map and won his first ever Michelin star in 2016. Seeing as he’d never worked in a Michelin-starred kitchen before, this was a seriously impressive feat.

‘I always enjoyed baking at home with my parents and all that, but it was when cooking started to become quite big on the telly when I was around twelve that really influenced me,’ he explains as I ask him how he got into cooking. ‘They made it a bit trendy and glamorous to be a chef, so when I left school at sixteen I went straight into an apprenticeship at the Hilton at the NEC. It was a massive operation and I spent four years there before moving onto a place called The Forest in Dorridge, a small hotel with two AA rosettes.’

Rob Palmer joined the team at Peel's as a junior sous in 2009, working his way up to head chef in 2014
In 2016 he won his first ever Michelin star after developing his own style of cooking and bringing something unique to the dining room

Rob spent three years working at a two-rosette level, honing his skills and learning his craft. But when he went to check out a new restaurant at Hampton Manor in 2009, he saw an opportunity he had to take. ‘The food was really classical back then, but I fell in love with the place,’ he says. ‘I saw an advert for a job at Hampton Manor later on that summer, so I applied and got it straight away. I started out as a junior sous before being made sous chef in the restaurant, with another sous chef running the wedding side of things. The head chef Martyn Pearn eventually left, and I worked under another head chef for the next eighteen months before being offered the job myself in 2014. I’ve been here ever since.’

It was a strong, steady rise through the ranks for Rob, and three months after he was made head chef the restaurant won its third AA rosette. However, it took him some time to find his own style of cooking and move on from the dishes his predecessors had set out. Over the next two years he transformed the restaurant into somewhere truly exciting to eat, and was awarded a Michelin star and a fourth AA rosette (in the same week) in 2016. While he’d never worked in a Michelin-starred kitchen before, he did do a few small stages to see how it could be done, and the few days he worked at Ynyshir, the week up at Gleneagles and a week at Restaurant Nathan Outlaw obviously had a huge impact on how he worked at Peel’s.

‘Whenever I cook fish now I think about what I saw at Nathan Outlaw’s, and the kitchen garden at Gleneagles really inspired me to push on with the small garden we’ve got here,’ says Rob. ‘What Gareth Ward is cooking at Ynyshir is amazing – there’s no other chef doing what he’s doing. So while I only did around two-and-a-half weeks in total before we got a star ourselves, I learnt a lot in that very short time.’

The menu is an example of modern British cooking at its finest – the best produce cooked in a stripped back way with a cacophony of flavours used to lift the main elements of the dish
Dishes make the most of British ingredients but take inspiration from the cuisines of the world – India and Japan in particular

Having retained the star ever since proves that Rob has secured his reputation as a very fine chef indeed, breathing new life into Hampton Manor and turning it into a dining destination in its own right. His cooking style is modern British – an admittedly notoriously difficult thing to define – but there are plenty of international flavours peppered throughout the menu.

‘We use Indian spices and incorporate Japanese influences, but to me that’s what modern British cooking is all about because we’re such a multi-cultural country,’ he explains. ‘We’ve got quite a lot of Indian cuisine in the Midlands so that’s naturally going to influence what we cook. We take influences from all over the world and our chefs reflect that – we’ve had guys from India, Jamaica and Romania working here. Our kitchen garden, which we got up and running properly this year, also provides a lot of produce for the kitchen so we’re dictated by what's ready to harvest.’

The walled kitchen garden is a relatively new endeavour at Hampton Manor. While it’s always been there, it’s only in the past twelve months that it’s been used to its full potential, with Rob pushing the team to put whatever’s ready to harvest front and centre on the menu. ‘We’re not being over-ambitious. It’s the traditional English garden setup really – beetroots, carrots, turnips, herbs, pumpkins. We’ve played around with heritage varieties but we tend to stick to the classics – a carrot is just a carrot at the end of the day. As long as you cook it nicely and season it well, it’s going to taste good.

‘We’re led by what we grow, so we tend to focus on a really good quality bit of meat or fish and then serve it with a really good garnish from the garden,’ he continues. ‘Because we don’t do a lunch service, every couple of months I get all the chefs to come up with a course and then we all sit down to eat them, sharing feedback and criticism. We’re really big on development and giving people the chance to be creative.’

The walled garden at Hampton Manor provides the kitchen with fresh produce throughout the year
Peel's Restaurant won the Michelin Welcome and Service Award a few years ago, thanks to the incredible front of house team
Diners have drinks and snacks in the beautiful lounge first, before going through to the dining room for the main event

It’s not just the food that makes Peel’s Restaurant award-winning – in the same year it won a Michelin star, it was also named as the recipient of the inaugural Michelin Welcome and Service Award thanks to the incredible front of house team. ‘I don’t want to take any plaudits for that because it’s the service team that won it,’ says Rob. ‘I think we’ve worked really hard to break down that wall between front and back of house. If they want to spend a day in the kitchen then they’re more than welcome to, and vice versa with the chefs. We do a lot of training together, we brief twice a day and get involved in each other’s jobs. We generally get on as a team – obviously there’s the occasional flare-up during service, but that happens in any kitchen. What makes the difference is being able to put it all aside at the end of the day.’

Another thing that reflects both the food and the service at Peel’s is the average age of the team, which is much younger than most restaurants (particularly those situated in grand country houses). ‘Our managing director is only thirty-six and our general manager is twenty-seven,’ says Rob. ‘I’m thirty-one and the oldest in the kitchen by six years. We’re in this really grand building with high ceilings, big doors and chandeliers everywhere, but there aren’t any waiters in suits, tablecloths or silver service. I think that makes us feel much more relaxed than a lot of other places.’

While Hampton Manor is more a restaurant with rooms than a country house hotel (there are only fifteen bedrooms in total, each individually designed and themed), it still has all the trappings of a magnificent country estate. But Rob and his incredible team (both front and back of house) have made it truly stand out from the crowd, serving refined yet playful dishes full of international flavours that celebrate British ingredients – many of which come from the grounds themselves. It’s certainly earned its place among the Midlands’ Michelin-starred restaurants and adds heaps to the local food scene. Put it at the top of your must-visit list.