Head chef at The Vineyard, Robby Jenks has enjoyed an outstanding career to date; enjoying posts as both junior and senior sous chef alongside Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park, and as chef de partie at The Dining Room at Whatley Manor – both renowned Michelin starred establishments.
Now at the helm of the kitchen at The Vineyard, Robby’s own style of menu writing – balancing classic cooking, modern techniques and exceptional produce – is taking the restaurant from strength to strength. We caught up with Robby to see how the last year at The Vineyard has treated him, and to find out how the year ahead is set to shape up.
Who is your food hero and why?
At the end of a fantastic year at The Vineyard, I travelled to California to stay at Sir Peter Michael’s Vineyard. While I was in the US I took the opportunity to visit The French Laundry, where I was incredibly excited to try my food hero, Thomas Keller’s dishes. I feel that Thomas has really changed the industry that we work in, making kitchens an altogether better environment.
What is the best restaurant that you’ve been to?
That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. With so many wonderful restaurants constantly opening and developing, I honestly couldn’t pick one! Certainly the best meal I’ve had this year was at The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I like to eat out at least once a month and when choosing a restaurant to indulge in I’m always drawn to a simple menu with perfectly complemented service.
What you would be doing now if you weren’t a chef?
Another really tough question! I started my culinary career as a kitchen porter for a hotel in my home town of Tiverton, Devon. I spent lots of hours in the kitchen and I got a real buzz from the fast paced environment; so when the opportunity to train as a chef came knocking, I jumped at it! Directly after finishing school, I went into a professional kitchen as a commis chef and haven’t look back since, so if I’m honest I can’t imagine doing anything else!
Will you be attending any food festivals this year, either demonstrating or socially?
In September I’m thrilled to be working with Hospitality Action on Charity Polo Day, which will feature a three-course lunch prepared by six award-wining chefs including Michael Bedford, André Garrett, Hywel Jones, Niall Keating, Rob Potter and myself. It is a fabulous opportunity to raise awareness for this fantastic cause.
What do you enjoy most about being a chef? Where do you find your inspiration?
I enjoy the culture of the kitchen, working with food and the nature of ingredients. As a young chef I was once told to challenge myself to learn something new every day, and I still stand by that ethos.
Where would you book to dine for a special occasion?
As a chef, I love experiencing new places. When it comes to booking a restaurant for a special occasion I’ll usually opt for places that have just been awarded their first Michelin star.
What was the most important industry lesson that you learned from Michael Caines?
I’ve worked with Michael Caines twice in my career, on each occasion I have had very different outlooks.
When I first joined his kitchen team at Gidleigh Park I knew very little about the industry, so I worked alongside him, learning his techniques as I developed into junior sous chef. On the second occasion, I went back as senior sous chef, learning how to manage people and how to think outside of the box – not only when it comes to preparation and production, but also by building a great team and motivating people, in turn creating an exceptional product.
I also learned how to work with suppliers, gained confidence, and discovered what my real passion was, developing my own style of cooking in the process. A year on at the Vineyard, and that style is now exactly where it needs to be – I am the happiest I have ever been with my food.
If you had to craft a dish or dessert to make someone smile on a wet day, what would you cook?
One of my favourite dishes on the menu at the moment is lobster raviolo, citrus bisque, grapefruit, pickled ginger and basil. Light and fresh, this dish is guaranteed to brighten even the dullest day.
Where is the best place you’ve cooked (restaurant or country) and what made it special?
Gidleigh Park, as it’s my home county. There was something very special about cooking in the middle of Dartmoor. So much peace, and then you head to the back of the kitchen at 6am and it’s just like being in the middle of London during rush hour.
Throughout my career I have been lucky enough to work at a number of stunning properties. When deciding on my next adventure, my focus is always on the food they produce and the guest experience they provide. Guests that visit are usually coming for an occasion, and for me, enjoyment comes from making it a memorable one.
What do you predict to be the big food trend of 2017?
Throughout 2017 I can see a number of food trends developing. I think that restaurants will continue to introduce menus that are ingredient-led, utilising simple cooking techniques and making more use of natural ingredients.
I think that some establishments may take influence from America, with chefs serving the dishes that they create to guests.
What was your biggest achievement of 2016? What do you hope to achieve this year?
I was thrilled to be awarded an Acorn Award after taking the helm of The Vineyard’s kitchen in February 2016. After receiving this wonderful recognition, I’ve worked on creating a simple but perfect dining experience. Working alongside a truly talented team of chefs, I’ve created a new menu concept incorporating classic cooking, modern techniques and the best possible ingredients.
Throughout 2017 I plan to continue what we’re already doing; evolving and developing across the board, with a big focus on the dining room and guest experience. Naturally, all chefs would like a Michelin star, and this has been a dream of mine since I started out in the industry, so hopefully this will be achieved in 2017!
What is your food guilty pleasure?
Each day I have the pleasure of cooking wonderful dishes with fabulous ingredients. I love all food so and sometimes I’ll finding myself eating my way through my tests and sample dishes.
My mood really governs what I’d like to eat, and after a long week in the kitchen I tend to want familiar home-cooked favourites!
Have you a recipe or tip that you’d like to share with our readers?
The best advice for cooking delicious dishes is to let the ingredients do the talking! Make your dishes simple and don’t over-think it, as that’s your supplier’s job!
To find out more about The Vineyard and other fantastic places to eat and drink in Berkshire, pick up a copy of the Berkshire Food & Drink Guide 2016-2017 from your local Waitrose store, order a copy online, or enjoy digital editions on our website and through Issuu.