Top chef Michael Caines on Devon food

Michael Caines MBE is one of Britain’s most acclaimed chefs – and an enthusiastic advocate for Devon’s fantastic food.
Having achieved two Michelin stars at Gidleigh Park on Dartmoor and his MBE for services to the hospitality industry, he also brings his classic yet innovative style to restaurants across the UK and Devon, including the ABode Hotel in Exeter and Kentisbury Grange in North Devon. He also makes regular appearance as a chef and judge on top TV food programmes, including Saturday Kitchen and Great British Menu.
Visit Devon spoke to Michael and found out what he thinks of Devon’s burgeoning food scene, where he’s cooking now – and where he likes to eat out.

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What do you think of Devon’s food scene right now?
The Devon food scene has improved greatly over the past years, and it’s great to see independent restaurants and pubs as well as small artisan producers thriving throughout the county. The number of artisan producers creating good things to eat and drink grows every year, as we see at the Exeter Festival of South West Food & Drink. However, I have to say that I am concerned that our High Street city centres are increasingly being dominated by national chain outlets. Such places generally have little real link with our region or our food culture, and they don’t necessarily buy locally or seasonally, which is a real shame. So it’s important to value and support those independent businesses that support a rich network of suppliers and which at all levels are working hard to produce and serve food and drink that is local, original and exciting.

You’re very involved in promoting Devon food — tell us what you’ve been involved with this year.
This year I celebrated 20 years at Gidleigh Park, the country house hotel and restaurant on the edge of Dartmoor where I hold two Michelin stars, and my restaurant Michael Caines at ABode Exeter has been in the Royal Clarence for 14 years. The Exeter Festival of South West Food & Drink which celebrates all that is good in our local food scene is now 11 years old, and I’ve also been involved with the SW Chef of the Year competition for the past 11 years. So I’ve been driving home the message that good food is local and regional — and that here in Devon we have the best larder in Europe! — for most of my career. This year the Michael Caines Academy at Exeter College welcomed in a new cohort, and I’m immensely proud that many of the young Devon chefs that we’re training are now taking their places in restaurants, pubs, cafes and hotels throughout the region as well as further afield.
But we must never become complacent, because there’s always more to do. I’ve just returned from a trip through France and Italy where the food cultures are so richly vibrant and exciting, and we have to keep developing our own food culture here in Devon, celebrating it, and telling the world why things are so good here.

It’s important to spread the word about the excellence of Devon food, then?
Of course it is! We can never take for granted the progress that we’ve made. There are still immense economic challenges, and the recession’s made life harder here for many. The discount supermarkets have benefited from austerity, and we need to let people know that good, local, seasonal food doesn’t necessarily cost more! As I said, our High Streets are being taken over by national chains that offer very little in regionality or support for local businesses, which isn’t surprising when city centre rents are often so high. We need to find a way to support and encourage more independent businesses. So I urge everyone to visit farmers markets, buy from small producers, enjoy a coffee or a meal in somewhere independent. It’s not just about supporting the local economy either: you’ll often have more real and enjoyable experiences in such places.

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You have a number of well regarded food businesses in Devon – tell us what you’ve been working on this year.
This has been a year of change for me. Over the course of 11 years in partnership with Andrew Brownsword we achieved many things: we created the ABode hotel group, I was involved in the complete refurbishment of Gidleigh Park, and I worked at properties such as the Bath Priory and other country house hotels that we added to the portfolio.
Now the time’s right for me to leave a very successful partnership in order to be able to pursue my own projects. My commitment to Gidleigh Park remains absolute and I also continue my involvement at ABode Exeter, Chester and Manchester on a consultancy basis. Meanwhile, I’m involved in an exciting new venture in North Devon, Kentisbury Grange (pictured above), a beautiful property on the edge of Exmoor. I’m excited about helping them to take the cuisine and restaurant service in the Coach House Restaurant to a higher level, adding a touch of Michael Caines magic. Under our guidance, I’m certain that the Coach House will soon be among Devon’s finest dining experiences. What else? I’m currently pursuing new future projects that are very exciting … and I hope to be able to share them with you soon!

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Where in Devon do you like to eat out?
For Sunday lunch I like to take the family to the Dartmoor Inn at Lydford (above left). Phillip Burgess has been part of the Devon food scene for a long time, and he is doing a great job here so this is definitely worth a visit. Another favourite place to visit is Topsham; at the Salutation Inn, my old protegé Tom Williams-Hawkes has created both a stylish fine dine restaurant as well as a more informal daytime venue for simple lunches and stunning afternoon teas. I like simple foods too, such as the fish and chips from the Fish Shed at Darts Farm, also in Topsham. The fish here is from day boats landed at Exmouth, and always amazingly fresh. For those who are in mid- or North Devon, I strongly recommend a visit to the Masons Arms at Knowstone. Mark Dobson, the former head chef at the 3-star Michelin Waterside Inn, has taken a country pub and turned it into a real food lover’s destination. A place I am looking forward to visiting in the coming months is the 1-star Michelin Treby Arms at Sparkwell created by MasterChef winner Anton Piotrowski. And I hear that my former head chef at Gidleigh Park, Ian Webber, is doing good things at the Five Bells (above right) in Clyst Hydon. I can’t wait to visit.

And finally … where’s your favourite place to be in Devon?
I live on the edge of Dartmoor and I love it. I love walking and trail running on the moor and I love to take my children wild camping. The River Exe is another favourite place, getting out on the water, dropping into waterside pubs. The truth is, I feel very blessed – there are so many wonderful places to visit and things to do literally here on our doorstep. The problem for me is that I have too little time to do them all!