The people of Relais & Chateaux are very picky when selecting hotel and restaurant properties for their guide, and one of their only selections in New England is Blantyre, a hotel just a few hours from Boston and New York where perfection in hospitality is sought after and very often achieved. Built in 1902 and owned by Ann Fitzpatrick Brown and before that her parents, Blantyre is a unique property that for the last 3 years has been open year round, including the winter months when their tennis courts are flooded and turned into one of the Berkshireís largest skating rinks. That is just one example of the length that this small hotel will go to spoil their guests. We spoke with Blantyre chef Christopher Brooks to discuss some of the other secrets to keeping their exclusive clientele coming back year after year.
NYRI: Before you came to work at Blantyre, where did you learn to cook and where did you get your training?
Christopher Brooks: I did an apprenticeship in Chewton Glen in England which is in the Relais Chateaux book as well. I did a four-year apprenticeship with Pierre Chevillard there, he was the apprentice of the Troisgros brothers in Lyon. Chevillard taught me the fundamentals of cooking from 1984 to 1988. He was a good source for buying good products and just keeping it as simple as possible, not trying to destroy them. I think simplicity is the key to elegance. I worked for some good chefs in England until I came to America in 1995. I actually came to Blantyre as the sous chef when we were still a seasonal restaurant. I stayed for two seasons and then I moved to another Relais & Chateaux in New York State, then I moved down to Northern Virginia to the Morrison House - which was again in Relais & Chateaux - for a few years. Then I came back in 2000 as chef of Blantyre.
NYRI: How did you find the Blantyre from England in 1995? What was the connection there?
Christopher Brooks: Well, just for working with a Relais & Chateaux establishment in England and working with the French chefs in England you just send off your details. I thought I would like to come to America - the land of opportunity - and Blantyre responded to me.
NYRI: Anne, the owner, must have liked the fact that you had worked for other Relais & Chateaux establishments.
Christopher Brooks: Yes, I have been in similar properties all during my career.
NYRI: Who was the chef at that time in 1995?
Christopher Brooks: Michael Roller. He was still here until 2000. I left Blantyre at the end of 1996 because it was obviously seasonal and I needed to find some things to do in the winter.
NYRI: When you came back in Mach of 2000, you came back as the chef and the chef was now a year round position?
Christopher Brooks: It was a year round position. In the winter I was doing administrative work, theyíd have me answer the telephone and Iíd be the first contact for the guests, Iíd show the property for potential functions and weddings in the winter, and I also did some research. I went down to Washington for a couple days, I went to Thomas Henkelmanís, and just looked around to see what other people do at Restaurant Daniel and Le Cirque.
NYRI: When you first took over in 2000, did you change the menu completely during that first year?
Christopher Brooks: Not really, we try and do the menu four times a year but I did not want to shock our regular guests. Michael had been here for five years, and we are a country house hotel - I call our cuisine country house cuisine - so I was just trying to blend in to what Blantyre was all about. We have evolved since then and Iím very lucky to have my chef de cuisine Arnaud Cotar. He has been with me now for eight years and I have a sous chef Paul, who has been with me 3-1/2 years now. I was given an opportunity at Chewton Glen, so I try and take people who want to learn. I try to teach them the basics of cooking and bring them on.
NYRI: What do you look for when you are looking to hire people?
Christopher Brooks: We are obviously looking for people who have worked in similar properties but also coming straight out of the colleges like CIA, NECI, Johnson and Wales. I always try and say to people Ďwhat do you want to achieve?í Hopefully, one day you want to be at this level of being a chef so if you want to be that, then you should come and work here. We do bring people from Europe, but that is getting harder to do. Iíll also take someone off the street if they say ĎI want to learn, I want to be a chef.í They donít have to have any qualifications as long as they have a good attitude and they want to learn. The most important thing is if someoneís got the taste and they know that somethingís seasoned properly, that is a great start. They can tell the difference between Ďthis tastes goodí and Ďthis tastes really good.í If someone has got that and they have the right attitude then you can teach them.
NYRI: Is it more difficult getting people who will have experience up here to take a seasonal job?
Christopher Brooks: We do keep people on year around now. Obviously it slows down in the winter because of where we are, in the Berkshires, but Blantyre is a winter hotel; the fireplaces, we flood the tennis courts for ice skating and snow barbecues in the winter, there are a lot of activities here. This has been our third winter open and itís getting busier and busier in the winter. We used to close down from November til the end of April. Obviously it is easier to keep staff now too, obviously a year round position with benefits and things like that.
NYRI: Iím sure the hotel slows down in the winter, but does the restaurant also slow down as well as far as the number of covers?
Christopher Brooks: Yes, it does. The weekends are fairly busy. Sometimes it is a great time to come here and there are very few guests and you can have the dining room to yourself. The restaurant is a home too, itís got the feel of Blantyre; you walk into it and itís like someoneís house. When you walk into the main dining room there is one big table there during the day, and in the afternoon the wait staff turn it into a restaurant.
NYRI: So tell me about the menu as it is now and how often it is changed?
Christopher Brooks: Obviously we have a winter menu, a spring menu, a summer menu, and a fall menu and we run specials as well for that evening. We source a lot of products here from all over the world like in the winter we get the Scottish Grouse and we get fish flown in from all over the place - if we want Dover sole and other things like that for special requests. I do like to get input from my staff on the menus because I think it is a good base for them to start thinking and being creative. I am not saying that we always use what they want to use but maybe an ingredient they want to try and use, we can look at that and bring it into the menu because I have some very talented people in my kitchen. So, it is close to my heart to want to be able to spend time with people and bring them on.
NYRI: Are they surprised when they come in and they are given an opportunity to express themselves here?
Christopher Brooks: Yes. I think some people are. I think it takes a little bit of time for people to come in and see what the food is about, our style, and then it is up to them. I donít want people coming in and doing someone totally off the wall that is not going to fit in with what we do at Blantyre.
NYRI: Tell us about some of the local purveyors that you have used such as local farmers.
Christopher Brooks: We have a good relationship with the local farmers. Ted Dobson from Equinox Farm grows all of our greens for us and he is actually in the process of becoming more of a year round destination, heís trying to keep his greenhouses open all year. We have a little farm called Left Field Farm in Sheffield which grows zucchinis, baby carrots, baby leaks and lettuce. I am very into being seasonal. In New England we have winter, we have fall, we have spring so we try to base all our menus on the seasons. I do not want to see strawberries in the winter even though you can get them year round now. Staying at Blantyre, you will see the seasons on your arrival; if it is blueberry season here, you will see a bowl of blueberries in your room; if itís peach season you will see peaches on the cheese trays. Now we are getting into cherry season. We try and bring that into account and we try and use New England fish most of the time. You will see some Hawaiian and some European things on our menu but we have to have Maine lobster and scallops.
NYRI: You have a garden here too?
Christopher Brooks: We are expanding here at the moment so we actually do have wild ramps in the garden and we have morels too. There are a few morels on the grounds. There is a maintenance guy named Phil who goes out and he knows where they are, so he seems to keep that a secret.
NYRI: Letís talk about fine dining in the Berkshires in general. Do you think it has improved tremendously over the past several years?
Christopher Brooks: Yes, I think it has improved. The Berkshires itself are becoming more and more of a destination. There is a lot of culture and entertainment here and I think that more and more restaurants are starting to compliment that and thatís important for the whole area. There are more and more farmers, and more local products, and I think things are getting more and more accessible.
NYRI: Do you think the farmers are getting better at what they do also?
Christopher Brooks: I think they are. Thereís a Berkshire organization called Berkshire Grown which tries to link restaurants and farmers together. It is a great organization and there are a lot more farmers markets now for the general public too. But when I first got back here to Blantyre, everybody was growing baby beets. Well, I canít buy two tons of baby beets, guys, so why donít you grow some baby carrots? Why donít you grow some zucchinis with flowers and things like that? So we have relationships with a few farmers now that really know what we need, and they grow the stuff for us. Weíve got a guy who grows melons here in Pittsfield, I call him the melon man.
NYRI: Are the local farmers ch anging what they grow to suit the trends of the fine dining community here?
Christopher Brooks: Well, I think they are. One of my guys is not going to grow heirloom tomatoes anymore because four years ago he was getting 5 bucks a pound for them and now the marketís three bucks a pound. When heirloom tomatoes were starting to get really popular he was getting $4.00 or $5.00 a pound and now because everybody is doing it, itís down to $3.00. So heís going back to doing micro greens and things like that. Talking with farmers, they normally can grow what you want if they think itís viable. Blantyre supports that and obviously we want the best products for the guests.
NYRI: Any other purveyors that you might want to mention that have been outstanding and helped you in your time here?
Christopher Brooks: We have a local fish guy called Other Brother Darrell who delivers to us six days a week and he gets our lobsters. He goes to Boston and he goes to Maine and things like that. We have a lot of relationships. Dole & Bailey out of Boston who are a big corporation but they have a great product. DíArtagnan, some of the local guys at Left Field Farm. You have to support the local people as well and thatís important. Weíre quite a small community and thereís a lot of good stuff around, but we need to source out other stuff like Provisions International in Vermont, they are a specialty food company and they source out a lot of local cheeses for us.
NYRI: What are some of the challenges of cooking in a place like Blantyre which is a Relais Chateaux hotel, as opposed to if this were a free-standing restaurant?
Christopher Brooks: The dinner service is formal here, but we also have room service during dinner. You can have the dinner menu a la carte menu in your room, or you can have pool service. If youíve driven three or four hours you maybe just want a cobb salad or a burger so we have to have the best burger, and we have to have the best sandwiches. Breakfast is very important too, itís the last impression that anybody will get of the food. We get a lot of special requests, like picnics when people are going to Tanglewood. We have a picnic menu and we need a little bit of time, but many times people come and say they need a picnic in an hour, and of course weíre going to do it for them.
NYRI: The picnic menu is an entire dinner?
Christopher Brooks: Yes, an entire dinner. The arrival into Blantyre is also very important. You get chocolate chip cookies, you get cheese, you get a fruit tray and champagne, and that is the first experience. You have to source out that stuff too, you have to source out what fruit you are going to put on the trays. It is not just about apples and grapes. When muskat grapes are around they are very expensive and we buy them, when cherry season is here youíll have cherries, when peaches are here youíll have peaches. It is not just going through the motions with that stuff, all that is important too. You can have the best dinner anywhere and then you get up the next morning and have a lousy breakfast. We have a lot of request for the marmalade and things like that, itís important. Marmalade and jams are a year around. It just depends on what jam we are doing.
NYRI: Where did you learn how to make jam? Is that something that every chef knows?
Christopher Brooks: I learned that at Hunstrete House which is a very traditional English country house hotel. Thatís where I worked where we had most of the vegetables in the garden, and that taught me that you got in there with your boots on and dig up new potatoes and baby carrots for service that night. I learned how to make jam there and the marmalade thing just sort of evolved really. I wanted to make marmalade and we did this country house marmalade and it cooks for ages. But that is part of the whole experience. We have a hot chocolate menu in the winter where we have seven different hot chocolates from all over the world. We also do wedding cakes here.
NYRI: How often do you do weddings here?
Christopher Brooks: We normally only do four weddings a year and it is normally off season. We do not do any weddings in July, August, and October, because there might be Tanglewood. But that is something the chefs have to learn how to do also. You have to be a pastry chef. I talk to the guests about what wedding cake they want to do and then I try to recreate it. It is more diverse in a small hotel like this where we do everything and I think a lot of young chefs see that and I think itís a good experience for them to be exposed to all of that. I think the job itself is that you have to be passionate about it. I think you have to keep things fairly simple. We cannot try and reinvent things. Like white asparagus, itís beautiful as it is, do not destroy it.
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