It was a hot evening, a rare one in England this summer, when we walked into The French Horn. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful of country inns on the banks of the Thames. There was blazing sunshine outside and a roaring log fire inside. In fact the hotel (it’s described as a restaurant with rooms) is celebrated for that fire, which not only gives a welcoming glow but provides the spit for the ducks which slowly rotate by the hearth. Michael Emmanuel was welcoming too!
We assumed the handsome besuited and formal chap who greeted us was the head waiter but it was in fact Michael Emmanuel, the proprietor. One realises right away that this is no ordinary owner. He is the General Manager and runs The French Horn along with his sister Elaine, and they have preserved everything that has made this gastronomic oasis so celebrated.
“My great-grandfather had oyster beds in Whitstable. Then my grandfather went into the restaurant business, and took the enterprise to a different level. My father got involved, my mother was already involved. We’ve had shares in oyster fisheries, lobster fisheries, so it’s always been about good food. It’s not about the awards – they are fantastic when they come because they are demonstrations of recognition for our staff, they are the ones who do the work – actually it’s also sourcing the best produce and cooking it well.
There are criticisms from certain guides who say, ‘But you serve food that isn’t in season’, and I say, ‘I hear that, but to me, when it’s not in season it becomes a delicacy, and that’s what we are about. It’s creating a bit of magic, a bit of theatre – people want to come and enjoy themselves, it’s not about just coming to eat, it’s about the experience. As long as we still enjoy it, we will always offer that experience.”
A stall in Billingsgate
The quality of fish and meat at the restaurant is evident. Michael Emmanuel explains that they have their suppliers as the cornerstone of the business. “When we had our London restaurants we also had a stall in Billingsgate and a shop in Connaught Street, so we know about food. I’m very lucky, we work with good local butchers, we source the meat from particular farms, and now we’ve got to know those local farmers who are producing the meat for us. It’s very nice to have the traceability – I can ring them up and ask, ‘Where’s this come from? Can you tell me how it’s been stored, how it’s been kept?’ and they will be able to tell me.
“The sausages are made by our butcher, the bacon comes from a local farm just the other side of Blewbury in Berkshire, our beef comes from Orkney as do our scallops and Dublin-Bay prawns, Dover soles from a fishmonger in Ijmuiden in Holland, who will fly them in daily. He’s someone that my grandfather used to deal with, and I met his son. We had to negotiate prices but due to the recession at that time, our fishmonger couldn’t get any credit so couldn’t continue in business. My grandfather loaned him the money so he could carry on supplying us.
“We have a good young team in the kitchen, and good suppliers: we look for loyalty from them, and it takes a lot to change. We are not going to be swayed by price, or by the ‘new chap on the block’: there has to be a reason to change – if we are getting quality then we stay with them.”
An apprenticeship with Paul Bocuse
I asked Michael Emmanuel if he had always wanted to be part of the restaurant industry. “I had a lovely education, and I always knew I was coming into this business, but my father said, ‘No, you will be an accountant!’ OK, fair enough – I got my A-levels, had my place lined up at university, and he said, ‘Right, what do you really want to do?’ I had ideas of a juicy placement in Lausanne, hotel and catering college, but he said, ‘No, to be a restaurateur you have to start at the bottom and work up.’ So he sent me off to work for Richard Shepherd for six months. I worked at Langan’s in the kitchens, and enjoyed it.
My father said, ‘Do you still want to come into the business?’ and when I said, ‘Yes’ he said, ‘Right, France!’ and he got me an apprenticeship with Paul Bocuse in Lyon. I was the first Englishman to work in his kitchens, and I was there for a few years. When I said that I would like at some point to work for Roger Vergé of Moulin de Mougins, he arranged that, and I spent some time there before returning to The French Horn. So that’s where I really learned about good food.”
Celebrating our 40th anniversary
How long has Michael’s family owned The French Horn? “We bought The French Horn forty years ago. We had Wheeler’s fish restaurants in London and that was the family business, and we, that was my grandfather, my mother Carol and my father Ronnie, were a third of that business. They wanted to buy The French Horn, but the owner would not sell to a company. After my mother had had myself and my sister, she wanted to get back into the restaurant business, but didn’t want to work for the family, so she came to the owner and said, ‘I know you won’t sell to the company, but will you sell to me?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ We bought on 14th July 1972 – we are celebrating our 40th anniversary this year.”
The French Horn is a chocolate-box-pretty building that is ironically and quintessentially English, and is a 19th century coaching inn; but has it changed much since Carol Emmanuel acquired it? “When we bought The French Horn it was just a three-bedroom hotel, without the round dining room.” Michael Emmanuel offers a bit of associated cinema trivia: it seems the classic British film ‘Alfie’ with Michael Caine has a scene shot on the lawn. And that lovely vista has not changed. “We bought the cottages across the road soon after the purchase of the hotel. My father extended the premises to 21 rooms. He loves getting his teeth into a project.” Those cottages are just as picturesque as the hotel.
Like being a third-former again
How did Michael Emmanuel first become involved in The French Horn? “We sold the London operation in about 1988. Dad came back here, and I was working in France. I returned to look after front-of-house, which I thought was not too much of a leap from the kitchen, because of the schooling I had had – if anyone asks you ‘What’s the best way to be able to deal with a kitchen environment in a foreign country?’ the answer is ‘English public school!’ It had been like being a third-former all over again – quite a harsh experience!
I would hope it doesn’t go on any more – I wouldn’t like to think that my children would have to experience what I did. I don’t think it would be appropriate nowadays. As managers we have a responsibility to look after our staff. What’s amazing is the number of good 17-year-olds wanting to come into this industry at the moment – we’re very lucky, we have some great people!”
The French Horn has recently had a change of head chef. Has that had an impact on the business? “We have never based our reputation on our head chef. We’ve always been about good food cooked well and delivered properly. I’ve had just three chefs in 24 years. The first one I inherited from my parents, he stayed with me for five years and he was with the family for 20; I then employed Gilles Company, and he was with me for 18 years; my new head chef is Josiane Diaga. She’s a wonderful lady who was my second chef. She went away to work in America as head chef, and when she came back to the UK I immediately asked her back as my number two, because I needed two strong characters in the kitchen.
Raising the bar
Gilles was offered a professorship at the Cordon Bleu school in London, and that gave me the opportunity to refresh. We interviewed many great chefs and I was pleased to say to Josiane that she was the best candidate. She is taking us in a different direction, and keeps raising the bar, pushing the envelope. It’s about quality and it’s about the customer; there are no big egos.”
I noticed the hotel has a Pride of Britain plaque at the entrance. “The lovely thing about Pride of Britain Hotels is that you won’t find any two the same. The only common thing is that there will be someone running it ‘on the premises’ be it an owner or a very professional manager. They are wonderful hotels – some are glamorous, some like us with the focus on the restaurant, some more on the ‘hotel’ side.” Perhaps that’s the key to the success of The French Horn. It’s definitely smart, the food is unbeatable but there is that element that dark wood and fine upholstery can’t provide. It’s the glow not only from that log fire but from the genuine enthusiasm of Michael Emmanuel and his family.
The French Horn Hotel
Berkshire RG4 6TN
Phone: 0118 969 2204 and 0118 944 2210
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018