Only 35 minutes from the capital and 7 miles from London Heathrow airport, Stoke Park offers everything you might want from a sport and leisure resort, and in the most magnificent surroundings, combined with one of the best hotels and restaurants. It’s been used as a film location for James Bond’s Goldfinger and for Bridget Jones’s Diary.
The estate dates back more than a thousand years but the facilities here are much newer, indeed state-of-the-art, and can be enjoyed by Club members as well as those who just want a day or two of activity, pampering and relaxation, or just the opportunity to enjoy some outstanding food.
The Mansion was designed by James Wyatt (architect to George III) and it’s now a Grade I listed building, and it looks the part after extensive yet sympathetic restoration. The kitchens are still in the basement and they are a maze of small rooms, although new facilities will soon be flying from drawing board to reality.
That labyrinth of kitchens is the domain of Chef Chris Wheeler and his staff who have earned an enviable reputation along with a brace of AA rosettes for Humphry’s, the restaurant. That is named after the architect of the 18th century bridge that is the centrepiece of the view from the restaurant windows – a view that becomes more romantic and striking at night when it’s floodlit.
Chef Chris Wheeler was born in Swanage, Dorset, on England’s south coast. His family didn’t have a catering background but his Dad has a massive allotment and loves gardening, and his grandmother loved cooking. “My Mum was at home, and we used to run back from school for lunch and there was always something from the garden freshly made: vegetables, shepherd’s pie – it doesn’t take long to make a good shepherd’s pie!”
He wanted to start a career in food and so signed up for a 2-year course at Bournemouth College. After the first year Chris had the choice of going to France or staying in the UK for a restaurant placement. He chose to cross the Channel. “I trained back-of-house with a chef and that really changed me. When I came back to college I found I was so much more passionate about food. I had worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant, it was amazing – that was the experience that decided me: I really wanted to be in food.”
The life of a chef was a mystery to Chris’s parents, but they wanted to be supportive. “When I was leaving college my Dad got me a job at a fish-and-chip shop, for £150 a week. I didn’t want that job but neither did I want to upset anyone by turning it down.” Chris had won a Student of the Year award at college and applied for a job with Jean-Christophe Novelli, at £50 a week, and with lots more hours than at the fish-and-chip shop! He started work on a busy Saturday and Jean-Christophe asked Chris to stay on for Sunday. So he didn’t go home and slept in a chair to be ready for the next day. “I had loved doing the Saturday night service, and knew that I was not going to cook fish and chips – I really wanted to do the Sunday service. So I told my Dad that I was going to earn the same money! As it happened after a few weeks I was up to £150, so it worked out alright.” Not so much an economy of truth, more a premonition.
After college Chris went to work for Jean-Christophe Novelli full-time at Le Provence in Hampshire, but he wanted to be a pastry chef, and so took time away to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant with a pastry chef for 6 months, to perfect his art. “I think a lot of chefs don’t know pastry, and I like to be ‘hands-on’. After all, it’s a three-course meal and my name’s on the menu, so although I have a brilliant team of chefs, I need to be able to jump in if something goes wrong.”
Chris returned to Jean-Christophe Novelli armed with that new patisserie skill, but instead of baking he worked front-of-house as General Manager for a couple of years. “That changed the way I work with serving staff. I saw that waiters have to smile all the time when they are serving, then come downstairs to be verbally abused by the chefs! So I send all my staff to work upstairs for a week, to see the other side.”
Chris wanted explore other aspects of the food industry and so did some freelance work for a year, preparing corporate lunches, but that didn’t have the buzz of ‘service’ and didn’t offer the same level of motivation. He came to Stoke Park initially for a few weeks just to help out, and it really did impress the young chef. “It had the ‘wow’ factor as I came up the drive! I fell in love with it straightaway, and we’ve had a good relationship ever since. It’s really exciting for me, and the team, to be associated with filming Bridget Jones, and with catering for golfing events and the top tennis players in the world, who come for the Boodles championship just before Wimbledon. It’s nice that we have now opened our doors to the public and can say ‘Come and try this food.’
“It’s a great training opportunity here, because we have such a range of dishes, from burgers and club sandwiches to foie gras. We will cook for 200 for lunch and up to 2000 for functions, and this is a great advantage for recruiting staff. Every new chef works for two weeks in each of our six kitchens. Everyone needs to know their way around every facet of the process.”
Chris Wheeler is everything a dedicated chef should be. He is passionate about fresh food and sources his ingredients locally, and even picks his own fruit when the opportunity arises. He presents the best of British food at Humphry’s and he does this with flair and imagination. His skill is evident but he isn’t a self-aware poser. It’s all about the food and he is quick to praise his staff. He is jolly and amusing and his masterclasses, on everything from canapés to full dinners, give even the most inept of students a battery of new skills and lots more confidence. A fine chef, with the inspiration of Stoke Park outside his kitchen door, and he is bound to excite even more notice in future.
Humphry’s is open to all for:
Lunch 12 noon – 2.30pm
Dinner 7.00pm – 10.00pm
Humphry’s restaurant – Stoke Park
Park Road, Stoke Poges
Buckinghamshire SL2 4PG
Tel: 01753 717171
Fax: 01753 717181
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018