For three decades, the Trencherman’s Guide has charted the rise of the South West dining scene. We talk to Kit Chapman and Michael Caines about its inception and future, and mark its 30th birthday with images from events in recent Trencherman’s history
Since it was launched in 1992 by Kit Chapman of The Castle at Taunton and Paul Henderson formerly of Gidleigh Park in Devon, the Trencherman’s Guide has documented the development of the unique food and dining culture of the South West of England.
During the Guide’s 30-year history, it’s chronicled restaurants as they’ve launched and closed, and marked food trends as they’ve bubbled up and then popped, never to be seen again. It’s also witnessed established restaurants such as The Angel in Dartmouth as they pass from one generation of remarkable chefs to the next.
Changes, challenges and opportunities within the industry during the last three decades span from the introduction of nouvelle cuisine to the rise of smart dining pubs. They’ve included the craft drinks boom, the noughties’ food revolution, online booking and websites, recessions, Covid-19 and Brexit. The Trencherman’s Guide has marked each moment and reflected the region’s food and hospitality industry while helping diners discover superb restaurants.
Kit Chapman explains how the guide began: ‘I was very good friends with Paul Henderson who, in 1977, bought and ran Gidleigh Park. During the 1980s we could both see it was becoming a golden age for the restaurant trade. Suddenly, eating out became very fashionable and young British chefs were learning how to cook really well from luminaries like the Roux brothers, Raymond Blanc and Anton Mosimann.’
Alongside talented foreign chefs teaching young Brits, there were a number of factors that also contributed to that golden moment. Kit says: ‘One was the introduction of colour supplements in the newspapers which made food look very sexy. There were also a lot of television cooks coming on screen – this was post Fanny Cradock – and it all became quite serious. Then Francis Coulson opened Sharrow Bay in Cumbria, and that was the start of the rise and rise of the English country house hotel.’
Kit and Paul knew something interesting was emerging and wanted to be part of it. ‘Paul and I thought this was all very exciting,’ he says. ‘We already had a Michelin star at The Castle, and he had one at Gidleigh Park, but we wanted to focus on bringing what was happening around the country – and in London in particular – to the West Country.’
They also wanted to show the rest of the UK what was going on in the region, and this led to the idea of creating a dining guide. It wasn’t going to be any old roundup of eateries, however. Kit says: ‘We wanted to control who went in so we could only showcase the best restaurants in the South West of England.
‘We constructed a fairly simple and fair scoring system (which is still the basis of the one used now). We needed a system as we didn’t have the time to become restaurant inspectors. The scoring was based on three guidebooks: the Michelin Guide, The Good Food Guide and the AA Guide. We adopted a points system based on those guides and applied it to the restaurants.’
The pair roped in the West Country Tourist Board (which later became South West Tourism) to publish it.
‘The idea was that the restaurants in the guide would display it in their premises and we’d therefore encourage cross-referrals, creating a community of people interested in food and drink who would know where the really great restaurants were to be found.
‘We introduced a launch lunch for each annual edition, which was held at different Trencherman’s restaurants. We hosted a few events at The Castle and it was also held at some of the other hotels and bigger restaurants such as Rick and Jill Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant. It was wonderful and a great communal thing among the restaurateurs in the South West. And so it is today.’
His thoughts on the guide, 30 years on? ‘I have to say hats off to Michael [Caines]. I’m so pleased he took it on with such enthusiasm and energy; he deserves great credit for that. Otherwise, the thing might have just died away, but it’s still here and thriving.’
Trencherman’s chairman Michael Caines of Lympstone Manor got involved with the Guide while he was head chef of Gidleigh Park, where he held two Michelin stars for 18 consecutive years. When South West Tourism, which published the guide, was axed as a result of government cuts in 2011, Michael secured the future of the Guide with Devon publishing company Salt Media.
He’s been chairman of the Trencherman’s committee for over a decade and, along with fellow high-profile chefs such as Paul Ainsworth, Rick Stein and Nathan Outlaw, has helped bring the South West hospitality scene to a wider national and international audience.
How does he think we can ensure another 30 years of hospitality excellence in the South West?
‘We need to think about how we can continue to attract people to the South West – not just to come and eat here, but also to come and live here,’ says Michael.
‘That means investing in the right infrastructure and an educational structure which will attract and develop young people in the industry.’
The chef is referring to the difficulties that restaurants are experiencing in recruiting people to work in both kitchens and front of house. The situation is so challenging that some restaurants are currently unable to open full time.
‘A lot has been achieved in 30 years, but now I think we need to turn our attention to the welfare of our hospitality staff because that’s essential.’
However, it’s not all doom and gloom, as the number of high calibre restaurants in the 30th edition testifies.
Michael also sees green shoots of opportunity for the industry in areas which are revealing themselves as possible avenues out of challenging times. One example is the changing climate, which is making it possible to grow grapes in the South West in a way that was unheard of until recently. Michael has planted vines in the grounds of Lympstone Manor and says: ‘The emergence of vineyards and viniculture in this part of the country is very exciting and will, I think, become part of our tourism offer as well as our food culture.
‘That ties in to the essential work that needs to be done to create sustainable businesses and protect biodiversity in our natural environment. The South West is a place of outstanding natural beauty and that’s a huge asset which will help us lock into green tourism.’ He’s confident about the future and asserts: ‘Opportunities like that will help keep the South West on the map and the hospitality industry thriving.’