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Chef Steve Drake chats about his new Dorking restaurant, Michelin stars and foodie history

PUBLISHED: 10:42 07 April 2017 | UPDATED: 09:13 20 September 2017

Steve contemplating the scene at what will soon be Sorrel restaurant (Photo: Nick Tucker Photography)

Steve contemplating the scene at what will soon be Sorrel restaurant (Photo: Nick Tucker Photography)

Archant

In the world of top-end dining, Steve Drake has been Mr Surrey for the best part of 17 years. Here he chats exclusively to Matthew Williams about his plans for his hotly-anticipated new restaurant in Dorking

The exterior of Sorrel is picture perfect even at this early stage (Photo: Matthew Williams)The exterior of Sorrel is picture perfect even at this early stage (Photo: Matthew Williams)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2017

***

A Michelin star chef for the best part of 14 years, Steve Drake is pacing the ancient floorboards of his new Dorking restaurant. He’s restless, having left Drake’s in Ripley last summer, and is excitedly projecting dream scenarios at the 300-year-old walls of the building that will soon reopen as Sorrel. It’s hard not to get carried away with the energy and enthusiasm of the two-times Surrey Life Food & Drink Awards chef of the year.

There’s still much to be done before opening, hopefully in May but possibly in June*, as the building is Grade II listed and even the most creative mind has to bow to planning rules and regulations occasionally. Even as an empty shell though, it’s an atmospheric place and Steve has a few tricks up his sleeve – if he doesn’t wear out the floorboards first.

“This is the part I hate to be honest,” says the 43-year-old, who currently lives near Godalming. “It’s great to be able to get creative with the concept of a new restaurant, but once I’ve decided what I want, I just want it to be finished and ready for us to start cooking!”

 

On point

Before all that though, let’s take things back to his childhood, in Essex - as it’s here that his love for cooking was born, thanks to a fortunately muddled education system and, well, a lack of other options.

“I was rubbish at everything else at school,” he laughs. “The funny thing was, if you took cookery you had to do needlecraft. There was only me and one other guy and we’d be at the fashion show while all the other lads did woodwork and metalwork.

“My teacher Mrs Banks was so encouraging. I was never the best in my class but I was enthusiastic. I can become a bit single-minded once I’ve made my mind up, so I stuck with it.”

Leaving school at 16, he worked at a local restaurant before going to Southend College. Struck by the idea of working in London, he wrote letters to three top hotels: The Dorchester, The Savoy and The Ritz.

“The Dorchester was closed at the time for refurbishment, The Savoy sent me this massive application form to fill in and The Ritz just said ‘come for an interview’, so I took the easy option and went there,” he says.

This was in 1990 and, still not quite 17, he started at the five-star hotel a month later, before going on to work at various top restaurants including the two-star Chez Nico with Nico Ladenis - they still meet for tea.

Later on, while working at the Aubergine, he became desperate to do something for himself and it was this decision that led him down the country lanes to Surrey.

“I probably wasn’t really ready but I was quite arrogant to be honest,” he says. “I spotted a little advert in The Caterer magazine from a new restaurant in a Surrey village.

“The owners had decided to retire from their business and open up a restaurant, which now seems like just about the most bizarre thing anyone could want to do in the world! Retiring to open a restaurant?!”

He got the job and it was at the (sadly now demolished) Drakes on the Pond, in Abinger Hammer, that he won the prestigious Roux Scholarship in 2001 and then his first Michelin star in 2003.

“I was the only chef at the start,” he says. “For quite awhile, Saturdays were busy but things would be really quiet during the week – nobody knew we were there. We got the star and everything changed overnight. I probably drove them all mad, to be honest. Originally the owners were just looking for a peaceful life, but I was ridiculously ambitious and ready to take on the world.

“It’s got me to where I am now but I wouldn’t advise anyone else to take the route I did. I had to make a lot of mistakes to eventually get things right. At the time though, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”

Restless ambition and an unexpected opportunity meant that later in that first Michelin star year, Steve left Drakes on the Pond to buy Michel’s restaurant, in nearby Ripley, with then wife Serina.

“We were so naïve about it and just had this sort of blind faith that people would walk straight through the door,” he laughs.

Naïve or not, the restaurant’s red-brick Georgian building has been one of the hottest restaurants in the county ever since, holding a Michelin star from 2005 until Steve left last summer. It’s now well documented that while Steve kept The Anchor pub, just over the road, Serina kept the restaurant when the couple finalised their divorce.

“It was sad to leave Drake’s but I don’t really look back,” he says. “We did great things there and I wish them well – it’s called The Clock House now and Fred (Clapperton) is a great chef, who I’m sure will do very well.

“Once we’re up-and-running here, hopefully that will just mean that there’s another great restaurant in Surrey.”

 

The future

It’s at this point that we find ourselves back in the present, stood in this wonderful piece of Dorking history. In the coming weeks, a new name will be hung across the door: this time it will be Sorrel, rather than Drake.

“It felt like that chapter was done,” he explains. “We found a beautifully delicate image of Sorrel leaves; it’s an ingredient I love and it just sums up how I like my dishes to be: light, elegant and delicate. It felt right. I think you could call a restaurant anything as long as you’ve got the right integrity behind it.”

With his new venture, Steve is hoping to increase the interaction between chefs and guests and really bring the character-packed space to life. While the exact design and logistics are still to take shape, there will be a bar downstairs with an open fire to welcome guests through the picture perfect front door.

The 40-plus cover dining room will be upstairs, found in between a network of wooden beams, and guests will be able to choose between à la carte and tasting menus from Wednesday to Saturday (that’s right, four-day openings for the sanity of the chefs and more time to work on new dishes).

“Look, great food isn’t meant to be intimidating,” he says. “We want people to be able to walk through the door and enjoy themselves, not sit their quietly in awe.

“The Sorrel tasting nights we held at The Anchor in January reinforced a few of the ideas I’ve been having – especially that our opening night menu will remain a mystery even to me for awhile!

“One of the things that inspired me on a trip out to San Francisco with the Roux Scholars last year was their take on light bites – we’d call them canapés, I suppose. One restaurant called Benu served 10! One after the other – bang, bang, bang. Each dish incredible – best meal I’ve had in my life! You’re almost overwhelmed in the best way. Anyway, we gave it a go at The Anchor and it worked really well; it’s so exciting from a creative point of view and I loved it as a customer too.”

Discovery has always been one of Steve’s favourite terms to describe his cooking. While in the early days, he aimed to copy every three Michelin-star chef, experience and a fair amount of trial and error led to his own style.

“As you get older and more confident, you actually simplify your food a bit,” he explains. “Without intending to sound pretentious, I’ve always seen it more as an art than say a science. My dishes constantly evolve and ideas come from all over the place – having breakfast, in the middle of a busy service...”

He says that one of the biggest mistakes chefs can make is cooking with other people in mind, rather than creating something that excites their own passions.

“You can create a ‘perfect’ dish but if there’s none of you on the plate, then chances are other people won’t get it no matter how it ticks certain boxes. Alternatively, if you ask people what they do and don’t like then there’s a strong chance you’ll find a muddled middle ground that doesn’t actually excite anyone.

“One of the best compliments you can get as a chef is when someone tells you they normally wouldn’t have chosen to eat one of the ingredients you’ve used, but they were won over by the way you prepared it. If you’d listened to them at the start of the process, then that experience would never have happened. Often our pet food hates stem from childhood experiences of them being cooked badly. Fortunately, people tend to trust us to do things right.”

So much so, that when he started telling people he was leaving Ripley to open a restaurant in Dorking there were plenty of people who thought he was mad to leave his ‘audience’ behind. A quick double check of the map proves that it’s only 25 minutes down the road, but such are the bubbles we can get caught up in even in a relatively small county like Surrey at times.

“Sorrel will be a destination restaurant for people around the county. I used to hate the phrase ‘special occasion restaurant’ but eventually I realised that it is what it is: a huge compliment,” says Steve. “It’s also a really exciting time to be opening in Dorking as there’s so many people attempting to do interesting food and drink-related things.”

Indeed, the town can now boast an independent butchery, greengrocer, wine boutique, beer shop, as well as the famous Denbies Wine Estate, of course. Which may well come in useful...

“We’re focussing on British food and it would be really cool to tap into as many local resources as possible – to champion Dorking and Surrey,” he says. “We need the quality to be amazing, obviously, but if we can encourage and nurture local artisans then that’s one way to improve consistency and the range that’s available in the long run. It would be great to have a small-scale butter producer just down the road, for instance.”

That famous Sherlock Holmes phrase that the “little things are infinitely the most important” seems apt, as Steve’s whirlwind of discussion covers everything from butter sourcing to the craftsmanship of crockery and chefs’ working hours to wallpaper selections etc. There have been few more highly-anticipated restaurant openings in this county in recent years, and fortunately one of Surrey’s very best is on the case for this one.

*Editor’s note: opening date currently ‘Autumn 2017’

***

My Favourite Surrey

Restaurant…

Petriti’s, in East Mosley, is becoming one of the best in Surrey. Tom is doing a great job. Then there is Al Vicolo in Guildford, which has moved into a bigger space and renamed themselves, Blue. They’ve fantastic, authentic Sardinian dishes.

Pub…

My favourite pub has to be The Refectory in Milford. It has achieved an amazing balance of still being a pub but also being a great place for a hearty tasty meal.

Shop…

I’m not one for shopping but Secretts, in Milford, is pretty special for seasonal produce and its cheese counter. Alton Sports, in Farnham, is my none-foodie choice. It’s a real antidote to the big chains.

Place to relax…

I’ve no idea, what’s relaxing?! I love running and the Downs Link is a fantastic running path and Newlands Corner is always a favourite..

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