Adam Smith at Coworth Park: Classical cooking at its best

Adam Smith at Coworth Park: classical cooking at its best

by Pete Dreyer 15 December 2017

Adam Smith is turning heads at Coworth Park with his exceptional modern British food. Pete Dreyer heads to the idyllic country retreat in Berkshire to learn about the chef’s love for classical cooking, his time at The Ritz and what it means to be a Roux scholar.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

This year’s Michelin ceremony was made up of familiar names and faces, for the most part. Starred veterans like Michael Caines, Phil Howard and Claude Bosi made predictable returns to the guide after trading their old stomping grounds for shinier premises, and hotly tipped new entries like Andrew Wong, Mark Birchall at Moor Hall and Matt Worswick at The Latymer all promptly earned their place among the stars.

Surprises were few and far between, but among them was a Michelin star for Coworth Park – a gorgeous five-star hotel and restaurant led by executive chef Adam Smith. It’s always difficult to predict the whims of Michelin inspectors but as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t see this one coming. ‘We were very flattered, and to be honest, a little bit surprised that it happened for us this year!’ says Adam. ‘As a chef it’s something I’ve always aspired to, but we don’t cook because we want a Michelin star, we cook because we want people to enjoy the experience. That’s what I get enjoyment from personally – all the hours and the blood, sweat and tears you put in, it’s all worthwhile when you see someone genuinely enjoying your food.’

Adam’s start in cooking isn’t particularly romantic. As a young teenager, he was passionate about a career in the law – either as a lawyer or a policeman – but he needed a summer job for a bit of extra cash. ‘There was this new restaurant opening up in the local village,’ he explains, ‘so I fibbed my way into the kitchen porter job – I said I was sixteen, and I was about thirteen at the time! I fell in love with the atmosphere and the camaraderie.’

The elegant manor and beautiful grounds of Coworth Park are just a forty-five minute drive from London
Though he is executive chef at Coworth Park, Adam still loves cooking and he is a constant presence in the kitchen

Adam took on more and more shifts over the next few years, and by the time he was sixteen he knew that his future would be in the kitchen rather than in court. ‘I went home and told my parents that I was going to be a chef, and my old man said, ‘no you’re not! You’re never going to have a life, you won’t earn any money, you’ll be working every weekend...’ and all this stuff. I’m quite stubborn, so I stuck with it and went off to Birmingham College.’ Adam only spent a year at college, but it wasn’t so much what he learnt as who he met that changed his life forever. ‘One of my lecturers knew John Williams, who was just leaving Claridge’s and moving to The Ritz. I went down for a trial shift, and next thing I know, they’ve offered me a job and I’m packing my bags and moving to London.’

Lots of chefs spend a year or two at a restaurant before moving onto pastures new. That was Adam’s plan too. ‘I was going to do a year and then come back to Birmingham,’ he says. To say that things didn’t quite work out the way he planned is a significant understatement. Adam was sixteen years old when he started at The Ritz. When he left he was twenty-five. ‘The Ritz was an amazing place to work,’ he says. ‘In the ten years I was there I never stopped improving; there was always something else to learn.’ By the time he left, Adam was executive sous chef of the hotel – second in command of a brigade of sixty-five chefs – and right-hand man to John Williams, who had become more than just a mentor to the young chef. ‘John is like a father to me,’ he says of his former boss. ‘We still speak every week. He's had a massive influence on me – my cooking style, my career, my beliefs. He ignited my passion for classical cooking. He's a great man.’

Asparagus, cured salmon, smoked lardo and bergamot
Native lobster, carrot, black olive and lemon

John wasn’t the only one who recognised Adam’s considerable talent. By the time Adam left The Ritz to take up an executive chef role at North Yorkshire’s Devonshire Arms, he had scooped multiple awards, including Craft Guild of Chefs Young Chef of the Year in 2010, Observer Food Monthly Young Chef of the Year in 2012, and a prestigious Roux Scholarship the same year. ‘For me, it’s one of the best opportunities you can get in this country, if not the world,’ he says of the scholarship. ‘It opens up doors you would never be able to open on your own. I would never have been able to spend three months working with Yannick Alleno at Le Meurice without the Roux Scholarship and I wouldn’t have got either of my jobs at The Devonshire Arms or Coworth Park. On top of that, it’s opened a door to a group of people that I can now call on as friends for advice. When I walk into a room with the Roux scholars, it’s like being a commis chef all over again, but in a good way! I could sit there for hours and listen to Sat Bains, or Andrew Fairlie, or Michel and Alain Roux – they’re awe-inspiring.’

That passion for classical cooking – the fire that John Williams started in Adam – has grown into a raging inferno over the last few years. The Roux Scholarship, The Devonshire Arms, Le Meurice and Yannick Alleno all added fuel to the flames, and today, Adam’s food at Coworth Park is masterful, classical cooking at its very best. The menu is a mouth-watering roll call of classic flavour combinations, from salt-aged beef with oxtail, mushroom and onion to tea-smoked salmon with bergamot, curried crab and avocado. ‘I love the caviar tart we have on the starters,’ says Adam. ‘We fill a shortcrust tart base with fresh brown crab meat, then we cover that with Exmoor caviar, pickled cucumber, yuzu purée, herbs and flowers and put a nice quenelle of crème fraîche on the side. There’s a reason why that combination of crab, caviar, crème fraîche and citrus is so classic – it all works so well together. What more could you want?’

Waterford Farm salt-aged beef, oxtail, pea and onion
Sautéed duck liver, peach, almond and ginger

Rhetorical as his question was, Adam’s final point is a good one. Coworth Park is jaw-droppingly beautiful – an idyllic country-house retreat that feels far-removed from the urban bustle of London, but is still only a forty-five minute drive from the capital. With Adam at the helm, the hotel has a wonderful restaurant to match the beautiful surroundings, and though it’s hard to think what more you could want from a place like Coworth Park, Adam insists there’s always room for improvement. ‘My ambition all along was to make Coworth Park a gastronomic destination,’ he says. ‘When people say the name Coworth Park, I want them to think of the restaurant and how amazing it is. That comes with time. We’re very confident we’ll do it, we just need that time to keep evolving and getting better at what we do.’ It’s an admirable goal, and one I’m sure the team will achieve in the near future – Adam’s history of success and recognition is hard to bet against. But as far as I’m concerned, Coworth Park is already a destination restaurant. My advice? Go as soon as you can.