Regis Crepy celebrates 30 years at The Great House in Lavenham
- Credit: Archant
French-born restaurateur Regis Crepy is celebrating 30 years of ownership at The Great House at Lavenham. As one of relatively few chef/owners to have successfully operated the same venue for so long, Mr Crepy met with DUNCAN BRODIE to talk about how the food scene has changed over the past three decades.
When Regis Crepy and his wife Martine first came to the UK in 1983 their objective was clear – to become proficient in the English language and then move on to pursue a career in the United States.
The job he had accepted, with an American investor who was planning to build a small chain of fine dining restaurants in the UK, brought them to The Great House in Lavenham.
When, two years later, the owner changed his plans and decided to return to America, Mr Crepy put on hold his own plans to head States-side and took the opportunity to buy the restaurant.
And on hold those plans remained. Quite simply, he says, he “fell in love” with Lavenham and, 30 years on, The Great House is where he and his wife are still to be found.
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Mr Crepy, who was born in Lille, in north-east France, was well prepared for the task he faced when taking on the restaurant, having achieved an MA degree in catering and hospitality at the University of Lausanne and then gained experience at a number of leading Swiss and French restaurants before arriving in the UK.
However, he quickly realised that running a restaurant in Britain presented something of a cultural challenge, although the problem was not the stereotypical view of the British being less interested in good food than the French.
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“The English have always had a good palate, and have always appreciated good food and good service,” he says. “The British did eat well in the past but they were not proud of what they did. Steak and kidney pudding, for example, has not really changed, but people feel prouder of it today than they did then.”
The real problem 30 years ago, he says, was the absence of any real tradition in the UK of eating in a restaurant. “Pubs were then the ‘in’ place to go,” says Mr Crepy. “It was difficult to set up a concept where people would spend more money.”
To an extent, he says, this may have been more a case of perception than reality. Ordering food and drink from the bar in a pub would mean people paying for their night out in two, or more, different transactions, rather than receiving a single bill at the end of the evening.
The prevailing attitude was that dining at a restaurant, and drinking wine rather than beer, was something for a special occasion. As a result, he says, making a success of running a restaurant was about more than just the food, with ambience (and therefore design) also contributing to the sense of value and satisfaction, right down to the cutlery and glassware, as well as, of course, excellent service.
It is very much the same today, he says, although a great deal has changed over the past 30 years, not least the increase in the number of restaurants which means that competition is more keen as ever.
Thirty years ago, the UK was in the era of novelle cuisine which, Mr Crepy concedes, was badly interpreted in some restaurants, resulting in it being caricatured as involving small portions and high prices.
While the phrase has passed into history, Mr Crepy says the basic concept behind nouvelle cuisine – lighter, tasty, more colourful and more healthy food – still largely forms the basis for what the best restaurants serve today.
The big difference now is the increasingly international range of influences at work in “British” food, such as Spanish tapas, Indian spices, Scandivanian smoking and brining as well as, of course, French cuisine, although this has itself evolved under the same influences.
The single biggest reason for this change, he says, is the fall in the price of air travel which means that chefs, like everyone else, can travel more.
Other changes include the development of “molecular gastronomy” (an understanding of the physical and chemical changes which occur during the cooking process), and a huge increase in the number of cooking programmes on television (so that customers are now more knowlegeable about food).
They are also much more interested in where the ingredients which go into their food come from, although Mr Crepy is adamant that there should be no compromise on quality for the sake of appearing “local”. “It is easy to say that you are only using local [ingredients] but does that make you a better chef? If we can work local we will work local but if local does not work for us we have to look further,” he says. “People will not compromise on quality.”
He also believes that the sense of provenance and quality can sometimes be too narrow, such as the reputation of New Zealand lamb. “What’s wrong with Welsh lamb?” he asks.
Another factor, he says, is that the range of equipment available in kitchens at home has moved on and so people now expect more from a restaurant when they eat out.
However, while tastes and techniques have developed over time, Mr Crepy does not view food itself as an expression of fashion, believing it should instead be “a tasteful and unpretentious expression of flavours.”
He also stresses that food has not evolved in isolation. “We have evolved with the rest of the world,” he says. “As a result of technology, for example, people now expect to get the bill when they ask for it, and then to be able to pay at the table. If someone had to make up a bill by hand today, and you had to wait half an hour for it, you would not go back.”
Down the years, The Great House has received a string of national awards, among the most recent being the editor’s choice Gourmet Award in the 2015 Good Hotel Guide, the AA Inspectors’ Choice Award and the Sawdays’ British Hotel Guide’s first Fabulous Food Award.
It is also one of the 50 longest-serving destinations in the Good Food Guide, and has exceptional ratings from the Hardens restaurant guide and TripAdvisor, representing valuable recognition from customers.
This, for Mr Crepy, is the key to success and he expresses a degree of scepticism as to the benefits of the Michelin star rating system which, he feels, is more for chefs than consumers.
“I’d rather be one of the 50 best restaurants in England, or one of the 150 best restaurants, than have a Michelin star,” he says. “I’d rather have a full restaurant than have a Michelin star and a half-full restaurant.”
And better than any award or inclusion in any guide, he says, is the power of world-of-mouth recommendation. “Quality will never go out of fashion,” he says. “That was true 30 years ago and it is still true today.”
Mr Crepy’s involvement in the local community includes membership of the Lavenham Forum, an association of more than 60 businesses and other organisations which work together to promote Lavenham as a visitor destination, and regular cookery demonstrations for local charities.
To mark the 30th anniversary of their ownership of The Great House, Mr and Mrs Crepy have planned a series of special events with the aim of raising £30,000 for East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices (EACH).
The programme, including wine tastings and black tie dinners, began in April and runs through to November, with all the events long-since fully booked.
A dinner staged on Thursday last week included a raffle with prizes including exclusive use of The Great House with a dinner and overnight stay for 10 people, a week on the French Riviera for eight and dinner for four at The Great House, and this alone raised £11,590 for EACH, a figure Mr Crepy describes as “fantastic”.
“Only with the support of our wonderful customers, have we been able to raise this magnificent amount to help children with life threatening illnesses and their families,” he says. “Martine and I are most grateful for their generosity.”
The restaurant has also just concluded a “30 Years Menu” which, over the past three months, has offered modern interpretations of classic dishes from the past three decades.
But what of the future? Having also launched two other successful restaurants during his time in Suffolk – Mariners in Ipswich and Maison Bleue in Bury St Edmunds – Mr Crepy is by no means ready to call it a day and has ambitions to launch a new business with his son, Alexander, who, like his parents, studied in Lausanne and is now a general manager with a restaurant group in London.
The first discussion, he says, will have to be where the new business should be based. “If it happens it would be great – and I would like it to be in Suffolk,” says Mr Crepy.