We Grill – Nigel Cooke
Nigel Cooke is the head chef at Laura Ashley The Tea Room Solihull, which opened in June 2017. As the first franchise, its success led to more openings – at Burnham Beeches Hotel in summer 2018 and Coventry in October 2018.
Tell us about The Tea Room…
It offers a quintessential English experience of the highest level, while linking it to the heritage of the famous Laura Ashley. This is achieved through the tea room being decorated in signature Laura Ashley style – elegant and comfortable – perfect for indulging in one of Britain’s more recognised past times. Customers can expect great value with all the British afternoon tea classics including a selection of freshly made finger sandwiches, fancy cakes and patisserie selections which change regularly and include modern interpretations of British classics.
How do you make your menu stand out from the competition?
We use chai tea to help flavour some of our cakes, loose-leaf tea elements to decorate the cakes and smoke the flour by burning the tea to enhance the scent and flavour of the cakes and add frozen tea ice cubes into the icing before piping. We also use seasonal and fresh ingredients to make our cakes, such as serving rhubarb and ginger tarts and chai spiced carrot cake. We try to keep our breads as traditional as possible because there is an expectation to have classic breads. However, we do experiment with one bread on our selection – we are currently using a dark Rye for our salmon and apple reduction open sandwich.
Why is the afternoon tea tradition so popular?
It’s not something you’d eat everyday, only on special occasions. It’s pure indulgence and that’s what makes it a real treat, and so popular. It’s a dining experience removed from the usual mealtime norm, and that in itself makes the whole experience a special one.
Who are your clientele?
It’s mixed as we have customers young and old. It’s nice when the generations sit together though, as it’s not often you see everyone enjoying the same meal these days. Our children’s afternoon tea has grown in popularity and we are getting more bookings for birthday parties. To cater to the younger market, the sandwiches are filled with simple flavours, such as plain jam and plain cheese, the cakes contain less sugar but are colourful and fun, and fresh fruit and vegetable sticks are also included.
What are the most popular drinks?
When it comes to alcohol, it’s Champagne all the way! Prosecco and sparkling wine are also popular. When it comes to tea, English Breakfast is still the top seller, followed by Earl Grey, then Mao Feng Green Tea. We offer 11 different teas in total.
What about coffee?
Coffee is very popular, and we do see a lot of people having it with their afternoon tea. However, part of our philosophy is to try and get people to experience new things, so we offer unlimited tea, so that people can try the variety teas and flavours we have on offer which normally they’d not come across.
Are you doing anything special for Mother’s Day and Easter?
Every weekend we are full, so booking is required. For Mother’s Day and Easter we expect we will be very busy! To make these occasions extra special, we will be adding smoked salmon with dill vol-au-vent, tomato bruschetta, free range egg and mayo, crayfish tail, falafel and hummus wrap to our Mother’s Day menu, along with the speciality cakes such as cherry bakewell, coffee and walnut cake, macaroons and chocolate delice. For Easter, we will be serving a chocolate surprise for the children, and of course homemade Easter eggs.
What’s your career history?
I trained at Solihull College and University Centre in the West Midlands before going on to work and lead kitchens in various gastro pubs and high-end restaurants in the Midlands which included The Boot Lapworth, The Kings Arms Knowle, West Midlands Golf Club, The Forest of Arden Hotel and the White Swan in Henley. After 20 years I joined Corus Hotels before becoming the executive chef for The Regency Hotel in Solihull and The Chace Hotel in Coventry where I managed a team of 15 chefs.
What’s the secret to a good afternoon tea?
Creating an experience that’s affordable, easily accessible and socially engaging. Understanding your clientele and ensuring your product is consistently excellent. All afternoon teas should be created and presented with the same high quality, despite how many you have served. It’s about great ingredients served in a beautiful space that creates an affordable luxury treat.
What skills does a chef need to work in this environment?
Attention to detail, a very steady hand, the ability to plan ahead and, most importantly, the confidence to go into the tea room or restaurant and engage with the guests, further enhancing their experience.
How do you cater for different diets?
We want everyone to have the opportunity to experience afternoon tea, so as well as our vegetarian and gluten-free menus at the beginning of the year we launched a vegan afternoon tea too. We have seen an increase in vegan diners visiting the tea rooms so we wanted to create an experience that was just as special for them. The menu includes hummus and roasted vegetable sandwiches, tomato and shallot chutney, and avocado and lime crostini. It’s served with vegan scones with jam plus sweet treats such as double chocolate cake, banana cake and fruit skewers.