Hi James … can you tell us how you first got into the hospitality sector?
My father owned a 100-bedroom hotel in Scarborough and my mum used to run a restaurant for a small period of time. I would help my Dad as general ‘dogsbody’ … by running bags up to the rooms and orders in the kitchen, and helping mum prepare and serve tables in the restaurant. I then helped my Uncle Jerry wait on the tables at the Grapevine Restaurant - quite high-end in those days! I also did a years’ experience at the Hyatt Atlanta US Hotel, a 1,000-bedroom hotel where three great promotion opportunities gave me the drive and focus to carry on in the catering industry.
Food and drink has always been a passion of mine and I nearly became a chef after doing three years at Yorkshire Coast College but I decided management would be a better option for me; so I went to Huddersfield University and did a four year Management Course with Tourism and Leisure.
I joined the ‘Absolute Taste’ outside catering company within a week of finishing college who were part of the McLaren Formula 1 team. I started by making tea and coffee for the drivers, team and guests and moved up from the test team to the race team, and finally to become their Outside Catering Events Manger. I was there for 10 years in total. I then joined in partnership with Anna starting our outside catering company Anna Duttson Events which is still going strong today.
What do you love about events? And working with food and drink?
Every event is different. I don’t like things to be monotonous and although you could argue it’s still the same hotel and venue … but every day has its own challenges.
How long have you wanted to run your own Hotel?
I never did! If I’m honest I never wanted a hotel after watching the hard work my father put into his and watching a few of the customer complaints come in. It’s more the fact I wanted a venue where we could invite potential clients to come to us rather than us going to them through our outside Catering company - Anna Duttson Events.
How did you know that the Norfolk Mead was ‘the one’?
I just saw a vision in the Norfolk Mead; it was very run-down but I believed it just needed some love and affection. One of the crucial factors in this was the ability to be able to build The Garden Room venue within the existing walled garden. This would allow us the opportunity to hold weddings, parties, corporate team building days etc. and we did our research with the council before we bought the property to make sure this was a possibility … the rest is history as they say.
What was the renovation process like? What did you enjoy the most? What were the biggest challenges?
The renovation process was challenging but exciting at the same time. I wanted local people to do the work as I thought they would be sympathetic to the building as it is Grade II Listed, and they would have local knowledge and the best rates. The biggest challenges was the time frame and the budget, of course. When we had our first meeting with the builders, they suggested it would take six months to do the work; I told them they had six weeks! We moved in on February 22 2013 with the help of family and friends, and we then had 22 builders and 16 painters in the building for six weeks, everyday apart from Sundays. We opened for Easter in April 2013; it was such an achievement.
What do you enjoy the most about running The Mead?
I love the challenge. As I said earlier, every day is different and there is never a day that is the same. Challenges come in so many different forms such as the guests, day to day maintenance, staffing issues, deliveries and supplies; but most importantly trying to deliver a high level of product and service every single day. At the end of the day, week, or month, sometimes you get the chance to reflect on what we have achieved and I am immensely proud.
What is a typical day like for you?
I like to start with a run or go to the gym first thing if I get the chance. This could be followed by helping with breakfast in the kitchen; checking emails; meetings; maintenance of the building; accounts and finally overseeing the Hotel and Garden Room if necessary. I have a great team now so I have been able to sit back a little and focus on growing and expanding the Hotel … but at the same time I always keep an eye on the product and service that we give to all our guests.
What makes the Mead special?
There are many things that make the Hotel special from the character of the building, to the location; but most importantly the product and service from the staff is pivotal to our success. I firmly believe that every guest who walks through the front door should receive the same level of product and service whoever they are. Anna and I have always been passionate about food and service and I think this is very much at the forefront of the business. At the same time, you need great staff to put this across and I firmly believe we have this in place - we certainly would not be where we are today without them. The Hotel with it’s Grade II Listing means it is a bit quirky and that’s why all the rooms are individually decorated and named after herbs you can forage for in Norfolk!
Do you have a favourite dish that the Restaurant serve? What about a favourite wine?
I don’t have a favourite dish but one of the great things about being the 'boss' is that I get to try some of the new dishes that Damien, Keiron and the kitchen brigade have put together. It’s not great on the waistline but it certainly brings a smile to me! With the wine, I’ve always believed that it’s easy to tell someone an expensive wine tastes good; the clever part is finding a cheaper wine that is just as good on the palette. For this reason I love the El Colectivo Malbec but since I prefer bubbles generally I do like the odd glass of Laurent-Perrier Rose when we have something special to celebrate.
What’s your favourite bedroom at the Hotel and why?
Samphire is my favourite room. It’s the biggest room within the Hotel and it is quirky due to the bath in the main room itself as well as a huge separate walk in shower room. It overlooks the front of the Hotel, has a big four poster bed and has a lovely luxury feel to it.
What do guests enjoy about their visit or stay?
There are a few things and of course every guest is looking for something different so the answer is not straight forward. But I would argue the food and service are the two most important reasons why we get a large amount of repeat guests coming back to the Hotel. The front of house team make a big effort to make guests feel special - we try and make it a home from home experience.
Why is Norfolk a special place to visit?
There are so many things to do in Norfolk and it would take forever to go through these! But most of all the people are kind and from a business point of view the produce for the restaurant is excellent.
How do you motivate the rest of the team?
This is done in a number of ways from appraisals, financial, training, meetings, and to team building days. We only close the Hotel for two days a year and this is to take all the contracted staff for a day and night out to say 'Thank You'. In November last year, for example, we took them on the train to London to watch the Lion King at the Ambassador Theatre, followed by cocktails and dinner at Flesh and Buns in Covent Garden and finally ended up at Swingers Crazy Golf for more cocktails!
What advice would you have for anyone thinking of going into hospitality?
You need to be passionate about the industry – it’s long hours for little pay to begin with. However the upside to that is that hospitality can be very rewarding; you meet some great people both staff and guests alike, some of whom will be your friends for life.
What do you like doing with your time off?
I’m a big fan of F1 from my McLaren days so watching F1 is always popular; golf; going to nice restaurants and an overnight stay in a spa hotel with treatments.
If you could stay at any Hotel in the world, where would you go and why?
I’m very lucky to have stayed at some fabulous hotels around the world - obviously down to research and development! My current favourite hotel is the No 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami but I would like to stay at the Hanoi La Siesta Hotel & Spa, The Tuxerhof Alpin Spa Hotel, Banyan Tree Hotel in the Seychelles and finally the Tulemar Resort in Costa Rica.
What is your favourite restaurant and why?
My favourite restaurant is Zuma in London – it is a Japanese izakaya. It has amazing consistency, the overall product is very high quality and there is a great atmosphere.
If you could start your career again but not go into hospitality, what would be your alternative career choice and why?
To be honest I have no idea - it’s the only thing I know! But I’m pretty good with numbers and thinking outside the box, so maybe an entrepreneur of some form or another.
What is next for the Mead? Can you give us an insight into any future plans once you re-open?
The Mead does have some potentially exciting news in the future in terms of expansion - but it’s not finalised yet so unfortunately I can’t divulge as of yet. However, in house we are currently in a programme of updating all the rooms and I would hope by the Spring of 2021 they will all have had a full make over.