Hi Anna … can you tell us how you first got into the hospitality sector?
I realised A-levels were not for me, so went to catering college for a year to learn the basics. They had a restaurant on site, so we had to work in all areas – I much preferred working in the kitchen than out front. From there I was approached by a private company in France to run a ski chalet for a couple of seasons, then in between during the summer I worked for Mark Warner holidays; again in the kitchen. Both seasons were all about your free time so being able to ski as much as possible and learn new water sports was a huge bonus as you didn’t get paid much! After travelling for one and a half years, I moved to London and got a job at the Cordon Bleu School in Marylebone; although I didn’t enjoy this as much as I was more office-based than in the kitchen.
From there I was then introduced to Formula 1 via Absolute Taste. I was part of the circuit following the test and race team with the catering trailer; looking after all meals for the team, drivers and VIPs. Absolute Taste also had an outside catering unit in London, so I then moved to Sous Chef after finishing travelling with the teams. After a few years I then made the decision to set up on my own – “Anna Duttson Events” which went from strength to strength over the years and is still going strong.
What do you love about events? And working with food and drink?
I am a huge worrier and still worry about every event I cater for (maybe that is why we are a success as I don’t get complacent for each event); but I love to hear the positive feedback from clients and guests. It's so rewarding to hear, as so much time and effort goes into the planning and food preparation.
How long have you wanted to run your own Hotel?
To be honest our goal was a venue with a few rooms on the side – B&B! We catered at a wedding which had a lovely outlook and a couple of rooms; a husband and wife ran it - we drove away after the event thinking: “we can do this … but better”!!
How did you know that the Norfolk Mead was 'The one’?
It wasn’t" the one" on my first or second visit!! I could see the potential but also was very wary of the works that needed to be carried out; plus being a grade two listed building is not our forte. Also, our idea was to build a venue so we needed the council’s advice before we put an offer in on the Mead. But after much thought we took the plunge.
What was the renovation process like? What did you enjoy the most? What were the biggest challenges?
We only gave ourselves six weeks to turn the hotel around to our standard, so that was a huge challenge. The previous owners literally handed over the keys and left - leaving everything in situ. So our first weekend was spent with friends and family helping us sort out furniture, taking down curtains, pulling up all the carpets etc. This all needed to be cleared by 8am Monday morning for the builders to arrive and get on with their allocated jobs straight away. James and I had been very organised by doing mood boards for each room, so we had already ordered the furniture, wallpaper, carpets, all the bathrooms, paint colours etc; so when the deliveries came I was in charge of labelling all boxes to our storage area for each room. We were both up and working each day by 6am either in the office or on site. We needed to be around all the time as so many questions were being asked.
What do you enjoy the most about running The Mead?
I must admit James runs the hotel and venue on a day to day basis as do the staff when we are not there, and vice versa when James is away; I will. But it works that way and we often bounce ideas off each other and seek reassurance.
What is a typical day like for you?
When I am at the Hotel I am usually the chef on the breakfast shift (which I enjoy, as I see in the supplies that have been ordered, check pricing and quality as I like to keep a good rapport with the suppliers. Making sure all areas are clean and tidy around the kitchen and hotel too). Once cleared down, with the sandwiches made for afternoon teas, I head over to the events kitchen and jump in with the preparation for our next event. I usually then work all day until the evening food has been served from the Hotel kitchen.
What makes the Mead special?
The building speaks for itself - as you drive down the long gravel drive then it opens out and you get drawn to the Georgian building with it’s striking chimneys and you’re right on the Norfolk Broads to take our motor launch out. James and I like the personal touches to the Mead that we have made - it being the brownies in the rooms, your feet being washed before a massage, taking a homemade picnic out on our boat or enjoying an afternoon tea within the walled garden. Plus the staff, who we are very grateful to, understanding our concept and what we want to achieve as a business.
What do guests enjoy about their visit or stay?
The guests firstly love the Hotel itself - being grade two listed, it’s comfortable, homely, has a modern twist to the décor, peaceful, beautiful gardens, large rain showers, king size comfortable beds. They love the extra small touches in the rooms (homemade brownies!) and Treatment Rooms (ginger tea and fruit skewers!). Secondly, the food - the comments on Tripadvisor and in our guest book speak for themselves; and thirdly, the staff (which I do get told most days when chatting to guests) - how welcoming they make guests feel; how they are happy within their workplace and cheerful.
How do you motivate the rest of the team?
James and I shut the Hotel only twice a year and this is for the staff, from us, to say a big thank you for their hard work over the year. We always organise a surprise day and evening out for them. It’s our way to make sure they are appreciated by us and thanked. We also give appraisals yearly and usually Christmas bonuses.
What advice would you have for anyone thinking of going into hospitality?
Remember it’s long and anti-social hours but is really rewarding from the start to finish of events; and if you’re lucky enough to travel with it too that is a great bonus.
What do you like doing with your time off?
I enjoy socialising with friends and family whether just for a coffee, entertaining at home or going to restaurants and bars; cycling, fitness in general and hanging out at home.
Why is Norfolk a special place to visit?
It really is a hidden gem - the coastline is so different to my Kent coastline that I was brought up with. Vast stretches of sand, dunes, wildlife to watch, boat trips or holidays on the Broads and eating fresh crab. Great pubs and eateries around the county. Norwich is quirky, quaint (with cobbled streets) and has it’s own trends and individual shops and market.
Do you have a favourite dish that the Restaurant serve? What about a favourite wine?
I’m keen on fish so one of my favourites is: Brill fillet, roasted cauliflower puree, samphire, mange tout, Persian potatoes, confit fennel, Romanesco, smoked cod bon bon, fennel and spinach velouté. I'm partial to bubbles rather than wine!! Or lots of ice and cucumber in a Hendricks gin and tonic!
What’s your favourite bedroom at the Hotel and why?
That’s really tricky as all of them are so different - I love the attic rooms - Sloe, Damson (with its beautiful window), and even Horseradish as they are in the eaves and are quirky with their décor. Beechnut is tucked away with a four poster bed, separate sitting room and it’s own outside space - but I think for me our bridal suite Chanterelle is calming, bright, airy and has a dreamy balcony overlooking the river.
If you could stay at any Hotel in the world, where would you go and why?
There are still so many places I would like to travel to. In my early 20s, I had worked and saved up to travel for up to one and a half years (I was on the tightest of budgets!). I adored Malaysia so I would love to go back for the cuisine, climate and fauna - so The Datai Langkawi resort. Closer to home, I've never been to the Italian Amalfi coast - this is another dream!
Is there a restaurant that you have heard about that you would love to visit? What is your favourite meal?
Yes, I am really keen to try out a couple - they have been around a while but I’m interested in the atmosphere too - Social Eating House (Jason Atherton) and Chiltern Firehouse (cocktails first, or even just brunch). I’m a lover of breakfast and brunch (the most important meal to me of the day!).
If you could start your career again but not go into hospitality, what would be your alternative career choice and why?
That’s a really difficult question, but I think something to do with animals – a veterinary nurse? So I could help sick animals but I would probably want to take them all home!!? So not ideal!
What is next for the Mead? Can you give us an insight into any future plans once you re-open?
We have a plan but it can’t be revealed just yet unfortunately! But we are always busy thinking of our next steps - and even now while we are shut we are planning mood boards for the next revamp of our rooms!