A luxury retreat is bucking the trend thanks to its prevalence for nurturing homegrown talent.
Words by Samantha Kirton
There’s no doubt that the hospitality industry has endured a tough couple of years in the post-Brexit, post-pandemic era. The boutique Talland Bay Hotel near Polperro has not been immune to the trials and tribulations of staff recruitment. Flashback to 2015 when doctor turned residential care home owner Kevin O’Sullivan decided to diversify and purchase the hotel that he and wife Teresa liked to visit in the sleepy hamlet of Porthallow in southeast Cornwall. He inherited a team that was invested in the moto ‘warmth beyond the smile’, several of whom still count themselves as part of the Talland Bay family. “One reason that so many of our guests return time and again is that they’re welcomed by familiar faces,” explains General Manager, Jack Ashby-Wright. “It’s like a homecoming. They get to know individual team members that they look forward to reuniting with.”
Ashby-Wright is a perfect case in point. He joined the hotel as Deputy Manager in 2015, moving from the Portbyhan Hotel in Looe. Before that, he’d spent three and a half years as Restaurant Supervisor at Couch’s Great House Restaurant in Polperro. He was just twenty-five when he took on the General Manager role in 2018 and by his own admission has had to learn on the job. “I was stepping into big shoes,” he admits. “And I’ve come a long way in the last four or so years.” In that time the hotel has notched up accolades including ‘Small Hotel of the Year’ Gold and ‘Restaurant of the Year’ Silver at the Cornwall Tourism Awards in late 2018.
Assistant Deputy Manager Kyra Varney is another of the hotel’s success stories. She worked her way up to Restaurant Supervisor at just age 18 while studying for a hospitality apprenticeship at Cornwall College in St Austell. Simultaneously named Cornwall’s Young Apprentice of the Year at the Excellence in Business Training Awards 2018. And she’s not the only Varney that guests will encounter. Mum Lucy has worked at the hotel since 2014, most recently as Ashby-Wright’s deputy and now heading up the reception team, while Kyra’s younger sister Alisha is making a name for herself turning out attention-grabbing pastries from the award-winning kitchen.
The Varneys aren’t the only Talland Bay Hotel dynasty. Head Chef Glen Merriott is supported by brother Jack as his sous in the kitchen. Possibly one of the biggest surprises about this homegrown team is the calibre of the food. Recent reviewers have used words like “sensational” and “fantastic” to describe the dishes. This is thanks, in no small part, to Merriott. The laconic chef joined the hotel as a kitchen porter in 2008, working his way up through the ranks to become senior sous to Nick Hawke, who had trained in a Michelin-starred kitchen prior to taking the helm at Talland Bay. When Hawke left in the spring of 2021, there was no question that Merriott wouldn’t step into the top job.
As unassuming as he is talented, Merriott demurs when any credit is levelled in his direction. “I have an incredible team,” he says. “We’re a great family.” It’s abundantly clear that this family takes real pride and love in what they do. Words like sustainable, locally sourced, and seasonal are bandied about a lot. But scratch below the surface and Merriott and Ashby-Wright will quickly enlighten you as to what this means at Talland Bay Hotel.
All the fish featured on the menu comes fresh off the boat from Simply Fish in Looe, as well as live lobsters when they’re available. Philip Warren Butchers – who pride themselves on supplying not just Cornwall but the UK’s most talented chefs – provide the meat, except for the lamb on the Sunday roast menu, which comes from the neighbouring farm (which has also produced three of the current staff line-up). Mushrooms are foraged nearby, while the impressive cheese board selection is carefully sourced from around the county. To dine here is not simply to enjoy a whistlestop tour of the best of Cornwall. The experience is a rite of passage, a six-course extravaganza. The journey starts with a drink and canapés in the bar: there are over one hundred gins to choose from as well as an impressive selection of Cornish tipples; or ask Kyra to mix one of her special cocktail concoctions.
Next, it’s time to take a seat in the restaurant, which, much like the rest of the property, boasts an eclectic style of its own. Whatever else has changed with the interior design since the Sullivans took over, the opulent, heavy dining chairs have remained. All part of the performance, guests wait for a member of staff to scoop the chairs out and gently but firmly thrust them and their occupant back into place. But once this piece of theatre is done, it is left to the dishes themselves to steal the show. Merriott describes his style of cooking as “comfort food which isn’t busy on the plate but packs flavour,” allowing the ingredients to sing. The result is food that is as pleasing on the palate as it is on the eye. Beautifully presented, colourful and lovingly constructed dishes that are satisfyingly delicious, it’s fine dining without the fuss.
Of course, it’s not just about the quality of the food. The young front-of-house team has witnessed a few changes over the past year, but their ambitious GM is quietly confident that the various cogs are now working like a well-oiled machine. Perversely, a quieter-than-expected summer has given them just the right amount of breathing space for everything to align and newer team members to be trained up. “There have been past seasons where we didn’t know our behinds from our elbows,” says Ashby-Wright. “And when you’re that busy there’s always the risk of this impacting on the exceptional customer experience we aim for. I think we have just the right balance now of the staff-to-guest ratio.”
Training has always been a key part of the Talland Bay Hotel ethos, encouraging staff to grow as much as they want. Seven members of staff have gone through apprenticeship programmes while working at the hotel. When staff leave, they often return to the fold. “Linda on reception is out of retirement for the third time as I asked her to come back,” says Ashby-Wright with a twinkle in his eye. “She has been here on and off for 15 years. Jason, David and Ellis are all on their second stint with us. It’s a family affair.”
What’s next for the 20-bedroom property? Regular visitors will know that there is always some new quirk to the décor, some new upcycled piece of bric-a-brac to catch the eye (all thanks to Penny, who joined the hotel in 1990 as a chambermaid and has seen five owners and a fair few famous guests in that time). There are grand plans to extend the property towards the sea to create more living space and a new accessible entrance as well as an orangery area and balconies for the first-floor rooms. “We’re ready to push the food offering to the max and go after more restaurant accolades,” Ashby-Wright confides. The restaurant holds two AA Rosettes and has been striving for a third. “I’d like to see us in the Michelin Guide too,” he says. “Why not, I genuinely feel we’re good enough.” And having sampled the food, I don’t doubt that he’s right.