Sponsored by Brakes
Chris Cleghorn is executive head chef at the 50-cover Olive Tree restaurant in Bath, part of the boutique Queensberry hotel.
When he joined the kitchen in 2013 his ambition was to gain Bath's only Michelin star, and his drive saw the restaurant recognised with three AA rosettes in less than nine months. Due to Cleghorn's hard work, the coveted star followed in October 2018. As any chef knows, part of the challenge of a star is not just winning but maintaining the award, and Cleghorn has helped the venue keep its accolade for the past four years. He is scrupulous about working with the best producers in the south-west of England and carefully develops and refines the menu.
During the 2020 and 2021 coronavirus lockdowns a major fire destroyed the entire Olive Tree kitchen, and Cleghorn worked to help redesign the space to ensure it would benefit the team when it reopened.
He was promoted to executive head chef in January 2021 and his efforts helped the hotel break all financial records last year. This looks to be another bumper year, with revenue for the restaurant forecast to exceed £2m with an operating profit of £625,000.
The Olive Tree offers a nine-course evening tasting menu at £135 or six courses for £105, and guests can choose à la carte dishes from the tasting menus if they prefer. This approach has seen the average food spend in the restaurant rise by over 25% to a consistent £82 per head at dinner. At lunch, where Cleghorn has introduced a £70, four-course tasting menu, there has also been an increase in average spend to £55.
Staff retention is a big part of his work as executive head chef and he is determined to protect his team from burnout. This has seen the introduction of four-day work patterns for staff and the restaurant becoming a Real Living Wage employer. The Olive Tree also closes for lunch and dinner for four weeks a year to give the team time to rest. Cleghorn's careful management has helped him balance overall payroll cost for the restaurant at 32% of turnover this year.
The chef has also acted as a mentor to the rising stars in his team. Jake Nicholls joined the restaurant as an apprentice in January 2018 and has been supported through his level 2 NVQ, with Cleghorn teaching him how to run every section of the kitchen and the management details behind running the restaurant. This led to Nicholls being promoted to head chef in July aged just 23.
Our judges said the low staff turnover at the restaurant and its financial achievements were a testament to Cleghorn's abilities as a leader in what has been a very tough year for hospitality, making him a worthy winner of this award.
What the judges said
"Coming back from Covid was difficult enough for most of us, but to add in a kitchen fire requires strength of character that Chris clearly possesses. Through it all, he has taken care of and developed his team and continuously shown creativity and innovation in the creation of new guest experiences. I particularly love his involvement with the colleges, schools and Bath Rugby Foundation."
Chris Cleghorn, the Olive Tree restaurant, Bath
Rob Mason, the Cottage in the Wood, Malvern
Adam Reid, Adam Reid at the French, the Midland Manchester
Mathew Sherry, the Balmoral, Edinburgh
2021 Jean-Philippe Blondet, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, London
2019 Calum Franklin, Holborn Dining Room, Rosewood London