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A hotel and restaurant couple 20 years on
by Nicholas Lander, Financial Times, February 14, 2009

Romance is an integral part of the restaurant world and not just something that obviously boosts sales – and inflates prices – on Valentine’s Day.

As with other close-knit professions, a romantic bond frequently develops between those who are working together in the kitchen or alongside one another in the dining room. This is accentuated by the anti-social hours many work; it is so much easier to spend time with someone else who has also just finished work at midnight or later.

Even so, I was surprised when Nina Basset told me how quickly she had moved in with her now husband, Gerard, after they had started working together. “It was two weeks,” she confessed.

That brief encounter was 20 years ago when Nina had just become the restaurant manager at Chewton Glen Hotel in the New Forest, Hampshire. Gerard was in the middle of establishing himself as one of the world’s most respected sommeliers, winning just about every competition except the Best Sommelier of the World contest, in which he has three times been runner-up.

The Bassets later became part of the team that opened the Hotel du Vin group. Using Gerard’s expertise and memorabilia supplied by his contacts in the wine world, the group established seven relaxed, mid-market hotels, which they sold in 2004. “I made £2.5m out of the sale,” Basset said, “enough for us to feel comfortable – but not so much that we could ever think about not working again.”

The sale also provided breathing space for Basset to consider his future in the UK, which he had fallen in love with when he first came over from France in 1979. His job searches were not always easy. In one Job Centre interview, failing to understand what was implied by the question: “Do you have any criminal convictions?”, he wrote down, “Too difficult to explain”.

Hotels, good wine and food were firmly in the family, particularly as Nina had spent four years inspecting hotels for the AA Guide. This had the major disadvantage of her having to spend at least four nights each week away from her family but it ultimately provided invaluable insights into the vital details of what makes a bedroom comfortable, such as always putting a small jug of fresh milk into the mini bar.

For Gerard, location, location, location was the mantra for their next move. He was conscious of the loyal following his wine expertise had generated among customers at Chewton Glen at New Milton and then at the Hotel du Vin in Winchester. And he did not want to give up his morning ritual of walking his dog (named after a grape variety, of course) on the beach. “I knew we had to be close to Southampton, which is a 15-minute drive away, to be able to attract business people. They wouldn’t stay overnight during the week if we were located too deep in the New Forest. Yet we had to be close to the forest to attract those who just wanted to get away from it all. Fortunately, we found an old hotel and £2.8m later we opened Terravina.”

The first impression of Terravina is that this Victorian building, from the outside at least, is not that attractive. But its position, right across the road from the forest, where the ponies amble during the day and the deer zip across at night, could not be better. The interior and the bedrooms reflect Nina’s professionalism and eye for detail.

Like other small hoteliers around the UK, Basset is seeing an upturn in business as the weak pound makes trips to Europe more expensive. “We are beginning to see a definite change. Today, I took bookings for 13 different bedroom nights and that is the most we have taken on one day for some time. This is promising, especially as it is before the clocks change and the weather improves.”

How to achieve what both Bassets seek in their restaurant has proved challenging. “From the beginning, I have always wanted to serve the kind of food I first encountered when I was travelling around the vineyards of California, in Napa and Sonoma. I love the pizza that they make over there but I don’t think we’ve ever really cracked it. I spent a lot of money on installing a pizza oven but at the moment we only use it for cooking the roast beef on a Sunday.”

In design terms, the restaurant looks the part. The far wall has been opened up to house yet more wine; there is a large open kitchen that would not look out of place in San Francisco; and the interior, incorporating light wood and comfortable materials, is immediately relaxing. Best of all is a series of glass-panelled doors on to the patio and garden, which Basset hopes to open up more often this summer.

Basset and his team have written menus and a wine list with immediate appeal. We ate a crab and leek lasagne; a pickled artichoke salad with enoki mushrooms; local venison, the loin roast and the shoulder braised; and an excellent crème brûlée (a recipe, it was whispered to me, they had borrowed from a customer); all of which were very good. And the extremely catholic and well-priced wine list, predominantly in the care of two enthusiastic young sommeliers, Laura and Laurent, is first class.

Yet, I could not help leaving with the conviction that Basset is still striving to achieve precisely the food he would like his restaurant to serve. No one could fault his work ethic. The only person in the world to be a Master Sommelier, Master of Wine and hold a Wine MBA from Bordeaux University (where his thesis was on wine lists), he still yearns for that big title. “The Best Sommelier competition is going to be held next in Chile in 2010,” he explained, “and I may well give it one last go.”

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