Denise Bottrill - Oak House & Taste Catering

Interview by Phil Simpson on 1 April 2014 | Photographs by Ben Taylor

Denise Bottrill, owner of Taste Catering and Oak House Bed and Breakfast in Bruton, has always been a lover of the hotel experience. Inspired by childhood holidays, she started her career in hotel management, went on to set up and run a gourmet restaurant in Bruton, and after a round-the-world trip, is running a successful catering company and B&B. Denise talks to Localeyez about how she discovered her Bruton businesses, her love of travel, and the importance of keeping it local!

What’s your background and where did you grow up?
I was raised in Chipping Sodbury, in South Gloucestershire.  As a child, I always loved going on holidays and staying at hotels, and this inspired me to later study Hotel Management, along with French and German, in Bristol.  After I graduated, I went on a work placement at the Great Eastern Hotel in Liverpool Street in London.  I then got the London bug and ended up staying there for longer, working in various hotels, with one of my last positions being at the Intercontinental on Hyde Park corner.

When did you come to Bruton?
While I was in London I met my husband, who was also working in the hotel and catering industry as a chef.  We decided we wanted to start something up ourselves, and sold our family home and started looking at potential properties in a 50 mile radius of my parent’s house.  It soon became apparent that most of the trendy areas we were looking at were out of our price range.  However, an estate agent sent us information about a run down property in Bruton, which caught our eye.  When we viewed it, we fell in love with its simple charm and quirkiness, and could immediately see its potential.  In a way, it was as if the property chose us! When we took it over it was a Dutch/Indonesian restaurant, which we transformed into what is now Truffles Restaurant on Bruton High Street.

Jackie Brookes - artist and theatre designer
Photographed by Ben Taylor

What do you think makes Bruton and the surrounding area unique?
When we first moved to Bruton in the 1980s, it felt like the town was stuck in time, with its quaint shops selling old fashioned lingerie and shoes.  But things have changed radically since then, and Bruton seems to be experiencing a golden age of business and creativity.  What I really love about Bruton is its eclectic mix of people. Bruton has a fantastic community.  It’s also the combination of the town’s architecture, and the way both people and place come together in such a unique way.

What do you love about the hotel and hospitality industry?
I just love dealing with people, being sociable, and creating a unique and memorable experience, whether through food or providing people with a place to stay.

Your first venture in 1986, Truffles Restaurant was really well received and consistently rated. What was the secret to its success?
Well, I believe it’s because of our business philosophy that we still have to this day. We source local ingredients and use seasonal produce, and we did that even during a time when it wasn't a fashionable thing to do.  We did take a bit of a risk, as during the 1980s, people weren’t really eating out so much, and not used to trying out different things.  Above all, we wanted to provide our customers with a high-end, gourmet style experience, and our passion for high quality food and service, permeated everything that we did.

Above all, we wanted
to provide our customers with a high-end, gourmet style experience, and our passion for high quality food and service permeated everything that we did.
Photographed by Ben Taylor

You then decided to sell Truffles and try something new. What happened next?
Things were going really well at Truffles and we were full pretty much all of the time, but we felt we had taken it as far as we could. Also the birth of our daughter was making us reflect on the way we were working, and we really didn’t want to be working six days a week anymore.  We liked the idea of doing something with accommodation, because I had come from a hotel background, and also the possibility of doing event catering.  We sold Truffles, left everything behind and ended up travelling around the world with our two year old daughter in tow. It was an amazing experience. It also enabled us to experience what was going on internationally, and we visited lots of food businesses, boutiques, hotels, restaurants and delis. It was a really inspiring time.

Were there any particularly inspiring or funny moments that you can recall from your travels?
We gained a lot of inspiration from a couple of boutique hotels on our travels, namely Cape Lodge at the Margaret river in Western Australia, which remains today a great pioneer and a well run amazing hotel with great food and wine.  Also an event catering company in Noosa in Queensland which proved that mass catering could be individual and inspired us to create Taste Catering in a similar vein. It was not all just eating and drinking, and afterwards we thought we really should have written a guide to every park, zoo and aquarium. Travelling with a 2 year old focuses one on what really is important, and I think we saw them all.

You set up Taste Catering in 2006. What motivated this move and what were your aspirations with the business?
When we returned from our travels we were looking for another property for a restaurant, but couldn’t find anything. So we focused our attention on creating Taste Catering. This involved setting up a industrial kitchen in Stalbridge.  We already had an established relationship with Matt and Trisha Rawlingson-Plant at the Longhouse in Bruton, who at the time were exploring the idea of having wedding receptions. They asked us if we would be interested in providing the catering for their wedding receptions, and the whole thing just rolled from there. At the same time we were attending and selling our products at farmers markets. This really enabled us to try out new food ideas and build relationships with potential clients and customers. The whole retail side of things was a brand new experience for me, and it was both challenging and exciting.

The Oak House's simple touches really make a difference.
Photographed by Ben Taylor
The Oak House's simple touches really make a difference.

What led you to set up Oak House in Bruton?
While we were developing Taste Catering, we had still been looking for the ‘ultimate property’, and for months I had been walking past the Royal Oak pub, which was all boarded up.  One day it came up for auction.  I remember an agent walking us round the property with a torch, and all the rooms were dusty and the carpets terribly stained with beer.  At first we thought it might be too much risk and work to make it how we wanted it.  It was due to go to auction in London, and we thought if it sells at auction, it’s just not meant to be.  However, it didn’t sell and by that stage we were in a position to move on it. We put in an offer directly to the agent, and surprisingly, it was accepted. It was only after we finally received the keys that the enormity of the project suddenly kicked in!

What inspired the Oak House’s contemporary style?
We had been inspired by some beautiful contemporary properties while we were travelling, and wanted to create something similar, whilst retaining the period characteristics of the building. The aim was to make a really clean and comfortable space that people would immediately feel at home in.  One thing we really wanted to get right was the comfort of the beds, so we opted for the same beds they use in five star international hotels.

“We wanted to create an experience where guests could come and go as they pleased, and essentially use the place like a second home during their stay. We certainly won’t be waiting up for our guests or interrogating them when they arrive back!”

Since the Oak House opened it’s been really successful. What’s been the key to its success?
In addition to providing a high quality experience, unlike a traditional bed & breakfast, where you have a landlord or landlady ruling the roost and imposing house rules, we’ve gone totally in the opposite direction. We wanted to create an experience where guests could come and go as they pleased, and essentially use the place like a second home during their stay. We certainly won’t be waiting up for our guests or interrogating them when they arrive back! We aim to really look after our guests, but without making them feel like they’re being overly looked after. There’s also a lot of attention to detail, so for example, there’s filter coffee in each room, free Wifi, and you don’t have to ring down to reception for an iron or hairdryer, they are already in every room. I think these simple touches really make a difference.

Do you have a particular philosophy or ethos running through both Taste Catering and Oak House?
Our most important ethos is to source everything locally. We choose local growers and farmers for our food, and employ local people to help us with all aspects of our business. By doing this, we all help our community and keep the local economy flowing. Another important aspect is personal service, and that our customers, especially on the catering side of things, have one point of contact, which really helps to build trust and get things right for every wedding or event. For us it is a privilege to help couples plan their wedding day and bring them to fruition.

Amelia Skinner tells it as it is!
Photographed by Ben Taylor

What’s the secret to running two businesses and a family at the same time?
I don’t think I hold the secret to that question!. It’s more about being able to keep all the balls in the air at the same time and just keep going. I’m also very organised, and I love what I’m doing, which really helps!

How do you relax and unwind?
Holidays! We’re still great travellers and love getting away for a relaxing break. Apart from that, the usual things like watching films, going to the theatre, eating out, and simply escaping the day-to-day.

Do you have any future plans for Taste Catering and Oak House?
We’re hoping to refine what we’re already doing at the Oak House and Taste Catering, especially in terms of having a more balanced flow of visitors and events. We’ll also be looking to develop our website and online presence, and integrate things like online booking.

With Hauser & Wirth Somerset opening in 2014, what opportunities do you think this will provide for Bruton?
I’m really excited about being in Bruton during such a major development, and I think it’s going to have a really positive impact on the town. It should bring in a lot more visitors to the area, and what I would like to see, is that those visitors stay in Bruton for a few days, to enjoy the many facilities and services that the town has to offer. Also, I think it’s important to have employment opportunities for the young people in a small town, otherwise they end up leaving, and that can take the heart out of a local community.

Taste Catering
Photographed by Ben Taylor

What makes you get up in the morning and feel inspired?
I’m a real lover of life. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and have a very strong bond with my parents. For me, those are the things that make life so inspiring!

What do you think makes a successful entrepreneur in today’s economic climate?
Drive, determination and passion are the main ingredients to being successful in business. Also, you have to believe in what you’re doing, and not to undervalue what your business is offering and your skills. I think this is a trap some self-employed people and small businesses fall into, and leads to them undercharging for their work. You’ve also got to be totally on top of your game and go the extra mile, as people have high expectations and don’t do mediocre.

What makes you happy?
I tend to be happy most of the time, although going on holiday and spending time with people I love always pushes up my happiness quota!

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your life?
My husband’s total belief in me has had the biggest impact on my life, and this has ultimately helped me to become who I am today.

Looking back at your life. What advice would you give a young Denise Bottrill?
Don’t be afraid to experiment with life and be inspired by the world. Be brave and believe in yourself!

A heavenly wall of desserts
Room for dessert? (Photographed by Ben Taylor)

Who would be your dream celebrity wedding to cater for, past or present?
I love helping couples to organise their perfect wedding day, helping them with menu choices and guiding them through the whole experience. For us every one of our couples has in their own way, their own dream celebrity wedding, and we love catering for them all.

What would be your ideal breakfast experience?
Sitting at Bills kitchen restaurant in Sydney, Australia enjoying a plate of fluffy ricotta pancakes and crispy bacon with a long black coffee under the Australian sunshine with my husband and daughter - perfect start to any day.

What’s your favourite hotel in the world and why?
I have several and I find it hard to choose between them as they all offer totally different, but amazing experiences. Tamarisk Beach in Ortakent, Turkey for the most relaxing family holidays ever.  The W in Barcelona for the coolest vibe, being in a city, on a beach with amazing architecture, views and service - it doesn't get much better than that for a weekend away. For the quirkiness and a bygone era - the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, which overlooks the tea plantations. They provide a butler to play snooker with you and hot water bottles in your bed all served up by the smiliest staff. My love of hotels is such that I want to try them all and perhaps I haven't even found my real favourite yet.

Find out more about Oak House Bruton and Taste Catering.