Jemima Nelson Spring 2021
Chessington already has a world of adventures; it’s just about to get another one – a brave new world of outdoor cooking, a barbecue ‘theme park’ creating a high-end food experience, based on the principle of farm to fork; local produce for local people.
Chessington Garden Centre, half a mile from Chessington World of Adventures, dates back to 1949. The war is over; rationing is not, and the story begins with eight-year-old Alex Martin – a green-fingered entrepreneur, even if confined to growing fruit and vegetables in the family garden. But young Alex is already selling produce locally and going on to expand his horticultural knowledge and harvest his passion, which eventually leads to the opening of Chessington Garden Centre in 1967.
The current managing director is Alex Martin’s son, Jolyon, who is preparing for another landmark year in the family-run garden centre’s history, putting food and outdoor cooking front and centre of the business.
Key to the expansion and experience is the new Hill House Farm butcher’s shop. Hill House Farm in the Surrey Hills near Dorking has an outstanding reputation for its free-range, farm-reared produce, including Gloucester Old Spots pork, grass-fed Southdown lamb and belted Galloway and Dexter beef – and is a natural partner to Chessington, embracing the same values.
“Our farm’s state-of-the-art butchery will be an integral part of the garden centre’s new farm shop development, which will also feature a delicatessen, cheese counter, charcuterie and a wide range of carefully sourced produce from across south-east England,” says Ian Jones of Hill House Farm.
The partnership with Chessington is a compelling one, both businesses all about great provenance, as well as quality of sustainable product and customer service – farm to fork the very essence of its local supply chain, sourced from the best of Surrey and beyond.
Jolyon Martin says: “Our new farm shop has been in the planning for some time
and it was always really important to us to have a butcher’s shop as part of that plan. Partnering with Hill House Farm is a perfect match for us, as it represents the collaboration of two like-minded family businesses that share a passion for food and the countryside and also very enthusiastic about BBQ and wood-fired cooking.”
Martin is convinced the time is now for outdoor cooking. This cultural change in our eating habits was already happening, if accelerated by the impact of the pandemic, as people repurpose their outdoor spaces. He has brought in leading chefs to add lustre to the Chessington table, firing up the Hill House Farm meats with live demonstrations on barbecues and ovens to inspire as well as feed visitors to the garden centre.
“In addition to the cuts of meat, there will be seasonings, rubs, sauces and marinades too, with our staff on-hand to advise. Education is key and will make a visit to Chessington an immersive food experience – a one-stop shop for the outdoor cook, looking to learn and expand both knowledge and repertoire,” says Jones.
When the work is complete, visitors will, says Martin, “walk straight into high-end outdoor living with that food experience continuing through to the restaurant and farm shop. I was always taught to sell the aspiration first.”
A Chessington chef demonstrating how to slow cook a shoulder of pork will be backed up by Jones ensuring his butcher’s shop is well-stocked with the requisite cuts of meat, supplementing his own supplies of pork, beef and lamb, with chicken, game and other produce from selected, local producers.
“We can also match what the market is looking for, be it simply whirls of chorizo sausages for the grill, or more complex cuts for low and slow cooking,” says Jones.
He is also determined to ‘bust the myth’ that Surrey, back in the days of travel, is merely a county of commuters disappearing daily to the big smoke – and we don’t
“Surrey has a rich and varied countryside and a really vibrant food production and agricultural scene. Yet our produce doesn’t get the recognition of say Welsh lamb or Scottish beef. We need to show people the value of food in Surrey, its provenance its producers and how it comes to the plate in the most sustainable way. I believe we have some of the best food in the UK.”
Martin wants to make best use of the expertise onsite at the garden centre, channelling the passion of those who run the barbecue areas, the plants, the shops and the restaurant into educating and informing the customers, so the takeaway from a visit is not just product, but knowledge.
Chessington’s barbecue range encompasses its Weber World partnership, as well as other leading brands such as Kamado Joe, Ooni, Firebox. Traeger and Kudai, while continuing to take on best-in-class products across the whole landscape of outdoor cooking and living.
“Inspire and educate is the mantra,” says Martin. Plants and horticulture will remain an integral part of the business and customer experience – eat, meat and leaves you might say, as Chessington leads the garden centre outdoor space race. Like its neighbour down the road, it promises to be a great ride.
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