Hotel confidential

By Caroline James

My working life has been spent in the world of hospitality and it is an environment that has allowed me to travel, meet fascinating people and indulge in my love of cookery and more recently, writing. Hotels and restaurants provide a fascinating backdrop with a revolving door of characters and I write what I know. I create fictional hotels in my books and having been lucky enough to stay in some great places, it is not hard to conceive such a place.

Just like a good book, hospitality is about entertainment and allowing your readers and guests to step outside of their day to day. I’ve been more than entertained over the years by chefs and locations and here are some of my favourite books that remind me of the world I’ve worked in and some of the people I’ve met.

When I first read this book, I remember punching the air. At last! A chef who said it as it was, pulling no punches on the often very dark side of working in some of the finest kitchens in the world. It may not be a book for the easily offended but if you have even a passing interest in the restaurant industry it is a must. Bourdain is loud, obnoxious and controversial and travelled a difficult road to get where he is. He’s also quite brilliant. I’d like to think that today’s kitchens operate much kinder routines but for some, things may never change.

Keith Floyd, TV presenter and restaurateur was one of the first ‘celebrity chefs’. In my early years in the hospitality industry, he was my inspiration and during the days behind the stove of my own restaurant, I was jokingly referred to as a female Keith Floyd because like Floyd, I enjoyed a slurp or two whilst cooking. Floyd’s Irish sojourn in Kinsale was the inspiration for one of my novels. I recently followed his footsteps to discover why he fell in love with the place and was delighted to find Kinsale people who were eager to talk about ‘their adopted son’ who is still celebrated for putting Kinsale on the gastronomic map. 

I read this book when I was doing some work for the then owner of the hotel consortium that operated Cliveden. What a place! History oozes out of every brick in this building as does scandal and mischief. It is a fascinating account of three centuries of high living, politics and drama at one of Britain’s most famous stately homes. I look forward to the TV series, The Trial of Christine Keeler, an account of the Profumo Affair, which rocked the government of PM Harold Macmillan. Cliveden played host to that episode in time and when I stayed there I was intrigued to be treading the very same boards of all the ghosts that created such a fascinating history.

Hotel Barbados

John Chandler

I love the island of Barbados. On my first trip, I went to a wedding at Fisherpond Great House, an old plantation run by hotelier, John Chandler. Famed for his time at the legendary Ocean View Hotel, I never forgot the charisma of the man who now runs Lancaster House – a treat indeed for visitors to the island. His memoir, Hotel Barbados, is page-turning catalogue of shenanigans, as are his adventures in life, having hosted royalty and stars over the years. I adored this book and the peep through the keyhole of an era the likes of which will never be seen again. If only the Ocean View had been preserved for today’s generation to enjoy too.

The annual Gourmet Food Festival in Kinsale is a celebrated occasion which originated to extend the tourist season and such is the popularity that tickets sell out months in advance. This riotous event provides a weekend of gastronomic bliss for foodies and revellers from around the globe. Martin Shanahan is one of the many chefs who contribute to the success of the festival and his seafood restaurant is to die for. The festival takes place over a weekend and is full of craic and completely crazy. Irish hospitality at its best! I have been to this event twice, the second visit to remember what I had no recollection of from the first time. Get there if you can.

As a young woman, I had an amazing experience when the company I worked for flew me to New York on Concorde and I stayed at the Helmsley Palace Hotel. I was absolutely blown away by the decadence and luxury of this hotel on Madison Avenue and to say I was intimidated was an understatement. But not, it seems, as much as the staff who worked for the owner, the notorious Leona Helmsley, who was known as the Queen of Mean. Famous for her abusive attitude to her employees she was later imprisoned for tax evasion and her empire came tumbling down.

Marguerite Patten wrote scores of cookery books, many of them best-sellers and was one of the earliest TV chefs. For several years’ I was an agent, representing many well-known chefs and Marguerite came to me in her 90s and asked for representation. She was one of the most incredible people I ever met and held massive industry respect. When I was growing up, this book appeared on everyone’s kitchen shelf and Marguerite’s books have sold millions of copies. She worked for the home office during WWII as a home economist, a term she insisted always be applied as she detested the words, ‘celebrity chef’.

I love the Lake District and having owned a hotel there, I use the setting in my books. There are some stunning hotels in this county and my favourite is Sharrow Bay Hotel which was the brain child of Brian Sack and Frances Coulson who together, surely invented the term ‘country house hotel’. Their fastidious attention to detail never felt intimidating as it was their aim for their guests to have as much enjoyment as possible in their antique stuffed, over the top, establishment. I used to go to Sharrow for treats. Afternoon tea was sublime as was dinner and one was greeted with the dessert trolley before being seated, to ensure that, ‘one left room.’ Frances created the sticky toffee pudding and I still use his recipe today.

Caroline's new book The Best Boomerville Hotel is out March 13th and has been described as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel but set in the Lake District!