The Perfect Wedding – the people who make it happen.
As you drive up to Chilston Park Hotel, in Lenham, the grounds and views are impressive. There is reference to Chilston as far back as the 12th Century. Re-built over the years, parts of the walls date from the 15th and 16th centuries and in 1719 the house was remodelled to the Chilston Park we know today. Now part of the Handpicked Hotel group, Chilston Park enjoys fantastic reviews getting bookings up to a year in advance for their legendary Christmas dinners but it is the romance and opulence of the property that is most striking. That is one of the reasons why it is one of the most popular venues for weddings in Kent and thoroughly recommended for Valentine’s visits.
Putting the romance aside, I went to Chilston Park Hotel to find out about the inner workings of the beautiful venue – to see behind the scenes and find out how their highly sort after weddings run smoothly.
Weddings happen here all the time, whatever the package (yes…here you can choose from many different options – a wedding in the Orangery, Coach House, Manor House, an intimate smaller wedding or the exclusive package including use of the whole of Chilton Park Hotel) I am assured the high standards are the same. I am also told that the weddings are always full of excitement for the staff – they just love a wedding.
The person enthusing over their weddings is Fiona Wobbs, Chilton Park Hotel’s wedding co-ordinator. I am shown around the Hotel and it does have a refined elegance. High ceilings and sash windows make the grand house airy and a mix of artwork from large, historic oil paintings down to small personal line drawn portraits compete for wall space. The bedrooms range from contemporary, comfortable rooms with wonderful views to luxurious suites with names such as the ‘Regency Room’ or ‘Queen Ann Suite’ commanding the best views over the lake and fountain and including four poster beds and bathrooms so big you could get lost in them.
There are no two ways about it, the venue is impressive but behind the luxury and elegance lies a business – a well-oiled machine and Fiona told me how the weddings work at Chilston Park: “My job is the initial show around the Hotel and to introduce people to the wedding packages. Once they have booked with us I guide them [the bride and groom] through the process of making their plans. Every bride and groom are different, some want to talk to you regularly and want your opinions. We speak most from between 1 year in advance and 6 months in advance and have meetings up to the wedding. The final meeting and run through is eight weeks before and we go through everything, sign contracts and then start on the finer details – I hand things over to Kerrin.”
Kerrin Smye is the Conference and Banqueting Manager and as it turns out he is also Fiona’s real-life partner. It seems love is in the air at Chilston Park Hotel even before the weddings start! Fiona set out her role in a formal fashion but she is all heart in her emotion about her job: “I meet people who are really lovely and get to know the bride and groom. I really care about it. The weddings are like my little babies and it’s really difficult to let them go and hand things over to Kerrin. I like working on the day of the wedding to see what they are all wearing!”
Weddings take place at Chilston Park Hotel on every day of the week and Fiona works a mixture of early and late shifts. On week days she works from 8am until 8pm and at the weekends from 9am to 9.30pm, “I am quite an organised person so love organising things, I love the people and I love the whole excitement of wedding co-ordinating – it’s so special to be part of their special day.”
Fiona is keen to point out that they are flexible for the wedding couple “we have had many unique requests – like incorporating snow machines in the room! Anything can be brought into the venue as long as it doesn’t cause any damage!” Fiona adds.
Fiona sums up why she thinks the weddings work so smoothly here: “The wedding team have been here so long we really work well together”
Clarity is key to helping the couples decide if Chilston Park Hotel is the venue for them but once Fiona has worked her magic the couple then entrust their special day with Kerrin.
Having worked in the leisure and hospitality industry for many years Kerrin is the epitome of the wedding profession. He is your rock on your wedding day, the man who holds everything together and ensures there are no slip ups. Kerrin is Fred Astaire to Fiona’s Ginger Rogers – they are a great double act and made the tricky task of event management seem like a stroll in the park.
Kerrin revels in the details of the day – he is a meticulous guy: “A typical wedding day for me starts at 10am when I go and see the bride and put her at her ease then check all table cards and place settings. I ensure I keep checking that the bride is okay then ensure the groom has all he needs when he arrives – a quick whiskey if needed! I chat with the registrar to go over details and organise the toast master plus organising the team” Kerrin is matter of fact in his list of tasks but it is clear that without these important checks and vital communication the day would not run according to plan.
“The team can be any amount from 1 – 12 and a ratio of bar staff. I ensure the waitresses know who is who at the wedding – so who is the most important – and make sure they are ready for the silver service bread serving to start and serve the wedding breakfast properly – I direct the people to the tables. I also organise the menu plans for the kitchen and do a detailed seat plan so they know where any dietry requirements are needed.” At this point my pen is running out of ink but Kerrin’s list seems endless, “I invite the guests to move through from the breakfast room so the staff can clean down and get ready for the evening and I organise the cutting of the cake, ensure the band or DJ is organised, organise the first dance and oversee the buffet in the evening.”
It is a job he clearly loves “It’s an important job and I’m an important person on the day so it’s a good job I am a perfectionist! I have a certain way of doing things – don’t mess with my seating!” Kerrin jokes but I get the feeling that if I did, I would regret it.
Kerrin comes across as a pure professional in his role and that is what a wedding needs. I for one would want to know that my meddlesome little brother wouldn’t be able to move the bridesmaids name places to his table without the withering eyes of Kerrin boring through his sole and it would put me at my ease to know that Kerrin is strict with his timing. For someone else to take the worry out of your big day is the most important thing.
There are down sides to the job. Fiona said “We do get really, really busy but that is much better than drumming your fingers in the office” and Kerrin agrees there are some jobs a little more tiresome than others “Believe it or not, usually the longest job of the day is polishing the glasses because you have up to 96 people for one breakfast each with three glasses! The trick to a clear, clean glass is to use boiling water and clean tea towels” Kerrin added as a handy little tip.
So one of the keys to the wedding success of Chilston Park seems to be the wedding duo who are in love with each other as well as their jobs. Delving further into the way weddings work at Chilston I take to the kitchens and interview Soux Chef Zoe Carty.
The kitchens are big at Chilston and everything is clean – I have turned up after lunch and the prep for the evening is underway. Zoe skilfully shows me how to butcher a mallard and presents to me the perfect Pomme Anne. If I used these newly gathered skills in my home kitchen I can guarantee the result would look very different. Zoe is an enthusiastic cook and one of the first things she assures me is that “I don’t like shouting in the kitchen.” This is refreshing to hear as it seems every cookery programme shows a grumpy chef putting the fear of God into their kitchen staff.
“My typical day starts with the paperwork – invoices and getting ready for the 10am meeting. The heads of departments meet every morning and discuss anything that has happened at Chilston the day before, tells us about any V.I.P’s or celebrations booked. After the meeting I go in the kitchen and grab the team and go over the points from the meeting and then make sure everything has been delivered that is needed and make sure everyone knows what to do. I work on making the sauces then start prepping up. I have to answer the phone numerous times and go through the prep list that has been left from the night before in a meticulous, methodical way”
Zoe has been working at Chilston for three years, starting three days before Christmas. She was thrown in at the deep end but obviously thrived. Her love of food comes from her background: “My mother is a really bad cook” Zoe starts, “…but my grandmother cooked for the Lord and Lady of Dorset. I’ve always been interested in cooking and she made great puddings – she was amazing at baking cakes, they were always light and fluffy. She had an old house with a pantry. I had a part time job in a restaurant kitchen and when it got busy I got an adrenaline rush that I’m sure is addictive! The team camaraderie is completely different to an office.”
“I started at Beefeater – when I tell people that I get a lot of stick but it was the best company to start with because they drill you about temperatures and I had a great head chef. I moved onto Haven Hotel at Sand Banks (two rosettes restaurant) and Harbour Heights and worked with some amazing chefs. Here under head chef Andy Williams, the kitchen works really well.”
“I transferred to Chilston for a new opportunity and also to be nearer to my partner. Here it’s the people that make it. It’s a great team under a great Head Chef. I like to think we are looked upon as part of a big support team”
“In the past I have had pans thrown around by Head chefs but also head chefs who work 18 hour shifts they are always the first in and the last to leave and you can’t help but respect that!
Zoe gave me some insider information. First of all she assures me the venison dish on the menu is the best, or at least her favourite to make “it looks great and has a lot of components of the dish – everything goes together. It tastes great. From start to finish it takes most of the morning to prepare and the Pomme Annes and red cabbage take the longest. They are served with Venison Pavé, Venison loin and a Venison jus which is reduced from the bones”
Zoe also tells me that they buy everything locally whenever possible and that is that they are flexible when it comes to requests for the wedding breakfasts “As long as we get enough notice we can accommodate most things” and she assures me they are used to many varied dietary requests. The last snippet of insider knowledge she gives me is golden “If you try our afternoon tea I promise the fruit cake is to die for!”
As I suspected, the reason for such success at Chilston Park Hotel lies in the team of staff. It is wonderful to find more champions of the Maidstone area who maintain such high standards because they simply love their jobs