Why does the Williams’ F1 team regard celebrity chef Michael Caines as a vital ingredient in its success? Luxurious Magazine’s bon viveur Jon McKnight finds out.
Formula One motor racing has an insatiable appetite for the best: the fastest cars, the boldest drivers, and technology that’s years ahead of its time.
Millionaire playboys, beautiful women, and Hollywood A-listers can’t get enough of it, while millions of fans around the world view it as the ultimate in glamour and sophistication.
And for those of us who’d be lucky to find a garage willing to change a tyre for us before tomorrow afternoon, there’s something exciting about seeing a Formula One car come into the pits and have all four wheels changed in less time than it takes to read this sentence.
If they make it look easy, that’s because every aspect of the F1 circus is timed, spreadsheeted and choreographed down to the last exacting detail as the teams work their way through the gruelling 19-race calendar.
Few outside the close-knit world of F1 appreciate quite how much self-discipline, training and teamwork goes into making those two-second tyre-changes look such a piece of cake.
But one man who does appreciate it – and knows quite a bit about pieces of cake, too – is Michael Caines, the celebrity chef with not just one but two Michelin Stars to his name.
He’s as revered by Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa as the Williams’ F1 drivers are by the generations of fans who follow the family-owned racing team from track to track or channel to channel on the rollercoaster ride of unpredictability that’s Formula One.
And if that sounds like a generous helping of reverence for a chef from Devon, that’s because Michael Caines has earned it by cooking for both household-name drivers and helping the Williams team create what is, in effect, the world’s first and only double-Michelin-starred round-the-world travelling restaurant.
Williams prided itself on the quality of its hospitality for years before Michael came along, and it had always worked hard to maintain what it saw as its rightful pole position in circuit-side catering, whatever its fortunes on the track.
Ginny Williams, wife of team founder Sir Frank, helped set up its hospitality operation in the original Williams’ motorhome and succeeded in her aim of turning it into a magnet for VIP guests, passing celebrities and the racing team’s own staff.
But even Lady Williams couldn’t have imagined what a difference the racing-mad Michael Caines would make by bringing his world-class culinary skills to her world-class motor-racing team.
“The old Williams’ motorhome was very well-regarded,” says Chris Murray, Head of Marketing for Williams. “So when we commissioned its replacement, one of the things I campaigned for was that we shouldn’t lose the feeling of the old one.
“We invested in a new three-storey motorhome that arrives at the race-track in 16 trucks, wherever in the world we happen to be racing.
“Michael’s such a passionate supporter of the team that he got really involved. He didn’t just help us with the physical layout and what we did and didn’t need, and how we should organise everything with two kitchens over two floors, but with the experience and ambiance we wanted it to have, capturing that Williams feeling and translating it into a new environment.”
That’s praise indeed, as Formula One teams can easily give a fleeting endorsement to someone who proves useful to them occasionally – ships that pass in the commercial night – but Williams’ relationship with Michael Caines is into its sixth year and is clearly a two-way street.
“That’s obvious if you see Michael in action at a race like Monaco,” says Chris. “He worked so hard for us there this year and produced 32 six-course tasting menus on the Saturday evening in a temporary kitchen, in our motorhome, in the Monaco Paddock.
“A lot of chefs might let you put their logo on your menu and come up with a few creative ideas, but Michael actually put out that amount of two-Michelin-starred food in a very short space of time in very cramped conditions.”
But what difference could even double-Michelin-starred food make to the performance of Valtteri and Bottas on track? Has Michael Caines developed a secret nutritional weapon… some form of “go-faster food”?
Chris Murray laughs, politely, and points out that the main benefit to the drivers is in knowing that their family and the team around them are being looked after in some style.
“The drivers tend to eat their own food on race days,” says Chris. “Valtteri has a very strict nutritional regime and tends to dine off-menu, though Felipe has a more relaxed attitude. He’s very family-orientated and will have his wife, his child, his father and his brother there, while Val will have his father, his fiancee and his mother.
“Thanks to Michael, we can look after those guys, make them feel welcome, and give them food they enjoy. So while having Michael there may not offer a direct nutritional performance benefit to the drivers, they can concentrate on their driving, knowing we’ve made sure the people around them are happy and comfortable.”
Michael’s ears may well have been burning at that point, as the Williams team’s admiration for him is expressed with such genuine enthusiasm by Chris.
“He’s an absolute pleasure to work with. He’s got that entrepreneurial spirit, he’s set up his own business and been successful and, from a Williams’ point of view, our qualities match.
“Michael’s really supportive and goes above and beyond what he needs to do. He’s a genuinely nice bloke and the guys who work for me on the hospitality team enjoy working with him, are inspired by his presence, and seek guidance from him.
“He helps out a lot of our guys off his own bat, just picking up the phone and talking to them whenever they need it. We’re really proud to be associated with him, we love having him around, and we hope to have a really long relationship with him.”
It seems the feeling’s mutual, as Michael Caines told Luxurious Magazine in a rare moment when his feet touched the ground back in Exeter, Devon.
“Did I ever think I’d be in the Paddock, rubbing shoulders with Formula One drivers, let alone get the chance to have a relationship with a team like Williams?” he asks aloud. “I couldn’t have imagined it.”
Michael Caines has earned every ounce of the fame, the recognition and the admiration that the world serves up to him these days.
He was adopted as a baby – no silver spoon in his mouth – and lost an arm in a catastrophic car crash as an adult.
Determined not to let either of those circumstances hold him back, Michael made his name (and a household one at that) for his ability rather than his disability, and he inspires young adopted people to find out what they can achieve through his role as a very active Patron of the Devon-based adoption charity Families For Children.
Courted by celebrities the world over and with the foodie elite beating a path to his table, he gives up a day of his time every year to help adopted children make a Christmas Pudding on Stir-Up Sunday – a hands-on, giving-of-himself event whose young participants won’t fully appreciate until later life just who they’ve been mixing, and stirring, with.
Once you’ve seen the humility and the warmth of the real Michael Caines, it’s easy to understand why Williams wanted him as part of their team and value him so highly now they have him.
“I met Ginny Williams in the old motorhome and sat with her for what I thought would be a five-minute chat but turned out to be a 40-minute conversation as she talked about her passion for hospitality,” he says.
That led to Michael preparing meals for the European F1 races, training chefs to cook exclusively for Williams, then being asked to cater for every race in the calendar.
The impending arrival of the new motorhome made Michael Caines a central part of the operation – a vital ingredient, if you like – as he brought his expertise to the table at the planning stage.
“I was able to sit with them and give them some crucial points to consider about the dos and don’ts and pros and cons,” he says. “The facility we have now enables us to service a bistro-style menu downstairs that deals with the business end of hospitality for people who just want a quick bite, while upstairs we offer a fine dining experience with a tasting menu that’s all about the dishes I’ve created.
“We’ve spent five seasons refining it to the point where the experience upstairs is very, very precise. We’ve got such a focussed approach and delivery.
‘The experience of racing is just as much about the lead-up to the race as the race itself. Food is part of the lifestyle. You’re there at the track all day and yes, you’re interested in racing, but then the racing happens and it’s gone.
“When you’re spending your whole day at the track, what you do in between is very important – the garage talk, the VIPs, etc – so if you’re a sponsor, you’re looking for Williams to provide an experience both on and off the track that leaves you wanting more and genuinely surprises you when it outshines your expectations.
“Most people watch the Grand Prix on television, even when they’re at the track, so while they’re watching we’re going to give them all a VIP experience.
“Claire (Sir Frank’s daughter) was Head of Communications before becoming Commercial Director and suddenly realised the impact the hospitality operation was making. Then she became Assistant Principal of the team and sees hospitality as an ingrained thing.
“Out of all the F1 teams you could work with, you could ask why I chose Williams? I grew up in an era when Williams were dominant, so I knew it was a great team. But what makes them particularly appealing to me is they’re one of the only privateers – a family firm – and the man himself, Sir Frank Williams, had a life-changing car crash and his circumstances are inspiring.
“I’ve been through a little bit of it myself,” he says – the only reference he makes at all to his own traumatic accident. “Sir Frank’s a man of principle and his story is something I can relate to.
“The World Cup and the Olympics come along every four years, but Formula One is there season in, season out, and markets itself to a huge audience, so the F1 connection is very appealing. It fuels the imagination of a lot of people.”
Rubbing shoulders with celebrities in the F1 circus is all very well, but what part do cars play in Michael Caines’ other life away from the track?
“I’m not an anorak but I do enjoy cars – especially Porsches,” he says. “I have a new GT3 and an old 997 Turbo. But my day-to-day car now is a big truck!
“I love turning up at the race-track and seeing a car like the GT3 Cup Car that my car’s based on with technology that’s not a million miles from the car I drive.
“I think Enzo Ferrari said of Porsche that they don’t make cars, they make weapons. And they do. They came into the sport and they completely engineered things differently.
“That’s what I love about Formula One. You give brilliant minds a challenge and they will overcome it and innovate or create the new technologies of the future.
“Racing is played out in a very emotional way at the race-track – men against machines, and drivers who are real characters – and when we get behind the wheel of a car we all like to think we could probably be a good racing driver, although in reality, probably not.”
“I’m a British chef and Williams is a British team. There’s something very British about Formula One and there’s something special about the atmosphere of being at a Formula One race and being recognised because people have seen you on TV.
“I have a lot of friends in the Paddock and there’s a lot of respect there for what I do. Creative people admire something of each other’s achievement.
“Mika Hakkinen is one of my heroes, and I remember him sitting down, eating his chicken, and saying ‘This is fantastic’. Someone pointed me out to him and Mika looked over and said ‘Fantastic!’.
“We cooked for Chris Evans (the new presenter of BBC TV’s cult programme Top Gear) at Monaco. He told everyone: ‘You’re going to have one of the best meals of your life today… and here we are in a bloody motorhome!’. Everyone was completely blown away.
“I think we could deliver an even better meal in better circumstances, but for Chris, and them, it was one of the best meals they’d ever had.
“Valtteri asked me to cook his set meal for him in Monaco – but I did it slightly differently, and he really enjoyed it. Now they always cook it the way I cooked it for him!
“To have a gift, to be able to share it and partner with something like Formula One is as good as it gets. I aspire to be the Michael Schumaker of the cooking world – to be brilliant at what I do.”
Two Michelin stars and an MBE from The Queen suggest that Michael, born on the same day and in the same year as his F1 hero, may already be there.
Away from the glamour of Formula One, Michael Caines is very much a lover of luxury, describing himself as a bon viveur. And, of course, a foodie.
“You define luxury though your lifestyle, he says. “Luxury to me means the shoes you wear, the clothes you choose to put on, the lifestyle you live.
“People who have money don’t always have flair, imagination or taste. So luxury is not necessarily about wealth. It’s about your ability to acquire taste and understand the value of luxury.
“I’m not as wealthy as some people but I’m doing okay in life. I wasn’t born into wealth and I’ve made a good living for myself from my abilities to cook.
“I use luxury ingredients, like truffles, caviar and lobster, and appreciate it because I know how precious those commodities are.
“I also appreciate it when other people cook for me, or I’m sitting in Monaco with a wonderful lobster dish in great surroundings, being pandered to.
“I haven’t got everything, though I do have the luxury of being able to afford quite a bit. A Bugatti Veyron wouldn’t be my choice of luxury, but having a boat would be quite nice, and being able to afford it.
“I have a nice sports car, a lovely house, and tailormade shoes. If money was no object I’d be thinking about a Patek Phillipe or a Rolex.
“But I don’t live my life to get material things. I live my life experiencing life. And I’m a richer man for it. It’s hard, hard work to get where you want to get to in life. The challenges you have to go through makes the arrival sweeter.
“So many people out there have got loads of money but don’t live a life of luxury or know how to appreciate it. They’ve acquired wealth but have never learned how to appreciate the finer things.”
But those who do will be in for a treat next year when Michael opens Lympstone Manor, a country house hotel overlooking the Exe estuary in South Devon that will have 21 bedrooms and a 60-cover restaurant.
“It should be amazing,” he says. “It’s my vision of luxury hospitality and will be my opportunity to fully express myself, drawing on all my experience to date.
“Lympstone Manor will be a destination hotel, and Williams are going to support me with it. Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa will be coming down for the launch in February 2017, and I’m going to ensure that people who come to us, suited and booted in their wonderful cars, will have the most luxurious of experiences.”
In the meantime, Michael has been busy preparing for the opening race in the 2016 Formula One calendar – the Australian Grand Prix – in what Williams are proud to note is the world’s only double-Michelin-starred travelling restaurant.
“It pops up in 21 different places around the world,” says Michael. “I’m the only Michelin-starred chef with a permanent base in Formula One.”
And the only one who’s impressed the F1 elite so much over so many years that they’re eating out of his hand.
How and Where
Michael Caines MBE