Clive and his family have been on quite a journey, from hoteliers in England to their magnificent Relais & Châteaux hotel and Michelin-star restaurant in a 12th century Cistercian abbey. He talks to Sylvia Davis all about his life in Burgundy and his beautifully renovated medieval abbey.
FrenchEntrée Magazine: Why France?
Clive Cummings It was the building. We hadn’t thought about buying abroad, or living abroad. My wife Tanith and I had run my parent’s hotel in England, Amberley Castle. It was old school, jacket and tie, silver tray service. We wanted to do our own thing. We looked everywhere in England, but property prices were just too high. An agent immobilier friend called us to say that his friend the Archbishop of Dijon thought the Abbeye de la Bussière was getting too expensive to run, needed to be upgraded to the fire and environment code, so they were going to close it. We came down, saw it, and bought it from the Church the same day.
FM Tell me about the Abbey
CC The location is impeccable, at the gateway to Burgundy’s wine country [recently classed as a UNESCO World Heritage], European traffic all around us, tourism, the renowned Dijon Prenois racing track, and people from England going to the Med or to the Alps and stopping over for a few days, buying their wine to take back home. The buildings and 15-acre parks are just so beautiful. We moved in 2005 and opened in 2006 with only 9 rooms. My business plan to the bank was for 20 rooms, the break-even point. We are almost reaching it now, hopefully moving into a profit zone. Not a lot, no helicopters or jets or Ferraris, but so we can maintain a building like the abbey and work on expanding into other services using underutilized areas. We keep a total full-time staff of 22, plus about a dozen extra people in season. The ultimate goal is 40-ish rooms, with the kitchen and other services upgraded to match.
FM What was the renovation like?
CC There weren’t as many constraints as I thought there would be, being a historical building. The architect of Batiments de France came in, saw the plans and said “Oh, actually, you are doing it in a very nice classical way, respecting the history.” So we had to adjust was the colour of the ceiling in the abbey, and that was it. We weren’t doing any major structural changes; it was just the technical things like getting the electrical or plumbing in, without ruining the atmosphere.
FM Tell me about the restaurant
CC A building like this deserves a high quality restaurant from day one. I wrote to Michelin and introduced our chef, and got the star in 9 months. The continuity is based on customer feedback.
FM How did you manage with the language?
CC I didn’t speak French when we arrived, now I manage. During the renovation, discussing the technical aspects was quite hard. Our four children, ages between 12 and 20, are all fluent.
FM Is there anything you would have done differently?
NT There were moments when I’ve banged my head on the table, mostly about finances. But when I go home and turn around to look back, I go… you know what? This is gorgeous. At least you can physically see something. You’ve got something to show for the pain, a great scar.
FM What’s next?
CC I’m not sure which project comes first. We want to put in a swimming pool, upgrade the kitchen for two restaurants, each with their own independent team, and more rooms. The big mill at the front can accommodate 12-14 rooms, it’s got a lovely strong current of fresh water so we may use it for a hydro turbine. Finally we have the monk’s cellar and wine press that will become a wine school and wine storage for clients. It’s all very exciting.
FM What was your best day in France?
CC Every time I achieve something. Yesss! We’ve got 20 bedrooms! It’s always two steps forwards, one step back, but every day it gets easier.
Name: Clive Cummings
Where do you live? Bussière-sur-Ouche, between Dijon and Beaune, Burgundy
When did you move? 2005
Where did you move from? Amberley Castle, England
Occupation: hotelier and restaurant owner
Why buy there? Côte-d’Or The ‘golden slopes’ are the site of the most celebrated Burgundy vineyards, listed as UNESCO world heritage. The cosmopolitan feel of Dijon, the wine and gastronomy, culture and history, affordable property prices and mild weather.
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