Restaurant Martel at Gateforth Hall

It takes passion and dedication to become a top chef, as Martel Smith knows. He claims he got his unusual Christian name from a bottle of brandy which happened to be around at the time, but it proved perfect when he finally achieved his ambition of cooking for his own top restaurant, at the age of just 21.

His father, Michael, went to Liverpool School of Art in the Sixties, and his mother, Gloria, was a trained cook. There was obviously something in the genes when Martel emerged from catering college to work with the likes of Marco Pierre White at the triple Michelin-starred Oak Room in London, and earlier in the Michelin-starred Rascasse in Leeds. But, as he recalls: "In my first full-time job, I was working 70 to 80 hours a week, and taking home 120. You've got to be passionate about what you are doing to put up with that."

Of the 48 people on Martel's catering college course, he was the only one who completed the course: "Colleges can teach you classical cookery, but they don't give you any idea of the real world," he says.

Martel had his chance to have the restaurant named after him when his parents finally broke free of the business they had had on the East Coast, selling caravans, for 30 years and bought Gateforth Hall, a former hotel.

The hall, built in 1812, was used as a hunting lodge for Humphrey Osladderston, a very influential man in his time and Sheriff of Yorkshire. The Smith family stumbled upon the building after scouring the country for suitable business premises.

Now it's a real family affair, in the splendid surroundings of the hall, half an hour's drive from Leeds off the Selby Road.

Father's works of art give the former hotel an individualistic as well as luxurious feel, and sister Zoe does front of house, while mother works with Martel in the kitchens.

The aim is to give customers a relaxed atmosphere, in contrast to the frenetic competitiveness of city centre restaurants. "We're not about rushing meals - quite the opposite," says Martel. "We may not get the mass volume of trade out in the sticks, but we create a relaxed environment where people can spend three hours over the meal, and enjoy the surroundings, if they wish. It's about quality and standards, and not deviating from them."

Restaurant Martel isn't cheap, nor would you expect it to be with such high levels of service and cuisine - starters range from 6 to 14.50; main courses from 15.50 to 22; and desserts are 7.50. But what you get is memorable, from lamb flavoured with thyme and cooked pinkly to perfection to desserts so artistically presented it seems a pity to disturb them, until you do and are rewarded with melt in the mouth crme brule, for example, with wafer-thin Granny Smiths.

Martel describes the menus as evolutionary, and constantly going forward. "It's all thought out, and we don't put anything silly on the menu."

While his perfectionism drives him on to continue to work long hours - he hasn't had a day off in five years - he does get out to see his old mates in Leeds occasionally. "I like the Townhouse and the Corn Xchange, and The Arc, in Headingley, where I used to live," he says.

But it's obvious that socialising in the city where he learnt his trade comes second to helping to create a restaurant which has already won awards, and which looks set for many more.

<b>FACTFILE</b><br>Restaurant Martel at Gateforth Hall<Br>Tel: 1757 228225