From the Ritz to the Royal Oak in Cerne Abbas, Dorset, via the Oak Room -
Joe Lutrario talks to chef Darran Ridley
I've been a chef since I stopped delivering papers - I think I was 14 when I first started working in kitchens. I went to catering college in Torquay.
While there I worked in the five-star Imper-ial Hotel. I left college and headed to London where I worked in a number of establishments, including the Ritz, in their pastry production kitchen. Then I went to Le Méridien hotel's Oak Room restaurant, on London's Piccadilly, before Marco Pierre White was there, and worked under David Chambers.
Since then I've worked in Switzerland, Buckingham Palace, Dubai and the QE2 - where I was executive pastry chef. I've also worked for M&S as a development chef working on desserts for the chilled section and most recently ran my own café/restaurant/pub business in Teignmouth, Devon.
The Oak is a Hall & Woodhouse tenancy, my father is the tenant but I'm in charge of the kitchen and front of house on a daily basis.
It's a good situation here; I think it's much better to have a chef in charge of the day-to-day running of a pub. You usually find that pubs run by a front-of-house manager will have to recruit a head chef who will only stay on for a few years and when they go the pub will lose a lot of business. Managing from the kitchen is better for the stability of a food-led business.
We try not to brand ourselves as a gastropub. I'm not really sure what a gastropub is - it's often just a restaurant within pub walls. Gastropubs are seen as a "special occasions" sort of place whereas we just want to be a destination pub known for good food.
We cater for what people want. At the end of the day, if it's not going to sell why bother having it on the menu? We attract lots of tourists because of the pub's proximity to the Green Man and we'd be stupid not to give them what they want, which is usually pub staples like fish and chips and scampi and chips.
An example of our more fine dining, but still simple food, would be our venison steak (£10.95). We slice it from the saddle into a sort of double T-bone - it's rustic, but then so is the pub.
My father brings mussels up from Devon. We can get rid of 10kg in a few days and they're excellent for gp. Buy fresh and use them quickly - you get a fair shelf life on mussels because they're still alive when you buy them. They're fantastic mussels, estuary-grown rather than rope-grown which makes for a much plumper, more flavoursome mussel. We've currently got moules marinière on, but we're looking to change that to mussels with cider, to make it a bit more local.
All of our menu is on the blackboard. We
have slates that can be removed when we sell out of things; it's also a good way to let the customer know how fresh our food is. I'll often go to the organic farm shop and just buy a few portions of each thing - it's the best way to ensure quality.
We offer paninis and ploughman's for customers that want a light lunch, and we do a lot of fish. We offer a few home-made Asian dishes and always try to offer some hearty pub dishes like pies and steaks.
The way the menu works gives us a lot of flexibility. Very little is pre-cooked apart from things like lamb shanks and pies. If I know there's somebody with a special diet coming in I'll try and talk to them so I can cater for their needs.
All of our sauces are made with fresh stocks, meat juices, ports and wines, and no flour, which means that we can easily cater for gluten-intolerant customers.
Game is big at the moment. Venison is coming and we just had a wild rabbit pie that sold extremely well - we got some excellent feedback about it.
We've just won the Dorset Food & Drink Awards Best Dining Pub and Best Pub Chef Award. There are lots of Dorset gastropubs out there that are trying to do a more restaurant-style thing - it's heartening that we've succeeded with such simple food.
We're in the AA Pub Guide and we also picked up Hall & Woodhouse's awards for best food offer and best wine selection.
Marketing and PR
We've just started using a PR company. It was something we were put on to by the brewery, which is going to help with the initial costs.
It's going to cost about £5,000 but I'm confident that it will boost revenue - we need to get ourselves on the map. We have a big catchment area that we really need to capitalise on - the good thing is that people are willing to travel for good, honest food.
Average covers per week at the Royal Oak: 1,900
Tenure: Hall & Woodhouse tenancy
Turnover: £8,000 per week
Overall gp: 64%
Food sales as % of turnover: 70%