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How pubs got serious about British cooking

By Daniel Woolfson , 01-Feb-2017
Last updated on 02-Feb-2017 at 11:08 GMT2017-02-02T11:08:20Z

Gourmet grub: Andrew Pern's Michelin-starred Yorkshire pub the Star Inn was named best in the country
Gourmet grub: Andrew Pern's Michelin-starred Yorkshire pub the Star Inn was named best in the country

Gastropubs occupy a unique space in the eating-out sector, largely free of the hyperbole of the city-focused restaurant scene, but offering some of best food in the country.

These pubs – and we’re not talking burger-on-a-slate, casual-dining pub chains here, but chef-led, high-end pub eateries – excel not in molecular showiness or futuristic boundary-smashing, but in promoting a sensitive, traditional, but non-nostalgic approach to cooking that has helped turn around the once-putrid public perception of British food.

People tend to sneer “that’s just a restaurant pretending to be a pub” when talking about these businesses, completely missing one important fact: every pub on the Top 50 Gastropubs list is proud of being a pub. Perhaps they sneer because these pubs shatter the outdated stereotype that pub food in the sector can only be one distinct, implicitly underwhelming thing.

In reality, devotion to British terroir – a recognition that the produce available in the UK is second to none – is what drives the success of many of these businesses. It’s hard to find a chef on the top 50 list that is not totally and utterly enamoured by the land that surrounds them and its bounty.

The Parkers Arms: "it's not about breaking down existentialism on a plate"

“When you come out to eat at a country pub, it’s not about Jean-Paul Sartre or breaking down existentialism on a plate,” quips Stosie Madi, chef-patron of the Parkers Arms, Newton-in-Bowland, Lancashire.

“There are a lot of people who want to challenge the diner, who want to outsmart the diner – and there is a place for that. But not here.”

She continues: “I think perfect country cooking is served in a cosy pub with a roaring fire in winter and a dog sitting at your side, rolling hills outside. And in summer, you’ve got the smell of heather, of elderflower – it should encompass all those things.”

For Madi, the key to great pub food is simplicity. “It’s got to look simple, clean and clear-cut, but most importantly it’s got to taste memorable,” she says.

Local ingredients

“There are a lot of people with different ideas about this style of cooking but for me, the simpler the better. Use a few local ingredients, do very little to them but honour them, cook them as well as possible, put them on the plate and don’t force the customer to think too much.”

Stephen Harris, whose Kent pub the Sportsman at Seasalter, topped the list in 2015 and 2016, is another example of this attitude.

Stephen Harris of the Sportsman: terroir obsessive

Harris, a completely self-taught chef, cooks almost exclusively with ingredients sourced from within a mile or so of his small-but-efficient kitchen. He makes seaweed butter with hand-picked seaweed from the Sportsman’s adjoining beach, grows his own vegetables and herbs, and buys fresh red meat and poultry from Kent farmers.

Harris’s cooking and sourcing have earned him a slew of accolades over the years, including a Michelin star and the number one spot at the top of the National Restaurant Awards.

This year, Simon Bonwick’s Berkshire pub, the Crown at Burchetts Green, and Oxfordshire eatery, the Wild Rabbit at Chipping Norton, were awarded one-star status , while self-styled ‘proper London boozer’ the Marksman in Bethnal Green, run by St John alumni Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram, was named Pub of the Year by the Michelin guide.

The guide’s elusive editor, Rebecca Burr, previously told The Morning Advertiser (MA): “It’s an interesting time. A few years ago there was perhaps a bit of a stigma attached to chefs going into pubs.

“We feel there’s a new generation out there of young chefs getting pubs. Perhaps they may not be as accessible to the sort of people who want to sit in the pub until it closes, but we feel it’s good.”

No holds barred

For John Hooker, chef-patron of the Cornish Arms, Tavistock, Devon, there’s enough room in the pub trade for every-one – high-end chefs and more traditional operators alike.

“There is a place for everybody – whether it’s what we do or whether it’s more classic pub fare, which has been around for years,” he says. “There are no holds barred – you can pretty much do anything.

“Really all these chefs and operators are just working their nuts off to deliver great food and a warm welcome.”

It’s not so much the accolades but the comfort and distinct un-fussiness of businesses like Harris’s, Madi’s and Hooker’s that are inspiring new chefs to open pubs.

Speaking to the MA shortly after opening his much-anticipated new gastropub the Oxford Blue in Windsor, Berkshire, earlier this month, chef-patron Steven Ellis, who worked as sous chef at London’s Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and under Andrew Pern at the Star Inn, Harome, North Yorks, said: “I assume people would be intrigued as to why a chef who spent a large amount of their career working in prestigious restaurants has now decided to open a pub.

“I have always loved pubs and I don’t see why they can’t be as good as some of the best restaurants in this country.”

Ellis’s food offer at the Oxford Blue is unashamedly high-end, but he maintained throughout the Oxford Blue’s development process that facilitating a strong local trade and relationships with the community would be paramount to the pub’s success.

But despite the current popularity of the gastropub, many operators have expressed concern for the year ahead. To the uninitiated, opening a pub may seem less steeped in risk than taking on urban restaurant space. But the pub sector brings with it its own challenges.

The recruitment nightmare

Chef recruitment is already a nightmare for many operators, and experts have predicted that the UK’s impending exit from the European Union could exacerbate the problem further.

Craig Allen, co-founder of recruitment specialists the Change Group, previously warned that Britain did not have the talent pool to sustain enough jobs in the industry if migrants were not available to contribute.

But the true ramifications of Brexit on the hospitality are yet to be revealed: it is unclear what shape the country’s post-EU trade deals and immigration laws will take, and while urban operators may thrive on EU migrant staff, many of the gastropubs in the top 50 list are in more isolated, rural areas and tend to employ staff that live locally.

There is also the issue of food prices. MA previously reported that almost 6,000 pub and restaurant companies had at least a 30% chance of becoming insolvent over the next two years as a falling sterling and rising imported food prices squeeze customer spending – and that’s without mentioning escalating business rates.

Hooker says: “We’ve felt [food prices] a little bit. But you’ve got to just be a bit clever and maybe put a bit more work into margins and maybe put a few cheaper cuts on the menu.

“It’s difficult, I’ve still got to pay 25 staff every month, as well as rates, but at the heart of it, any successful pub that’s operated properly can thrive.”

The bigger challenge for Hooker at the Cornish Arms is staying on top of pricing and making sure his pub is competing with local eateries, whether that’s branded chains or independent restaurants.

Gastropub closures

Sadly, 2016 saw the end of two much-loved gastropubs: the Truscott Arms, Maida Vale, west London, closed its doors after the building’s owner – a holdings company registered in Gibraltar – hiked its rent from £75,000 to £250,000 per year .

The pub’s owners, Andrew and Mary-Jane Fishwick, had successfully campaigned to have their business listed as an asset of community value (ACV) but, with “profound sadness” closed its doors after losing an 18-month legal battle fighting the hike.

The Grantley Arms, Wonersh, Surrey, which MA named One to Watch in 2016’s Top 50 Gastropubs, was sold in November 2016 . It’s owners said they could not provide the flourishing business with the investment it needed “to take it to the next level”.

But it’s not all doom and gloom by a long shot. By working with local suppliers and making the most of their terroir, gastropubs have adaptation and versatility on their side.

For example, Stosie Madi explains: “What I love is all the produce on my doorstep. We don’t get much fish so it has to be game.

“And it keeps prices down: if I get a whole deer from up the road and I butcher the whole thing, I’m not paying top dollar prices for a loin so I can afford to put a wonderful venison starter on the menu for £8.50.

“If you were eating anywhere else, that much meat would be a main course portion – these things are only possible because I live here and I make the best of what is here.”

Check out the 2017 list by visiting www.Top50Gastropubs.com

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