Great Pub Chefs - A world of difference

By Max Gosney

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Related tags Gordon ramsay Chef

A world of difference
A world of difference
British cuisine with an international edge is helping Laurence Cohen prove how far pub cuisine has moved on. Max Gosney reports. At a pub located...

British cuisine with an international edge is helping Laurence Cohen prove how far pub cuisine has moved on. Max Gosney reports.

At a pub located just yards from where Roundheads and Cavaliers made peace during the English Civil War in 1643, a chef is leading his own crusade. Laurence Cohen is determined to change people's prejudice against pub cuisine from the kitchen of the Fox & Hounds at Christmas Common, Oxfordshire. "You used to walk into a pub and be lucky to get anything more exotic than gammon and chips,"​ he says. "But over the last 10 years we have seen an influx of creative and talented chefs to the trade."​ Armed with the finest local ingredients and a commitment to simple high-quality cuisine, Laurence has successfully won over customers since becoming head chef at the Fox & Hounds two years ago.

The 40-cover restaurant, which was added in 2001, is regularly booked out at weekends and attracts a busy lunchtime trade during the week. Laurence has devised a seasonal menu that is loosely British but peppered with global ideas. The assorted influences have appealed to a diverse clientele says Laurence. "Our customer base varies from a group of ramblers to rock stars,"​ he points out. "To cater for all tastes we serve everything from doorstep sandwiches to chicken panfried escalope or Loch Fyne salmon." The 30-year-old chef emits an easy-going appeal as he speaks from the low-ceiling bar area of the 16th century inn, his long blond hair more characteristic of surfer than chef. Laurence's gentle manner seems to sooth the pub's pets; Enzo, the bloodshot- eyed Italian hound and Chloe the cat who sleep soundly beside his chair.

But Laurence's casual style masks a fierce determination to offer the finest cuisine. "I want to go forward as a chef,"​ he says. "Even when I am making one simple dish, I want it to be just right because at heart I am a perfectionist."​ Having worked in contract catering and the hotel trade, Laurence decided to switch to a pub kitchen to fully express his culinary skills. "I was sick of mass catering where there is no love behind the cooking. Coming to the Fox & Hounds was invigorating because it allowed me to experiment,"​ he explains. And utilising his creativity has reaped rewards with a distinctive menu offering novel dishes including seafood marmite and garlic bread (£13.50) and chicken & wild mushroom risotto, finished with truffle oil (£12.50).

From the bread used to make the pub's bacon and Stilton sandwiches to the rosemary garnish on its Mediterranean fish stew, all ingredients are sourced as locally as possible says Laurence. "We are very lucky to have such a rich array of regional produce in the UK,"​ he explains. "I use the butchers and greengrocer in the neighbouring village for meat and vegetables. I pop out into the pub garden to pick all my herbs."​ The menu's international edges have been developed from Laurence's adventures in foreign lands. "I went off travelling to Thailand, Malaysia and Australia after catering college,"​ he explains. "I really loved some of the Thai curries and was fascinated by the flavours."​ The experience inspired Laurence to create his own Massaman curry, which, he says, has proved a hit in the cooler climate of Oxfordshire. "I use monkfish and salmon and try to remain as faithful to the traditional recipe as possible. It's a popular choice for customers and I love to cook it."​ Seafood is a common theme in many of Laurence's dishes.

A third of the Fox & Hounds' mains are fish based and include pan-fried pink tuna (£13) and baked cod on a leek fondue (£12). He even opts for fish wrapped in coconut leaves as his desert island dish. "I enjoy cooking with seafood because it is so adaptable,"​ he explains. "There is a freedom to be creative with fish which I find very rewarding."​ Finding the opportunity to unwind from the intensity of cooking is made easier by the pub's idyllic location in the heart of the countryside. "As a local guy it's great to work close to home in such a beautiful spot,"​ Laurence says. "I'd hate to work in the hustle and bustle of a city or the insular environment of a hotel."​ But when he does seek to escape the stresses of the kitchen, Laurence does so with some panache. "I love snowboarding,"​ he enthuses. "I've been to France with the board this winter and snowboard on the dry slope at Milton Keynes to unwind."

An ambition to open a restaurant on foreign soil could yet materialise, but for the moment Laurence remains content in the countryside and committed to the Fox & Hounds. "I'm determined to improve my standards and keep adjusting the menu,"​ he says. Enzo wags his tail in approval and faithfully follows his master as he heads out of the room and muses over his preparations for the lunchtime rush.

Chef's CV

Name:​ Laurence Cohen Age:​ 30 Experience:​ Born in Oxfordshire, Laurence went to catering college in Henley. He left college and travelled across the globe before returning to work in a hotel kitchen. Laurence swapped hotels for restaurants, working in several local eateries. He also cooked for an external catering company before becoming head chef at the Fox & Hounds in 2001. Significant others: Laurence met girlfriend Emily through his job. He was head chef and she was a waitress at a Henley restaurant. Ambition:​ To enhance his abilities as a chef and open a restaurant abroad.

Fox & Hounds fact file

Menu philosophy:​ Good-quality locally-sourced British cuisine with an international edge Style:​ Traditional English inn with a restaurant housed within a modern extension Owner:​ Landlady Judith Bishop runs the pub on a tenancy with brewer Brakspear Wet/dry split:​ 40:60 Covers per week:​ 350 Capacity:​ 40 covers Average spend per head:​ £20-25 Average gross margin:​ 65% Number of wines on list:​ 28 Wine list description:​ An eclectic offering with choices from Chile, Spain, France and New Zealand. The price of a 175ml glass ranges from £2.80 to £4.50 Beers:​ A range of draught Brakspear ales including Brakspear bitter Famous faces: Michael Parkinson, Jay Kay, George Michael, Harry Enfield Busiest day:​ Come rain or shine, the pub is consistently busy at Sunday lunchtimes as customers flock in for the roast dinner.

In the hot seat

What do you make of Gordon Ramsay?​ I like him because I can see exactly where he's coming from. He wants to get service absolutely spot on and get frustrated when standards slip. I also think he would be a fair bloke to work for. Which chef inspired you? Marco Pierre White. I won his book White Heat as a prize in catering college. I really admire his classic French style and have treasured my copy of the book. What's your pet hate?​ I hate working in a dirty kitchen. Everything must be stored in the right place. Also, I get annoyed by Australians because they are always so brash and in your face. What's your favourite piece of kitchen equipment?​ It would have to be my Gustav Tracker Turner. I use it to flip ingredients. On one occasion it was accidentally thrown out and I had to rummage through rubbish to retrieve it. What would be your desert island dish? If I was marooned on a tropical island, I would catch and cook a fish served wrapped in coconut leaves. Is it difficult to find good staff?​ It is very hard to find a skilled second chef. The problem is that large fees are putting young talent off going to college. The profession is also quite poorly paid. Is the customer always right?​ You should always let the customer believe that they are right but deep down we all know that's not always the case. Are UK chefs the best in the world?​ I think the standard has improved over the l

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