Great Pub Chefs - Core menu

By Mark Taylor

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Apple Shropshire

Core menu
Core menu
At the Apple Tree in south Shropshire, a French-style plat du jour set menu is the order of the day. Mark Taylor reports. In a sleepy corner of south...

At the Apple Tree in south Shropshire, a French-style plat du jour set menu is the order of the day. Mark Taylor reports.

In a sleepy corner of south Shropshire, a dilapidated village shop has been transformed into one of the most unique pubs in the country. Charles Hennell and his partner, Samantha Cole, have been running the Apple Tree in the quintessential English village of Onibury, near Ludlow, for the past year. Although the building was constructed as a pub (and still has 16th-century stone cellars), for the past few years it had been used as the village general stores. Doublefronted, with an old-fashioned awning, it still has the old Brooke Bond signs at the top of the windows. It's so typically English that you can imagine Miss Marple popping in for a bag of Everton mints and a gossip with the shopkeeper.

Inside, however, it feels more like a French auberge than an English pub and closer inspection of the bar and the menus reveals a place that takes good food and drink as seriously as some of its Michelinstarred neighbours in Ludlow. For starters, the small corner bar is devoid of national brands, with real ales from local breweries and bottled cider from a farm just a few miles away. But it's the menu that really stands out because of its simplicity, its proud use of local produce and, above all, its lack of choice.

At a time when many pub menus seem to cram as many dishes onto the blackboard as possible, the Apple Tree has decided to go against the grain by offering customers a French-style plat du jour set menu of two or three courses. This means that when customers book, they have no idea what will be on the menu - mainly because chef Charles doesn't decide what to cook until the day, depending on seasonality and what he can get his hands on. "The sort of cooking that has made the biggest impression on me is simple, almost working-class food from France that you get in the plat du jour cafés,"​ says Charles. "I think people have too much choice when they go out to eat and it actually causes them stress. I think most people of reasonable good taste will eat most things put in front of them. "People come here and have a very relaxing time - they say it's like coming to somebody's house for dinner. "We've been a public house since day one, but we didn't know what to call our-selves - we still don't know what to call ourselves. I guess it's a pub that doesn't look like a pub."

Using entirely local ingredients from some of the excellent small producers dotted throughout Shropshire, Charles creates French-influenced dishes of character and rusticity and it comes as no surprise to learn that he was inspired to cook by his mother, who followed the work of Elizabeth David. He started offering the plat du jour menu when Sam had to look after their son one night, leaving Charles to run the place single-handedly. "I found myself on my own, running the bar and doing the food because we had people booked in,"​ explains Charles. "I put on a plat du jour for £10 and threw in a glass of wine. I plated up loads of charcuterie and did a beef bourgignon with some creamy mash and some little tartlets for dessert. It went fine - although I was washing up until 2am."

There has been a mixed reaction from customers at the lack of choice, but on the whole, it's been very well-received. "Some people have said 'what a lovely idea, it's just like being in France', although a few have been really worried about coming, particularly if somebody else has taken the booking and hasn't explained it's a set meal. "The biggest challenge is deciding what to put on the menu. It can either be something that can be cooked in advance and holds well, such as coq au vin or any stew with wine in it, or something that can be cooked very quickly, like fish. "I've also got to bear in mind the margin. We're quite good at keeping the 65-75% margin overall. There was one evening we did plat du jour, and we included wine. One bill was £123 and we worked out it cost us no more than £25, which is a shocking thing to admit, but that's a huge margin. "When we had a wider menu, we had more wastage and we ended up eating the surplus restaurant food at home."

Running the Apple Tree is a far cry from Charles's previous job as a senior training manager for Eurostar trains. In those days, Charles was travelling to France and Belgium on a daily basis and having lunch in some of the best restaurants in Paris and Brussels. It was a highly paid job with plenty of prospects, but he gave it all up to realise a life-long ambition to run his own business and he'd always fancied having his own pub. "I wanted to stop being a 'corporate man' because I wanted some choices,"​ says Charles. "I thought I don't want to work for somebody else for the rest of my life because it would just be too dreary. "I used to leave the house at 6am and do about five hours travelling. I thought I may as well run my own business locally. We'd lived in the village for years and I could see the shop was going into a bit of a decline. "I cold-called the agents and they put in a proposal. I thought nothing of it for a year and then out of the blue they came back to me and asked if I was still serious."

The building is owned by the local estate and Charles and Sam rent it on a nil premium lease. "We set this place up on no borrowings,"​ says Charles. Any improvements were funded through cash flow from Charles' last consultancy job. "We got a small grant from the Countryside Agency, the estate spent about £7,000 on basic repairs and we spent a similar amount doing up the place and buying equipment. "You become quite creative when you haven't got any money. All of the tables in the dining room were once our own kitchen tables at home and a lot of the kitchen equipment was bought from an auction when a local old people's home closed down."

Charles estimates that buying everything new with a bank loan would have totalled £20,000. "And I would have needed another job on nights to pay for it,"​ he adds. Charles continues: "Just before we opened last year, we had £50 left in the bank and we decided that we just had to open there and then. In the first few weeks I was working in a galley kitchen, cooking Breton-style pancakes. "We're in the first year of trading, we're not making a surplus - we make an operating profit and we have enough to pay for basic stock and overheads. "We've had a few moments when we asked ourselves if it would work because we're a small place and we've got the cheek to have just one set menu, but people seem to like it and when we hear the laughter and see people having a great time, it's all been worth it."

Chef's CV

Name:​ Charles Hennell Age:​ 38 Experience:​ After studying business studies at Thames Polytechnic and economics at Loughborough University, Charles trained to be a solicitor. He worked for two years as a solicitor's clerk before deciding to pursue a career in the railways in 1988. He started as a guard on trains and soon became a station manager. In 1993, he joined Eurostar and was part of a team responsible for recruiting the 200 people to work on the trains.

He left in 1996 to start his own business as a training consultant to the railway industry and in 2003 realised his long-term dream of running his own pub and cooking full-time. Entirely self taught, Charles's passion for cooking comes from his parents, his extensive travels and a love of good food from time spent in France and Spain. He also served two years in the Royal Naval Reserve at HMS Wildfire and worked in the galley. Ambition:​ To replicate the concept of the Apple Tree in other villages and towns.

In the hot seat

What do you think of the so-called gastro-pub movement?​ It's a completely meaningless expression and probably invented by somebody writing for The Guardian. It's overused and it usually describ

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