Hitting the Clark Mark - Pub Chef of the Year 2005 - Neil Clark

By Max Gosney

- Last updated on GMT

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Pub Chef of the Year Neil Clark still can't quite believe he's won the award. But his growing army of fans certainly do. Max Gosney reports The first...

Pub Chef of the Year Neil Clark still can't quite believe he's won the award. But his growing army of fans certainly do. Max Gosney reports

The first week of February 2005 has been an eventful week, reflects Neil Clark. A new house, turning 27 and being crowned Pub Chef of the Year 2005 was, he says, a memorable hat-trick.

Neil, who has been head chef at the Linnet in Great Hinton, Wiltshire, for more than three years, has enjoyed his success. "It's been fantastic, though winning the award hasn't really hit home yet," he says. "When I was announced as the winner I felt totally elated." Neil - who first began cooking as a 10-year-old, helping his mum bake cakes - received the best pub chef prize at the Morning Advertiser's Best Pub Awards 2005 at the Park Lane Hilton in London on 3 February.

His victory followed success in the Food From Britain and Starters cook-offs at the PubChef Awards in autumn 2004. It's been a satisfying journey from aspiring chef to award winner, according to Neil. "I've always wanted to cook and from an early age I loved doing it. To fulfil my ambition and become a chef gives me a great feeling."

Neil's career in catering spans almost 10 years and includes experience of hotel, restaurant and pub kitchens. He enrolled in Bath College at 16 to study for his NVQ qualifications in catering. On graduation Neil progressed through junior chef roles at the Woolley Grange Hotel & restaurant in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire; the Olive Tree Restaurant in Bath, Avon; and the Pear Tree at Whitely, Melksham, Wiltshire. "I enjoyed the different environments I experienced at each," says Neil. "I've always been fascinated by food and picking up on how ingredients can be prepared in so many ways was superb." Taking time to perfect your kitchen basics is a long-term investment says Neil.

"I've always believed that if you try to reach too high too soon, you will eventually be caught out. You are always learning about food until the day you retire."

Neil's dedication was a key factor in convincing chef Jonathan Furby, who runs the Linnet on a tenancy with brewer Wadworth, to recruit him to the pub's kitchen. "I first worked with Jonathan at the Pear Tree and he has been a role model. You pick up so much from your colleagues and I jumped at the opportunity to join him when he took over the Linnet."

Arriving at the pub as junior sous chef, Neil rapidly progressed to take overall charge of the kitchen. A combination of quick fingers and an open mind have been instrumental. He says: "It's important to work swiftly, though I think you need a bit of everything to be a great chef. Cooking is like fashion in that what appeals to people can change rapidly. You need to keep things varied, which is something we aspire to at the Linnet."

The pub's modern British-themed menu is overhauled every eight weeks to ensure fresh seasonal ingredients take centre stage, says Neil. "Wiltshire is superb for produce, from clotted creams and local cheeses to great quality beef. We want to incorporate these as much as possible on the menu."

However, there is one dish that has remained a fixture at the pub. "My award winning pork tenderloin has been available for more than six-months, which is a record. It's still going strong and we sold out on Saturday," says Neil.

Sample fare at the 55-cover Linnet includes poached salmon "lemon minestrone" with dill oil (£12.25) and pan-fried rib eye steak with game and apple sausages on a beetroot sauce (£14.95).

The pub attracts a mixed clientele from the villagers of Great Hinton to day-trippers from Bristol and beyond, according to Neil. "Most of our promotion is done through word of mouth," he explains. "We are quite isolated so rely upon building a reputation for good food. People travel out from across Wiltshire and we had one villager whose son came all the way from the Cayman Islands to eat here."

The residents of Great Hinton, it seems, are vociferous in praising their local pub chef. "After winning the Pub Chef of the Year award the village regulars sent me a congratulatory card saying: 'Gordon Ramsay eat your heart out'!"

Fame has travelled fast with the help of a few friends says Neil. "I went out to celebrate my victory in Trowbridge on Saturday. We were travelling back in the taxi and my mates started telling the taxi driver that he had picked up a star chef."

However, local fans will be pleased to hear that Neil won't be letting any celebratory status distract him from his cooking over the coming months. "Spring is going to be a busy period for the pub. I'm looking forward to experimenting with some new dish ideas using cheaper cuts of meat like pork belly." And with plans to start a family with wife Lucy, the future appears rich in possibility for the Pub Chef of the Year 2005.

Says Neil: "I get as much enjoyment from cooking now as when I started 10 years ago. It's a rare thing to earn your living from doing something you love."

The Linnet: the low-down

Owner: Chef Jonathan Furby who has run the pub on a tenancy with Wadworth since 2001

Covers per week: 250 to 300

Weekly turnover: £4,000 to £7,000

Wet:dry percentage split: 30:70

GP: 68% to 70%

Wines: 41 including Sauvignon Blanc Vin de Pays Jardin del la France (£11.95), Memsie Water Wheel Bendigo (Australia, £15.25) and Pinot Noir Reserva Casablanca Valley Santa Helena (Chile, £15)Draught beers: Wadworth 6X, Kronenbourg, Carlsberg and a monthly guest ale. Prices range from £2.30 to £2.50 per pint

What's on the menu at the Linnet

Starters - Sautéed king prawns on an Oriental Thai salad, with coriander & soy dressing (£5.50) Tuna & watercress fishcake with a cherry tomato & chive dressing (£4.75) Crispy duck & honey mustard pancake on orange & sage relish (£5.50)

Mains - Braised breast of lamb stuffed with haggis on mustard mash, with rosemary sauce (£12.50) Mille-feuille of butternut squash, asparagus & artichoke, with a saffron & herb sauce (£11.25) Pan-fried lemon sole fillets, with crab & dill dumplings and shellfish sauce (£12.95) Fillet of beef Wellington with Stilton & fried onions and thyme gravy (£17.25)

Desserts - Banoffee crème brûlée (£4.75)Pecan & Jack Daniel's with a crème fraiche ice cream (£4.95) White chocolate & mandarin cheesecake (£4.95) Cheese platter with homemade chutney (£5.75)

Neil Clark: up close and personal

Born: 1978

Experience: NVQ levels I and II in catering at Bath College One year as a commis chef at the Woolley Grange Hotel & Restaurant in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

Two years as commis chef at the Olive Tree Restaurant in Bath, Avon

Joined as a chef de partie at the Pear Tree at Whitely, Melksham, Wiltshire. Progressed to junior sous chef under head chef Jonathan Furby

Joined the Linnet as sous chef and advanced to current position of head chef

Accolades: Pub Chef of the Year 2005; PubChef's Food From Britain cook-off winner; PubChef's starters cook-off winner

Winning dishes: Food From Britain - Wiltshire pork tenderloin filled with spinach and prunes wrapped in Sandridge Farm bacon on a wild mushroom sauce

Starters - Mediterranean-style fishcakes with langoustine tempura

On the PubChef awards: "I remember being very nervous and gibbering away to the judges during the cook-off. I went ghostly white during the awards ceremony, though my colour quickly returned when I was announced as the winner."

Ambition: "I would like to run my own pub one day and I think it will be in Wiltshire."

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