Day in the life of a gastro pub

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With its wine evenings, healthy turnover and a place in the guidebooks, the Bear & Swan in Somerset is a pub to be reckoned with. Mark Taylor...

With its wine evenings, healthy turnover and a place in the guidebooks, the Bear & Swan in Somerset is a pub to be reckoned with. Mark Taylor reports

Since buying the freehold in February 1999, Nigel and Caroline Pushman have transformed the Bear & Swan into a destination pub with anannual turnover of £600,000.

The Bear & Swan is one of three pubs owned by the Pushmans ­ along with the Kings Arms at Didmarton, Gloucestershire, and the Manor House at Ditcheat, Somerset. They have also just bought the freehold of another Somerset pub.

French head chef Eric Maslon has been at the pub as long as the Pushmans. He works with second chef Rob Lisle, who used to work as a head chef in restaurants in Britain and South Africa. Miles Cooper, who has worked in country house hotels, is also part of the team.

Although Nigel says he normally starts work at around 8am to plan the day, he admits that he and Caroline have taken more of a back-seat role in terms of the day-to-day running.

He says: "We have taken on Zoe Coombs as the manager so we can be more hands-off and have more time at the other pubs we own. I try to be around early evening to meet and greet, and get home by around 8.30pm. Caroline plans any refurbishment works for other pubs, helps with lunch, admin like ordering and buying, and then goes home.

"In the early days we both started at 7.30am. We had a deadline of 10 weeks to start from scratch and were sanding the reclaimed floorboards at midnight a few days before we opened."

Initially, the duo were supported byMaslon and Rufus Kamette, who is still the bar/restaurant manager. Nigel recalls: "Our hours were very long, starting at 7.30am, we regularly walked home at 2am. It was seven days a week, but it was worthwhile."


Over the first strong coffee of the day, chefs Rob Lisle and Miles Cooper run through the previous evening's menu. They work out what they sold and what needs to be replaced. A main course of chicken breast stuffed with apricot and pistachio sold particularly well last night so that needs to be wiped from the menu. They sort out the fridges, checking which ingredients they've got, phoning suppliers for replacements and starting to prepare for the lunchtime service. Between now and midday, all the prepping will be done in the kitchen. With the menu changing daily, everything is cooked fresh to order, which suits the chefs "because nothing hangs around" and it allows them to add new dishes and use seasonal ingredients. Lisle phones his fish supplier, Ivan of Looe Fish Direct, who will be driving up from Cornwall with more sea bass, scallops and cod.


The Bear & Swan kitchen prides itself on using local suppliers. These include vegetables from Chew Valley Produce, cheese and cold meats from RL Walsh & Son in nearby Clutton andtraditional family butchers Pearce & Son. Using local suppliers ­ such as Pearce & Son, which isliterally across the road ­ is especially handy for the kitchen when they run out of a certainproduct. Butcher Clifford Pearce supplies all of the meat for the pub and only has to carry it over the road. The chefs also pop across to the shop to see Clifford and to look at the meat anddiscuss the cuts they want. The rib-eye steaks are one of the biggest selling dishes on the menu. While Lisle visits the butchers, Cooper is continuing to prep vegetables, and the front-of-house staff are starting to sort out the bar and laying tables in the restaurant.


Once the kitchen has finalised the menu, the chefs hand it to Caroline Pushman, who starts to chalk it up on the blackboard that stands between the bar and the restaurant. There is no printed menu at the pub, with the board being placed on a chair next to the tables when customers are ready to order. The chefs prefer the fact that it's not a printed menu because it allows flexibility and they can change things easily, as and when certain dishes or ingredients run out. There are two kitchens at the pub ­ a prepping kitchen for the starters and desserts, and an open kitchen in the restaurant for the main courses. Head chef Eric Maslon is onholiday today and it's Lisle's turn to take centre stage. Lunchtime food is served from midday and as noon approaches, he organises his kitchen, making sure he has his knives and utensils ready, arranging tubs of garnishes, sauces and waiting for the first orders. "Tidiness and organisation is key," says Lisle. "Otherwise you can lose it and the service can suffer."


"Check on," shouts waiter/trainee managerAndy McClellan. The first lunch order is a table of three in the restaurant, each ordering starters and main courses. A copy of the check is passed to Cooper in the prepping kitchen and he's responsible for starters ­ chicken liver parfait, fishcakes and smoked salmon platter ­ while Lisle starts getting the main courses ready. Six minutes later, a second check is slapped down onto thestainless steel counter, and then another and another. Between 12.15pm and 2pm, when the kitchen stops taking orders, Lisle and Cooper have sent out more than 30 dishes, both for the bar and the restaurant. "Lunches are moredifficult than the evenings because of the two very different menus," says Lisle. "You can be doing 20 covers in the restaurant, but have afull bar of people who want gammon, egg and chips, baguettes or bangers and mash. It canget a bit hairy."


With the last orders dispatched, and only a few people left eating in the dining room, Lisle and Cooper gradually wind down the lunchtimeservice, clearing away everything, wiping down the

surfaces and having a quick drink in the bar before having their break. Lisle drives back to Bristol to see his children, but admits that even though he's away from the kitchen, he can't completely relax and is constantly thinking of jobs he has to do when he gets back for the evening service. The bar stays open throughout the afternoon for a steady trickle of locals popping in for a drink.


Back in the kitchen for the evening service, Lisle and Cooper are getting ready for another busy shift. Unlike lunchtime when nobody had booked and customers were all "walk-ins", there's a table for 10 booked, as well as a few tables of two. But with no bar food served in the evening, the chefs can give the blackboard menu their full attention. Lisle is relieved that he had made a5lb batch of the steak, mushroom and kidney mixture for the pies, which have proved the best-selling dish of the day. The first orders of the evening are also for the pie, which is an easy dish to turn around quickly. The mixture is spooned into a small white china tureen, a disc of puff pastry is placed over the top and glazed with eggwash before being put in the oven for a few minutes. Rob fries a few rashers of streaky bacon and places them on top of the puffed-up pastry, which adds a nice twist to this classic dish.


The biggest test of the evening comes in the shape of the booking for 10 people. Thankfully, their orders are taken before the other tables for two arrive, which gives the chefs some breathing space. Lisle tells me that he was very nervous when he first had to work in the open kitchen. He felt too exposed being in the same room as the customers, but he has come to enjoy the experience. "I can't throw things around or swear, but I like the interaction with the customers. One of the tables is so close, I actually get people talking to me while they eat their food, but it's nice to get that sort of feedback."


The kitchen is in full swing now, and the heat is rising, with the two chefs dealing with main courses for the large booking and starters for other tables. Owner Nigel Pushman lends a hand and helps with the plate-carrying duties. It seems that the customers like to see that the "guv'nor" is so involved in all aspects of the operation. He

certainly creates a good environment at the pub and the staff respect him for being a fair boss.


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