Living for food

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Related tags: Cooking, Bury st edmunds

Trevor Golton and Cathy Clarke swapped selling cars and holidays to live a life creating perfect pub food. Ewan Turney reports Trevor Golton lives,...

Trevor Golton and Cathy Clarke swapped selling cars and holidays to live a life creating perfect pub food. Ewan Turney reports

Trevor Golton lives, breathes and sleeps food. It is his raison d'être. His perfect day is what many people call work. Up at 7am to choose the fresh produce for the day, a few hours prepping, a few more hours cooking lunches, maybe a cup of coffee before prepping for the evening session and more cooking.

When the day is over, or a few hours are stolen away from the kitchen, he likes nothing better than to curl up with a good book ­ a cookery book.

There is no escaping the fact that Golton's passion for food, ably supported by partner Cathy Clarke's attention to detail, has allowed the Buxhall Crown, in Buxhall, to blossom and win the Good Pub Guide's Suffolk Dining Pub of the Year title.

"It's not like hard work," says Golton. "We just get up in the morning and love the work. I love buying food, I love prepping it, I just love everything about it. There's nothing better than standing there prepping food."

Wonderful produce

Golton would like to take on another role at the pub ­ that of waiter so he could describe the dishes to his customers but Clarke is having none of it.

"The trouble is he would spend about half an hour talking about it and we need him back in there," she says pointing towards the kitchen. "It's just because I'm so passionate about it," he retorts. "But I would probably drool while describing the wonderful produce we use and how we cook it."

It's not always been so jolly for Golton and Clarke though. Neither had any previous experience of running a pub or even a kitchen when they took on the 99-year Greene King lease in December 1999.

Golton used to run a Mercedes dealership in Peterborough, while Clarke worked for Thomas Cook. "I decided when I got made redundant for the second time in 20 years that I was never going to work for anyone else again," says Golton. After persuading Clarke to take a punt on the pub, they have never looked back, although learning on the job was an experience.

After asking if he could swear, Golton opts for the word "nightmare" to describe his early experiences in the kitchen.

"We got very busy and actually upset a lot of people because we took too long to get the food out. I was totally rushed and disappearing up my own bum," he laughs. "But once you have a production process and you are well prepped, things fall into place.

"I would have loved to have a formal chef's training and if the opportunity arose now to go and spend a couple of weeks working in a big kitchen I would take it."

The Buxhall Crown prior to 1999 was not known for its food and relied heavily on a microwave. At first, the couple introduced simple dishes, such as lasagne, chilli and sausage pasta. As Clarke says: "These were all things we would regularly cook at home because they were so simple, but delicious."

One of those simple dishes, spaghetti stir-fried with garlic butter and toasted pinenuts remains one of the most popular to date after customers spotted Golton and Clarke eating it after finishing a hard shift in the kitchen.

Everything is home-made

The menu has now advanced and changes every month. "Four weeks is about right," says Golton. "It allows customers to work their way through."

The current favourite is a steak and onion pudding inspired by Gary Rhodes' Great British Classics book. Everything at the pub, from ciabatta and focaccia breads to biscuits, chocolates and ice cream, is home-made.

Golton says: "We are constantly looking for new ideas and inspiration, but we don't do things like kangaroo, ostrich or crocodile. That's not what we are about.

"I love proper, real food. I spend a lot of money on really good food like good sea bass that's fresh and caught in the wild, not farmed. It is much more expensive but it tastes so much better. If you look at the menu there is not much done to mess the food around. It is all good stuff."

The top priced dish comes in at around £14 and, according to Golton, that is about the limit the area can take. "People only really come here to eat now and our dry-wet split is about 70% to 30% but our gross on food is actually not very good. The gross on food is around 61% because of where we are.

"If we were nearer Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds or the Essex border we might be able to charge an extra £1 or £2 a dish to bring that level up to 68%. But where we are you just can't do it. We have to be happy with less."

While Golton slaves away in the kitchen, Clarke takes care of the customers and the waitresses who receive training on all new dishes, wines and beers.

How to treat customers is a transferable skill she learnt in her days at Thomas Cook. "It's a warm welcome when they step in that door. I want them to feel like they are coming into our home. It is almost a case of having your arms outstretched to give them all a big hug. We always speak first. Obviously some people want to keep themselves to themselves but I am very nosy."

An acid test for pubs

Golton compliments Clarke on her talent for remembering names while he often reverts to the "hello mate" line until prompted further.

Dealing with problems ­ and they are rare at the Crown ­ is often an acid test for pubs and the service industry as a whole. "Nobody's perfect and if we do overcook a steak we apologise, cook another one and do not charge for the meal," says Golton. "Often, if you handle complaints right, you will get another convert. They will come back to try the food again because of the service."

Golton and Clarke are convinced it is the "little things", like making sure the garlic butter is spread right to the edges on the bread, that add up to make the pub successful. "It is not one major thing you can isolate but it is everything together," explains Golton.

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