Great Pub Chefs - Feather in his cap - Nigel Ramsbottom

By Max Gosney

- Last updated on GMT

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Chef Nigel Ramsbottom realised his dream of buying his own pub, having been won over by the informality of pub dining. But turning a tired business...

Chef Nigel Ramsbottom realised his dream of buying his own pub, having been won over by the informality of pub dining. But turning a tired business into a stunning success was by no means easy. Max Gosney reports

Cordless phone in one hand and spatula in the other, Nigel Ramsbottom multi-tasks with ease from the kitchen of the Swan at Monks Eleigh.

"I've got to go because my cakes need icing and a guest has arrived," he tells the caller in a booming Yorkshire accent.

The Doncaster-born chef, who has run the Suffolk pub with wife Carol for six years, puts down the phone and tends to his chocolate and amaretto cakes.

"That was Gordon Kennet one of my vegetable suppliers," he explains. "You build up a great rapport with suppliers and they are able to second guess what you want. The wonderful thing about these people is they really care about great produce."

Passion for providing the exceptional is mutual says Nigel, whose CV includes working at the Walnut Tree Inn at Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, under revered Italian owner Franco Taruschio.

"The buzz for me is getting people through the front door and giving them a good time," he says. "Working with Franco was an inspiration because the man remained totally passionate about producing great food, even when he was into his 60s."

Nigel's experiences at the Walnut Tree were instrumental in his decision to buy his own pub. "I knew after six months in the job that I wanted my own place. I fell in love with the informality of pub dining."

The Swan provided the opportunity for Nigel to realise his ambition. "We bought the pub on a freehold for £245,000 in August 1999," he says. "It was a little bit tired and had no reputation for food, but I knew we could turn it around."

Despite the combination of Nigel's culinary craft and wife Carol's business experience as a BHS store manager, the dream quickly threatened to turn sour.

"For the first two years we thought we'd bought a white elephant," says Nigel. "I found it heartbreaking to put everything into the menu only for people to walk out because we didn't do sandwiches."

However the couple's resilience and some publicity on the local radio helped cement the businesses success. "I did a cookery slot on Radio Suffolk," explains Nigel. "Listeners would stop by at the pub and through word of mouth things took off."

The pub has gone on to receive listings in several leading pub guides, including The Gastro Pub Cookbook by Diana Henry and Michelin's Eating Out in Pubs guide. Weekly covers jumped from 50 in 1999 to more than 250 in 2005. "Times were hard and I could have said 'forget it, I'm going to bring in frozen scampi and chips'. But I had a vision and I wanted to stick with it."

The goal, explains Nigel, is to create a simple modern British menu constructed from the best ingredients in Suffolk. "Take a look at those beautiful Cromer crabs," he beams as he displays a batch of seafood. "They're so fresh and tasty that you don't need to mess around. Just serve them up with a few new potatoes, lemon mayonnaise and salad."

The "less is more" approach is apparent throughout the pub's daily-altered menu. Dishes, including pan-fried lamb's liver with garlic mash and onion gravy (£9) and whole grilled skate wing with lemon butter, new potatoes and salad (£10), demonstrate Nigel's uncluttered cooking style.

"I source good ingredients which are in season and just cook them simply." he explains.

However, a touch of Italy is also apparent at the 40-cover pub, located just outside of Ipswich. "After working with Franco for five years I've definitely developed a Mediterranean slant to my cooking." Azure influence is obvious in dishes such as roasted red pepper filled with goat's cheese on bruschette (£6.50) and pancakes filled with ricotta and spinach (£6.50).

Though Nigel's culinary inspiration may come from afar, the ingredients are sourced closer to home. Cheeses, vegetables, meat and seafood are all delivered from Suffolk based businesses. The pub's kitchen porter, Tom Bendhall, is the son of a couple who run a farm shop just a few miles from the Swan, which supplies fresh asparagus.

Nigel says: "The area is rich in fantastic produce and we try to use as much as we can. Carol and I regard Suffolk as home."

Monks Eleigh must be thankful the Doncaster duo have settled down south. The rave reviews in the pub guides have helped put the Suffolk village on the culinary map. Nigel says: "It's come a far way from the pub we took over which was doing 're-heat' food and sandwiches." But though Nigel welcomes the gastro plaudits he admits that the pub's popularity is relative. "I remember at the Walnut Tree Inn we would have people queuing at the door before service. That was a pub in the middle of a mountain range. I would love to be even half as popular here."

The Swan's blend of innovative culinary ideas is helping to ensure its passage to further success "I think you've got to do these things to survive," he says. "In a village of 500 people you cannot rely on your regulars alone." Over the next few years Nigel plans to grow the pub's popularity with further industry accolades and media work.

But, like his cooking, simple things will deliver the greatest rewards. He says: "There's lots left to achieve but customers popping their head around the kitchen door and saying thanks very much will always mean more than anything else to me."

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