Great Pub Chefs - Tasting the country life - James Rix

By Mark Taylor

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Beef

He wasn't keen on the gastro pub tag, but after moving to a sleepy corner of Hertfordshire, top London chef James Rix found it pulled in the punters...

He wasn't keen on the gastro pub tag, but after moving to a sleepy corner of Hertfordshire, top London chef James Rix found it pulled in the punters - along with picnic hampers and quality food. Mark Taylor reports

When London chef James Rix first decided to move to the countryside to open his first pub, he asked gastro-pub guru Mike Belben (of the Eagle, the Fox and the Anchor and Hope) for some friendly advice. "He said I'd be doing nothing Tuesday to Thursday and then running around like a blue-arsed fly for the rest of the week… and he's proved to be right," laughs James, who opened the Fox and Hounds in October 2004 with his wife, Bianca, and business partner Gemma Mash.

"I told Mike the pub was in a wealthy commuter belt 45 minutes from London, but he said it doesn't matter that they're wealthy because they probably go to Sainsbury's to buy a £20 bottle of wine and a posh ready meal."

After more than a decade spent working in celebrated restaurants like the Greenhouse, Alastair Little and the Cow in Notting Hill, the move to a country pub in Hertfordshire has proved quite a challenge.

Since taking over the Fox and Hounds in Hunsdon, James and Bianca admit that the experience has been a steep learning curve, but they see the pub as a long-term project.

"I think it's going to take a minimum of a year and a half before we're where we want to be," says James. "At the moment, we're bubbling along, but it takes time.

"For a start, it's really hard to find staff out here. We work every day except Mondays, when we're closed.

"We put an advert in the paper and had one applicant, but thankfully that one person has proved a godsend. She's very reliable, works hard, never complains and has never let us down."

A former Yeoman's house, the pub was previously owned by Hertfordshire brewery McMullen's and had been closed for two years before the couple took over the freehold. The roof needed to be replaced, the place had to be stripped and refurbished and there was a budget to stick to.

James says: "Some days we would have five guys on the roof, five painters and decorators, three guys doing the car park, electricians and plumbers. I used to come down at 9am and think, 'Sh**, how much is this costing me?'

"We knew it would be a struggle in the first year and it has been tight, but we're keeping our heads above water."

Despite his London restaurant background, James is eager to keep the Fox and Hounds very much as a pub, albeit one that gains a reputation for good food. His daily-changing menu is seasonal, with the modern British dishes having an Italian flavour because of his time spent working with Alastair Little ("he opened my mind").

This means lamb's kidneys, lentils and chilli (£5), linguine with clams, chilli, garlic and parsley (£6.75), braised rabbit, butterbeans, tomato and pancetta (£10) and whole roasted spring chicken, Jersey Royals and Fairy Ring mushrooms (£11). Desserts include apple and Amaretti tart (£4.50) and banana sorbet and shortbread (£4).

But as a country pub, James realises that the menu has to appeal to a wide customer base. "You have to be more accommodating to people. We always said we wouldn't change what we do, and we won't, but I think you have to broaden the goalposts a little bit.

"At lunch, we have Cumberland sausages and mash (£7.25) and an Aberdeen Angus cheeseburger with handcut fries (£7.75) just so that we are not pushing ourselves out of people's price range.

"We also offer sandwiches - salt beef, smoked salmon, Cheddar, locally-cured ham or rare roast beef - which cost from £4 to £6.

"I hate doing sandwiches, but we are still a pub and if people want to come in for a pint and a sandwich, it's still money in the bank and you just hope that you get some trade off the back of it.

"We want to be accessible to people. We do a separate healthy children's menu for about £5 and we've had so much feedback from people who say it's nice to go to lunch somewhere their children can have a mini roast beef rather than Turkey Twizzlers.

"I didn't used to like the term 'gastro pub', but since we changed our advertising we've been a lot busier.

"When we opened, we said 'food-led pub' and 'pub and dining room', but now we put 'new and exciting gastro pub' and trade has really picked up!"

With a new website up and running, James and Bianca are already finding new ways of attracting business. The latest idea has been to offer picnic hampers to the parents of local schools for their children's end-of-term sports

day. James says: "In this business, the trick is not to sit still. "You should always be looking at other ways to promote the business or do other things to bring it in.

"The hampers cost from £10 to £45 per head and that's proving very popular. "The school is putting our details in any mail-outs they send to parents and we also advertise them on our website and in the pub.

We sell homemade bread to take away, as well as basic delicatessen-style food like dips.

"We're also doing an 'eat-at-home' service, where people can pre-order our basic dishes.

"When we were living in Notting Hill, we took it for granted that everybody was eating out all the time. "When we came out here, what we really overlooked was the fact that a lot of people have young families and fairly hefty mortgages and they just can't go out on a whim.

"We started offering our basic dishes, which they can pre-order and collect from the pub.

"I learned a lot of the business side from Tom Conran at the Cow. I learned about the importance of keeping moving and not sitting back and being complacent because you have a busy restaurant.

"By the end of my time at the Cow, it was getting the best reviews it had ever had, the best takings and it was the busiest it had been.

"I had put a lot of time and effort into it and it was quite a tough decision to leave, but I had to do it for myself and I don't regret a thing."

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