Great Pub Chefs - Building Business the Hard Way - Brent Castle

By Nigel Huddleston

- Last updated on GMT

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When the workmen failed to complete his pub extension in time for a wedding booking, chef and owner Brent Castle knuckled down to finish the work...

When the workmen failed to complete his pub extension in time for a wedding booking, chef and owner Brent Castle knuckled down to finish the work himself and showed, as Nigel Huddleston reports, that he always puts his customers first.

As the worst catering nightmares go, to still be building an extension two days before it's scheduled to host a wedding takes some beating.

For Brent Castle, chef-proprietor of the Three Crowns at Ullingswick in rural Herefordshire, it's a reality that's been created by contractors going AWOL. Castle is remarkably cheerful even though he's prepared to "fillet the plumber" and has broken off from lunchtime service to put tiles on the toilet walls.

Villagers with the requisite skills have rallied round to try to get the job done, but a visit from a trade magazine is probably the last thing Castle needs right now.

Even so, he unquestioningly donates close on two hours of his time to answer PubChef's questions without seeming overly distracted.

But then Castle is a long way from the prima donna image that celebrity chefdom has bestowed on the industry. He's so deadpan that it's sometimes hard to tell the jokes from the reality (he claims the pub's single-price menu is a reaction to once having a girlfriend who ordered lobster every time they went out and says he became a chef because "I was a crap joiner"), but his views on cooking and the pub trade are as straightforward as you'll get.

"Another landlord told me once that it doesn't matter how well you can cook, it's the numbers that count, and he's right," says Castle. "You can be the best chef in the world but go bankrupt. Your business goal should be to please your customers: you've got to give them what they want."

Castle has a professional allergy to fancy food and gives customers a menu that doesn't need a French language dictionary to unravel."People don't want fanciness," he says, "they want clean glasses, simplicity and a smile."

He recently had one of the best meals of his life at Chantal Chagny's Auberge du Cep in Fleurie, distinguished by a lack of embellishing sauces. "She had the nerve to go, that's it: no jus, no squiggles, no nothing. Those photographs you have of a squiggle of geometrically-correct reduced balsamic vinegar! Fruit coulis! It doesn't need to be there."

Castle has worked with Rick Stein, but claims to have been influenced more by his mother, Betty. "All I learnt from Rick was how to work hard," he says, although he later adds "and how to fillet fish really quickly".

Of his upbringing in the steel town of Consett in County Durham, he says: "I suppose what got me interested in cooking was that we always got involved. From being four years old I was making Yorkshire puddings with my mum. My mum was one of these mammoth bakers. You'd come home and there'd be bread and cakes and pies everywhere," he says. "At the time, I used to look at other kids and see Mother's Pride bread and perfect looking sandwiches, and wish I had some of that.

"Even now, when I go to see her I leave with a Red Cross food parcel, even though I'm 37 years old and married with two kids." He modestly overlooks adding "and a chef".

His best trick learnt from his mother was adding a lump of black pudding to the middle of a steak and kidney pie to create a rich gravy.

Castle's entry into the world of work coincided with the demise of the steel industry and mass unemployment in the north east.

"You took any job you could get, so I became a dishwasher at a hotel in the Lake District. Norman Tebbitt said 'get on your bike', so I did."

"I watched all these guys working in a kitchen as part of a big team and thought it looked like fun."

He was further inspired when he took his mum to Roger's in Kendal, run by Roger Pergl-Wilson, still in business in the Cumbrian town with the Bridge House. "It was the first decent meal I had in my life," he jokes.

From the Lakes, he went back to catering college in County Durham, eventually landing a chef's job in a hotel in Herefordshire. Apart from the brief sojourn working with Rick Stein in Cornwall, he's been there ever since.

"It's easy to stay in Herefordshire," he says. "It's like a graveyard of ambition round here. You come, you stay, you never leave."

He's now had an unbroken stay of nine years at the Three Crowns, a typically unfussy pub in the middle of nowhere. The menu is uncomplicated. Though there are some lunchtime specials - the à la carte is one size fits all, with all the starters at £6 and all the mains at £14.25. If cod and turbot are both on the menu they'll be the same price.

Castle says: "It means you get a really good GP on some things, but there's still a lot of work that goes in on the presentation.

From the customer's point of view, you pay your money, you choose what you want and if you're going to have a starter you don't have to think how much it's going to cost. Some days you get the cheapest scallops on earth."

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Busy location on coastal main road Extensively renovated detached public house Five trade areas (100)  Sizeable refurbished 4-5 bedroom accommodation Newly created beer garden (125) Established and popular business...

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