Great Pub Chefs - From rags to seafood riches - Clare Mansfield

By Alice Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

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Clare Mansfield freely admits she was an appalling cook when she started 10 years ago - so how did the former trainee tailor become an award-winning head chef at a gastro pub in the Highlands? Alice Whitehead finds out.

Clare Mansfield freely admits she was an appalling cook when she started 10 years ago - so how did the former trainee tailor become an award-winning head chef at a gastro pub in the Highlands? Alice Whitehead finds out.

She is the first to concede she became a chef "by accident" and admits she was "the world's worst cook" at the start of her career 10 years ago. But Clare Mansfield's three seasons as head chef at the Applecross Inn, in Wester Ross, Rossshire, Scotland, have seen both her and the pub win a raft of awards and accolades, including Gastro Pub of the Year at the 2005 Scottish Chef Awards.

"I never meant to become a chef," says Clare, who was training to be a tailor at a menswear store in London before she decided to move to Scotland.

"I was bored with my job and fancied a change. My friend had just moved up to Scotland and kept telling me how wonderful

it was and I thought, right, I'm going to join her."

Despite a promising career in fashion, it was Clare's love of food that won her over and she moved to the Highlands to start work as day chef at a deli then as head chef at Applecross under owner Judith Fish.

"I had absolutely no experience but did various summer jobs in food stores and I'd always eaten loads," says Clare. "At the interview I elaborated a bit on what I'd done in terms of cooking. When I look back I can't believe Judith took me on - quite frankly, she might as well have employed a plumber! But in the first year here I worked really hard - I'd be in the kitchen at 8am and do extra hours at night

so I could practice and prepare ahead."

She continues: "At first I seemed to make a lot of 'brown food', and desserts have been an uphill struggle. I made a

banoffee pie that melted the moment I got it out of the oven and I tried to make profiteroles, but the winds whip through

the kitchen so much here that they deflated. But it all paid off in the end."

It was certainly a giant leap from her tailoring job at Canary Wharf.

Perched on a remote peninsula overlooking the Isle of Skye, the Applecross Inn is 90 miles from the nearest city (Inverness), and the nearest village only has one shop.

It is accessible via two roads - one of which weaves over Britain's highest mountain pass - the 2,053ft Bealoch na Ba

(literally "pass of the cattle"). The route has spectacular views across the Minch strait to Raasay and is so feared by

drivers even the buses don't go this far.

Although the inn's remote location has made it difficult to attract staff, the team is bordering on being self-sufficient. Luckily, the West Highland coast is famous for its oceanic larder, including scallops, prawns, haddock and sea bass - to name but a few. Award-winning cheeses come from the West Highland Dairy, venison from the Applecross estate and vegetables and herbs are plucked from local gardens. The pub has set up a scheme in which four or five

gardeners give their excess produce to the kitchen, with profits going to charity.

All of which means that Clare has to think on her feet - what's delivered to the pub door each day can be as unpredictable as the Highland weather.

"I had a lot of berries this week," she says. "Other days it might be bundles of rosemary or aubergines, courgettes, red

cabbage and apples. I enjoy making up the day's menu on the spot and experimenting. If it doesn't work or doesn't sell, I just won't do it again."

Clare's so-called "experiments" have become renowned among other staff at the pub. Past creations have included monkfish with blueberry and mint butter and haddock with strawberry and peppercorn sauce. "I'm not afraid to put unusual flavours together and I'm particularly inspired by Thai food for this reason. The staff often place bets on which dishes will work and say 'that will never sell', but I

very rarely create something that doesn't go down well with customers."

Unsurprisingly, fish and seafood have become the inn's signature dishes. A typical menu will include whole Applecross Bay prawns in hot lemon and garlic butter (£6.95/£12.95), local squat lobster (£6.95) and key Scottish flourishes such as Torridon cold smoked or hot smoked salmon (£6.95), rollmop herring, prawn tails with a Marie Rose dip (£6.95), as well as celeriac, Crowdie (a Scottish cheese) and tarragon soup (£2.75). Clare also makes a masterful seafood gumbo - a Cajun or Creole dish made from a dark roux, vegetables such as okra, onions and tomatoes, and one or more fish, with a filé powder to thicken the mixture. Although she's modest about her dessert-making abilities, the raspberry cranachan (a mixture of oatmeal, cream and whisky or vanilla essence) has become almost legendary. She's also brought in a new vegetarian menu, with up to five specials a day, a children's menu - consisting of "more than just the frozen nothingness you get in most pubs" - and packed lunches for tourists.

"Food has to be good here as there are not many other places to eat in this area," says Clare.

"This pub is the focal point of the village and for tourists. In that sense we've got to try to cater for everyone. But it's an ideal job for me because I love food and it's not really an effort to work with it."

In fact, Clare has been dubbed "the fairy" by her workmates, thanks to her constantly happy mood (as well as a love

of "all things sparkly"). "It's not a shouty kitchen and there are no Gordon Ramsays here," says Clare. "This is a family businessand it has a family atmosphere. Everyone mucks in and new ideas are welcomed. It's a wonderfully unrestricted place to experiment and discover food."

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