Valuable experience gained at the Fat Duck in Bray has helped American-born chef Joe Cathers put the revamped Running Horse on Hampshire's culinary map. David Hancock meets him
Hampshire entrepreneur Malcolm Osman took a big gamble late in 2003. He bought his first pub, a boarded-up village local just outside Winchester. For years, Littleton's residents had watched their rather ordinary, 200-year-old pub gradually decline and finally close its doors, but this was all about to change.
Following sweeping refurbishment, the new-look Running Horse reopened in March 2004, the original two-bar layout being replaced by a single, sleek and stylish bar with polished boards, subtle uplighting, deep leather chairs and wooden Venetian blinds. The smart decor spills into the new restaurant extension and to the modern, chalet-style bedrooms that were completed in July this year.
Osman's gastro-pub intentions were clear from the start. Chefs turning up for interviews faced Osman and Michelin-starred chef Alan Murchison from L'ortolan restaurant in Shinfield, Berkshire. Maryland-born chef Joe Cathers landed the top job and his inventive menus have placed Hampshire's latest gastro pub firmly on the county's culinary map.
Fat Duck experience pays off
Cathers left the States seven years ago to work for Sir Bernard Ashley's Llangoed Hall, following time spent in the kitchens at Ashley's Keswick Hall hotel in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Since then, he has led the cooking battalions at several key posts across Hampshire, including the Montague Arms in Beaulieu. But it was the year he spent within Heston Blumenthal's culinary hot-spot, the Fat Duck at Bray, that clearly influenced his cooking style and, one would imagine, helped him secure his position at the Running Horse.
'I saw things that I had never seen done before, flavours that I never thought of matching, but Heston's thought process and approach to cooking really impressed me. Now I make mash the way he does it and cook beans in the same way. So they're his cooking techniques, in particular the way he cooks meat, that I have brought with me from my experience at the Fat Duck. For example, I never sear meat, so on Sundays my rib of beef is brown on the outside, the same colour just below the skin and all the way through the meat.'
Strong international influences
Cathers describes his cooking as modern international. His seasonal menus are eclectic, drawing influences not only from his American roots, but from Thailand, Spain, France, Eastern Europe, and there's room for some classic English dishes. When referring to dishes from his homeland, he says: 'I have crab chowder on the menu, that's very American, and my crab cakes are cooked the way I grew up with them in Maryland - without potato, just the best soft-shell crabs brought in from a place where my parents moor their boat.' He adds: 'Another American classic, barbecued pork and coleslaw sandwiches sell very well at lunchtimes here.'
Currently, the lunchtime menu offers sandwiches (smoked salmon and lemon mayonnaise £6.50), starters and lighter bites (seared scallops, black pudding and tomato dressing £5.50), and less adventurous main dishes like beer-battered haddock (£10.95) alongside sea bass with saffron and leek tart, mash and balsamic butter sauce (£11.95). Cooking moves up a gear in the evening, with the seasonal carte (see menu box) showcasing Cathers' expertise.
Cathers aspires to more, though. He says: 'I want the dinner menu to be available at lunch because we are starting to attract the clientele who want to fine dine then. However, we also have a short, set lunch menu - a choice of three starters, three mains, three puds for £10.95 to £12.95 - that changes daily.' He adds: 'We don't get a lot of passing trade here, perhaps a little at lunchtime, so we are fast becoming a destination pub. You've got to have a reason to come here and our food is now a real draw.'
Farmers' market and local foods
'In the first year, I looked closely at sourcing from local suppliers, spending time at the hugely-successful farmers' market in Winchester, where we found a lady who baked excellent bread,' says Cathers.
'She made bread for us every day for a year, but now we make our own,' he adds.
It was the farmers' market that led him to Judes Ice Cream, made in nearby Easton, wonderful pork from Greenfield Park at Middle Wallop, and venison from Hampshire Game. On the subject of vegetables, Cathers says: 'There's an old guy who has a veg stand near the Candovers and I buy a lot from him. But I grow as much as I can on my allotment at home. This year, it has provided the kitchen with sweetcorn, 50kg of potatoes, different Swiss chards, radishes, turnips, carrots and much more. Walking through my allotment in the morning keeps me in touch with the seasons - I know exactly when the Jerusalem artichokes are ready, for example.'
Hot stuff: mustard with ice cream
Other than puff pastry and ice cream, everything is made on the premises. Cathers says: 'I would not stop using the excellent ice cream from Judes, but would like to make our own for some more unusual and exciting flavours. It was me who helped Heston create his grain mustard ice cream.'
Yet with two real ales (Ringwood and Itchen Valley) on tap, the pub has restored its status in the community as a meeting place for local drinkers. The new en-suite letting rooms have yet to make their mark on the business, but the potential for 10 stylish bedrooms in a rural location just four miles from the centre of Winchester is huge. In time, the Running Horse could become a successful, all-round country inn, with classy pub grub drawing foodies from miles around. Joe Cathers certainly hopes so.
Horses for courses
Eighteen months after opening, Cathers is doing on average 300 covers a week. This is on the back of limited local advertising to date. But performance figures should improve following the pub's inclusion in several 2006 Pub Guides, including Michelin's Dining Out in Pubs, and more proactive marketing to promote the new bedrooms (double £85). The wet:dry split is 30:70.