Basic instinct

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After two years working with Heston Blumenthal, chef Emily Watkins has turned to traditional English cooking at her first pub, Mark Taylor reports...

After two years working with Heston Blumenthal, chef Emily Watkins has turned to traditional English cooking at her first pub, Mark Taylor reports

Emily Watkins is terrified. Terrified of the national restaurant critics beating a path to her door and even more terrified of her former boss turning up for dinner at her splendid new dining pub before she has had time to settle in. But then as a former sous chef at Heston Blumenthal's three-Michelin-star restaurant the Fat Duck, in Bray, Berkshire, Watkins has a bigger reputation to live up to than most pub chefs.

The Kingham Plough, in the Oxfordshire village of Kingham, is her first solo venture and it's a collaboration with former university friend Adam Dorrien-Smith.

A freehold bought for an undisclosed sum, the quintessentially English pub occupies a fabulous spot overlooking the village green and backs on to the Daylesford estate.

A short drive from Cheltenham and Oxford, it's perfectly situated for Cotswolds tourists, but with Watkins in the kitchen, it is sure to be swamped by critics as soon as word spreads.

"I'm very nervous," admits the 28-year-old chef. "And I'm very wary of saying too much about the food because I already feel I've got to prove myself. I'd prefer not to know if the critics are there."

Watkins worked for Heston Blumenthal for two years, rising to the position of sous chef just before a medical problem resulted in her having to reluctantly leave.

"I didn't want to leave at all, but I had a

problem with my hip and the doctors said I had to have an operation or rest for six months and I didn't want surgery. I was loving it and I'd just been promoted to sous chef so it was very disappointing, but at the same time I was in so much pain I had no choice.

"I had an amazing time at the Fat Duck and it was a very exciting place to work. Heston was an excellent boss. He was very encouraging, he always wanted us to have input into the menus, come up with ideas and test things. Providing you worked hard, he respected you."

A kitchen of one's own

"Of course, the hours were long, the kitchen was horrible at the time - about half the size of this one - and there were about 10 of us in there," Watkins recalled.

"We were never less than 50 covers for lunch and 50 covers for dinner and most people were ordering the 21-course tasting menu, so you'd be churning out up to 2,000 plates a day."

When Watkins left the Fat Duck in 2004, she worked for a while as a private chef, but at the back of her mind she dreamed of running a country pub where she could concentrate on traditional English cooking. When the Kingham site came up, she was straight on the phone to her former university friend Adam Dorrien-Smith.

"Basically, we wanted to create the pub we would go to when we go out. If I go out, I go out to have fun, eat well and drink well. I can't bear going to stuffy restaurants to do that. We wanted it to be a fun place where you can eat well.

"I like to think of it as a modern, traditional pub with a dining room. I hate the term gastropub because I imagine Thai fishcakes. There's nothing wrong with Thai fishcakes, as long as they are in a Thai restaurant - preferably in Thailand - but not in an English pub."

Watkins has adopted a strict buy-local policy and 85% of her suppliers are within a 10-mile radius of the pub. She also sources a lot of wild food and even picks berries from local hedgerows in an attempt to encompass a River Cottage-style existence.

Traditional English dining

Although she has brought a lot of Blumenthal's techniques with her, Watkins decided from the outset that the Kingham Plough would be a showcase for traditional English dishes rather than the Fat Duck-style fine dining.

She says: "We're trying to be as English as possible. We've got great stuff here, so why not concentrate on it? I've done a lot of research into regional cooking in this area and I've been given or bought some amazing old books.

"We are what we are and we're a pub. People won't necessarily know how their steak is cooked but hopefully they'll enjoy it more than they would elsewhere and they'll respect that this is a great steak or a great piece of fish.

"I'm not expecting them to say 'oh, she's cooked this in a temperature bath like Heston Blumenthal'. I'd rather them say 'I've never had halibut quite like it'. That would be a dream come true.

"I want to hear people laughing at 11.30pm as they finish another magnum of red wine and tuck into a lump of cheese. I want people to enjoy themselves like they would if they came to my house for dinner."

On the menu at the Kingham Plough

Starters

Crisp hen's egg, watercress and smoked bacon, £4

Cured Bibury trout, cucumber and marsh samphire salad, £5

Chicory, Oxford Blue and pickled walnut salad, £4

Main courses

Crayfish and cod pie, buttered garden

peas, £12

Saddle of lamb, pearl barley and tomato risotto, braised fennel, £12

Hereford fillet steak, triple-cooked chips, watercress, horseradish and mustard

butter, £14

Desserts

Summer pudding, elderflower and raspberry ice cream, £5

Cider-battered apple fritters with cider and honey ice cream, £5

Chocolate pot, £5

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