Ed Mottershaw has just finished an unexpectedly busy lunch service at the granddaddy of gastropubs, the Eagle in Clerkenwell in London, where he has worked as head chef for the past 11 years.
The kitchen has been squeezed behind the bar and is open to the entire pub, which is on one floor and consists of 75 mismatched seats around tables of all shapes and sizes.
Today, like most days, Mottershaw and his team are wearing shorts to stave off the heat they endure in their cramped work space. As we talk, the head chef is writing the dinner menu for the evening ahead since, he says, the pub was too busy for him to do it earlier.
He credits a busier-than-normal lunch service to recent national press coverage following the Observer Food Monthly’s (OFM’s) Awards, which named the Camberwell Arms, south-east London, as having the best Sunday lunch. The Eagle features on the CVs of some of the Camberwell Arms’s owners, which resulted in the pub being name-checked in many reports about the event. The Eagle is mentioned so frequently because it is recognised as being the first gastropub in the UK, after setting up in the 1990s
Crimes against pub food
Oh God. The worst crime against pub food? I would struggle to say that something is the worst, but I suppose something that I don’t like would be chips served in little metal buckets. I also don’t like fussy food and there’s this thing with parsley that people do in kitchens – it’s almost like a nervous tick. But they sprinkle it on everything in the hope that it’s somehow going to make the food instantly better. I have to say, it’s a bit hopeful to think that
- Ed Mottershaw
“We didn’t win an award from the OFM, but we were name-checked as gastropub royalty, or something like that, and so we cropped up in the national press, which has its benefits and probably has something to do with our busy lunch today.”
Mottershaw is very much a living part of the Eagle. More than half of his cooking career has been spent in the pub, which he affectionately calls a typical boozer, but with a great food offer. “It doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. There’s no table service, place settings and nothing fancy going on. You sit where you want to sit. It’s just a room with tables and chairs and a bar with a kitchen behind it. The food we serve is the point of difference.”
His career in food happened by fluke, though. “How I ended up here? Well, I was going off to do a degree in photography and I was looking for a job as a photographer’s assistant on Old Street [in Clerkenwell] and it just happens I got off at the wrong bus stop outside the Eagle.”
At this point, the phone blasts and Mottershaw takes a call from his fishmonger, which results in him placing an order for a box of smoked haddock and nine gilt head bream. He asks for them to be gutted and scaled.
“So, I was looking for a job,” he continues. “I wasn’t a cook, but I could pull a pint and got a job here behind the bar for nine months and that’s going back over 20 years now.”
Got off at the wrong stop
The young man who got off at the wrong bus stop had never seen anything like the Eagle in his native Chester, he admits. “Landing here was like landing on a different planet for me and I was quite taken with it, the characters and the whole set up was something I had never experienced.”
Working at the Eagle wetted Mottershaw’s appetite for food and by the time his degree was over, he knew he didn’t want to be a photographer, but intended to pursue his new-found passion.
Although inspiration for a career in food grew from his time at the Eagle, Mottershaw spent seven years after finishing university learning to cook at the Fox & Hounds in Battersea, south-west London.
“After doing that for seven years Mike [Michael Belben, the owner of the Eagle] asked me if I would like to come back and do the kitchen here and this is where I’ve been ever since.”
As a result of heading the Eagle’s kitchen for more than a decade and not working anywhere else other than the Fox & Hounds, Mottershaw describes his cooking style as “the Eagle’s”.
“It’s Mediterranean, Iberian and a bit of Italian with some North African influences in there too.”
The menu changes daily and often between services, Mottershaw explains. “It means that nothing hangs around for long. It’s all fresh and people are getting a better choice and, perhaps, more incentive to come back and eat here a few times a week or a few times every two weeks.
“We have things that feature regularly, like our Napoli sausages with something like lentils and a salsa verde. It’s a staple that comes back regularly and is a nice plate of food.
“There will be new things on tonight compared with what was on at lunch today,” he adds. “We ran out of soup, so there will be a new soup. The pigeon has nearly finished so we’ll replace that and the mackerel has all gone so I’ll replace that with some brill from the fridge downstairs. I’ve also put some lamb in the oven for tonight. So there, that’s four new dishes for this evening.”
The Eagle’s steak sandwich
One menu choice that won’t disappear anytime soon is the Eagle’s steak sandwich, which Mottershaw says is the most popular dish, although, it was once rationed to only 15 orders during each service, which resulted in people turning on their heels and going elsewhere, he explains.
“It’s the first thing that went into the business plan and we’ve been doing it ever since. It’s a marinated rump sandwich and it’s gone from strength-to-strength. Fifty per cent of our orders today were the steak sandwich.
“They’re really popular and on a Friday night it can look like an episode of the Night of the Living Dead – customers come from all quarters with their arms outstretched,” he jokes.
The steak sandwich is filling and tasty, he says. It’s made from rump steak with onions, garlic, parsley, black pepper, red wine, oregano, olive oil, cos lettuce and served in a really soft plain bun, adds Mottershaw.
Away from the kitchen and the food offer, though, and Mottershaw has time to consider what the Eagle is to the pub sector. Being credited as the UK’s first gastropub means there is a lot to live up to, as well as the awards and accolades that come with it – the Eagle is 40th on the Top 50 Gastropubs 2015 list.
“Most people come here and love it for what it is and love the accolades. But, on the downside, some people come in and expect a lot more and go ‘oh, is this it?’.
“I can understand that because it gets talked about as this great thing and sometimes people get it in their heads that it’s grander than it is. I’m not exactly sure what they’re disappointed about – whether it’s a visual thing or not – but you can certainly see it on their faces.”
Meanwhile, the future for the Eagle and Mottershaw is “pretty much more of the same”, he admits. Next year, though, the pub will be celebrating its 25th birthday under the ownership of Belben, who has a free-of-tie leasehold on the site.
With that in mind, Mottershaw should perhaps expect a year of busy lunch services as fans of the Eagle return to celebrate a quarter century of gastropub royalty.
- The Eagle is 40th on the Top 50 Gastropubs list 2015. Next year’s Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list will be revealed at an exclusive lunch on 25 January. For more information, visit www.top50gastropubs.com.
On the menu ...
The Eagle’s famous steak sandwich
Rump steak with onions, garlic, parsley, black pepper, red wine, oregano, olive oil and cos lettuce, which is all served in a really soft plain bun.