Q. How did you learn to cook?
A. I learned to cook by travelling around and eating a lot. I come from a hospitality family and my parents always owned bars, restaurants and hotels. I grew up going on field trips with them, and when I took over one of the family businesses, I decided I didn’t just want to run it, I wanted to cook in it.
When we started travelling, I started popping into kitchens and talking to the chefs to learn more about cooking. Then I would go back and work on my own recipes. The Parkers is my fifth business. I opened three successfully in Africa – the first one when I was 23 years old.
I did it alone in the beginning because I was told by my family that if I wanted to do anything that was a different type of cooking, that was not classic French or anything like that, then I’d have to do it by myself. That was when I met my business partner Kathy Smith, and we decided to open a place together.
She runs the front-of-house side and the admin, and I run the kitchens. It has been a very successful partnership. We’ve worked together for 25 years now. I would say that Kathy is the grounded, mature mind of the business. She’s the one that goes “you can’t do that, it’s not right”. She’s the sane voice of the business and I’m the mad maverick.
A. We had a restaurant in Clitheroe before coming to the Parkers Arms – we still own the property. My daughter had to go to boarding school but I didn’t want her to board, and the school she was going to was not far from Clitheroe. Kathy and her general-manager brother AJ Nolan are originally from Lancashire and I really didn’t want to move anywhere where we didn’t have good connections.
Then we spotted Clitheroe, and it was such a nice, buzzy town, and that’s when we got the first place. But we had a lot of problems with the local council. Before buying the property, we had talked to them and discussed how we would work the property and they had agreed they would allow us planning permission to do what we wanted.
But once we’d bought the property we applied two or three times, lost quite a lot of money and they just would not give. They kept saying it was a conservation area. So it slowed us down. And it had a very small number of covers, so it wasn’t going to be worthwhile if we couldn’t expand. That’s why we started looking and we happened upon the Parkers Arms in Newton-in-Bowland.
Q. What were your first thoughts when you saw the pub?
A. It was like the Mary Celeste – the people who had it before had done a runner. Everything had been left as if it was set, ready to go again. Cutlery, napkins, goblets, the fridges and freezers were full of ready meals and ordered in food. It was scary and eerie. But because I’d been working in Clitheroe I already had a great base of local suppliers and I thought, this is even better than Clitheroe because it is right amid our producers.
It had the right number of covers, a stupendous view, I fell in love with it. The fact that the area we were in was so rich, produce-wise, it just made me think of what we could do. With the Parkers, we could take what we were doing one step further – not only would we be working with local farmers, but we would be very close to the farms.
It’s so close to nature. Around us is a natural larder, you can go out and get things when you need them. The foraging was a big part as well. It’s something we really like to do and it gives you a good quality of life, if you can be at one with nature and put it on the plate.
Lancashire-based Top 50 Gastropubs:
- No. 4: - The Freemansons at Wiswell, Wiswell, Clitheroe
- No. 13: The Parkers Arms, Newton-in-Bowland
- No. 21: The Inn at Whitewell, Clitheroe
- No.22: The Assheton Arms, Clitheroe
- No.48: The White Swan, Burnley
Q. Tell me about your personal cooking style
A. I’m very much a believer in terroir. A lot of chefs are moving away from terroir, which has saddened me. I think a lot of chefs no longer find it trendy to talk about local produce so much, because there have been conflicting reports around how, rather than just buying from a local farmer producing potatoes, you’re better off buying an imported batch.
But for me that goes against the grain of sustainability: if you have something right at your doorstep that you can use, it cuts the price and it makes the product more special. For me, that is the importance of terroir.
Q. Your cooking is often described as having Middle Eastern flourishes. Do you agree?
A. It’s become a thing where people think there are a lot of Middle Eastern influences in my food. My food encompasses everything I have learned and my heritage. I have got Middle Eastern roots, but I also have French roots, which very much dictate how I cook in my kitchen. That classical style dictates how I cook, but the flavours in my cooking are determined from around me.
So I can cook things that are African-influenced, I can cook things that are Middle Eastern-influenced, Asian-influenced, whatever. It’s whatever I feel is going to be correct with that specific dish and will encompass the seasons.
There is no point, for example, in the middle of winter putting on a dish of venison carpaccio that is a cold dish, if I can use it in the summer as a salad. And the summer lends itself particularly well to Middle Eastern flavours.
Because I want to keep to the terroir, I find it very easy to bring the Middle Eastern flavours to the pub in the summer because it’s casual, very sharing-orientated, very light and zingy and a lot of the produce can be found here. If I wanted to do Asian-type food with ingredients like wasabi, I would have to pay for that because it’s imported.
But cucumber, red onion, mint and lamb are abundant – the only imported stuff I would need to use for Middle Eastern-style dishes are the spices. And the majority of spices we use in the UK are imported anyway.
On the menu:
■ Newton game terrine with dressed salad and Parker’s piccalilli (£8)
■ Caribbean-style crab gratin (£8)
■ Lancaster brown cap mushroom parfait with toasted sourdough (£7.50)
■ Bowland lamb hotpot with damson vinegar pickled
red cabbage (£15)
■ Goosnargh chicken and wild garlic pie (£15.50)
■ Lemon posset with roast rhubarb, oat crunch, meringues and spiced biscuit (£7.50)
Q. If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be?
A. The person I would really love to cook for would be my dad. He died when I was very young, before I became who I am now. I think everything I have done in my life has completely defied everything he had wanted of me.
I don’t think he would ever have imagined I would have taken this career path, but I think he would have been quite proud because he was quite rebellious and I went against everything I was supposed to have done.
There are a lot of fantastic chefs out there, dead or alive, who it would be great to cook for, but I often wonder what I would feel I had to prove cooking for them. Anyone who is a chef that likes to eat, should like to eat whatever you cook for them as long as it’s cooked well.
But breaking bread together is quite an intimate thing and if you’re going to cook for somebody and eat with them, it’s important that it’s somebody you care about.