Let’s just get this out there now and then I promise we can move on. The Treby Arms in Sparkwell, Devon, hit a moment of turbulence when former head chef Anton Piotrowski, who was responsible for landing the gastropub its Michelin star in 2015, made a shock exit.
The stress of the job, depression, divorce from his wife and poor health all led Piotrowski to up sticks and walk out of the pub he opened in 2011. He then moved to Plymouth and launched new dining venture Brown and Bean and, according to his former colleagues, left that in May and now resides in Liverpool.
Executing major plans
Now, back to that promise. It would appear there certainly could be life after Anton for the Treby Arms, which came 42nd on this year’s Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list, since the two men now in charge of its prospects have already executed some major plans.
General manager Callum Bailey, who moved up into the role just before Piotrowski left the venue in March, and new head chef Luke Fearon are hopeful about the Treby Arms’ future, its Michelin star and the food it will serve.
Already the pair have made big changes, starting with the pub’s opening times, which have been cut down from seven days a week to five. Bailey, who has worked in the business for two-and-a-half years, explains: “We’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays now because we just need the staff to be well rested to serve the best-quality food we can. We also use these days to train staff.”
He continues: “Sometimes the chefs would have to do up to 10 days straight and that doesn’t make for good-quality food. It’s also hard to keep staff happy if they are tired and so changing the opening times has helped us build a team that works well.”
Until fairly recently, the gastropub never opened on Mondays, but its popularity led the team to work a seven-day week. Longer opening hours also meant there was a need for a bigger kitchen team and so, at one point, there were 14 chefs working in a relatively small area. “Sometimes we would have two chefs on each of our five sections and we can barely fit one on each section,” bemoans Bailey.
The large team was a legacy left behind by Piotrowski, but now the brigade is running with six chefs and one kitchen porter. The majority of the existing team have remained, but all were given the opportunity to stay on, claims Bailey. Yet, the change in direction did prove too much for some, who left.
One of the most important developments was the move to simplify the menu and move it away from the “off-the-wall” plates associated with Piotrowski and towards simple and clean plates.
“Luke made the biggest change, which was to rip the menu pretty much clean apart and start afresh,” explains Bailey. “It’s still a pub and still serves the best pub food you can find in our area. We do a taster menu, which are the best dishes that Luke makes, an à la carte menu, which is the best pub dishes you can find, and a bar menu.”
Fearon, who came to the Treby Arms as a senior sous and development chef nine months before Piotrowski left, is classically trained and describes his cooking style as Anglo-French. “My style is more ingredients-led and there are less bells and whistles on my food and more knowing about where my produce has come from,” he explains, adding that the plates have been cleaned up significantly since he took charge of the kitchen.
This ethos is immediately evident to customers who dine at the 65-seater gastropub because the first thing they read on the menu is the Treby Arms’ promise to them that “we are just the middleman for world-class ingredients”. So honest are the plates that ingredient costs have increased because the head chef admits there’s nothing to hide behind, since “the ingredients are the main show”.
“It’s very accessible food. It’s a little pricier than you might expect because we are just using the best ingredients,” says Fearon. “We have a couple of foragers who let us know what’s in season.”
Nothing to hide behind
The husband and wife foraging team he speaks of are an important part in the sourcing of Fearon’s current favourite dish, which is fresh Cornish crab served with white sorrel, charred asparagus confit, local seaweed and crisp green apple. “It’s a challenging dish and keeps your taste buds alive as you eat through it and you get new and exciting flavours all the way along.
“There’s nothing to hide behind on this dish, that’s not something we can do anymore. There are only a few ingredients on all of our plates and something makes it onto the plate because it should be there, not just because [it looks good].”
Now, what of the Michelin star that Piotrowski brought to the pub three years ago, surely there is a huge amount of pressure to maintain it? Fearon says: “We believe our offer is 100 times more in the right direction than it was before.
“The Michelin star is a pressure, but not one I face on a daily basis,” he continues. “We have been tweaking our cookery and, for us, it’s all about being happy we’re serving dishes our customers want – I’m not going out of my way to serve what we think Michelin is wanting.”
It is a similar sentiment from Bailey, too, who believes the operational and menu changes at the Treby Arms have led to a more consistent experience.
“Things aren’t robotic any more,” he maintains. “They may not look exactly the same every time because we’re focusing on the quality of our ingredients, but I think everything has gone up a notch recently.”