Freemasons at Wiswell chef-patron Steven Smith has led his gastropub to greatness over the years, with his clear ethos of high-end dining delivered with a humble flair and in a classic pub environment.
This ideology has elevated the venue to great heights, including the fourth position on this year’s Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list. However, the chef is hungry for more and is poised to take new steps to cement the gastropub’s future at greater heights.
Foremost, he will launch the Freemasons’ first guest rooms – four in total– that will feed demand for accommodation in an area of natural beauty. The Freemasons is nestled in Wiswell, Clitheroe, an area abounding with greenery and surrounded by tiny villages that boast their own quaint pubs. These parts of Lancashire are popular with holidaymakers, dog walkers and people who enjoy nothing more than a good pint and some decent nosh.
Along with the addition of accommodation, Smith is set to boost the size of his already ample kitchen to make way for a “funky” chef’s table. Yet, this will not be the familiar, arguably over-used, simple chef’s table many foodies familiar with the concept have become accustomed to. No, Smith does not follow in the wake of others when it comes to his pub. This is most obvious from the chef’s menu, with which Smith dares to go beyond the boundaries others would not.
Speaking about the planned kitchen extension, he says: “I’ll have a little funky table in there and look at sort of having a pub in the kitchen, which is something I don’t think anyone has ever done before and then we’ll take it from there.
“It is a chef’s table but we don’t want a traditional one, we want it to be original and a first and another reason why people will want to come to the Freemasons, but I can’t give too much away,” he adds.
“I’ve said many times that we want to be the best pub in the world and we’ll see where that takes us.”
The “we” Smith talks about is himself and wife Agnieszka (Aga) Tyczka whose awesome and enviable hospitality skills deservingly bagged her the title of Front-of-House Manager of the Year at the 2016 Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropub awards.
A force to be reckoned with
Smith and Aga are a force to be reckoned with in this industry, both driven by a passion to elevate the Freemasons to the platform of “best pub in the world”.
Like every great chef on and off the Top 50 Gastropubs list, Smith draws inspiration from the ingredients he uses in the kitchen. But he is not tied to representing Lancashire as a region through his cooking, though he does use the produce if it lives up to his
High-end and refined cooking is his main focus, he wants nothing short of the best and for that to be done in a manner that is serious, but not pretentious. “We’re high-end, but we’re a pub”, he explains.
There is no following of trends, but the key for success at the Freemasons is working with the changing seasons. Though that may be a cliché, he admits, it is a rule he unashamedly lives by.
Several other Lancashire pubs made it to gastropub royalty at the start of this year, snagging themselves one of the coveted Top 50 spots. This is not a surprise for Smith, who simply says the reason is because “Lancashire is pubs”.
“Everything about what we do, the way we’re brought up and the way people feel comfortable in Lancashire is certainly in pubs, so to do high-end food in pubs just sits perfectly for operators like myself and for Lancashire,” he adds. “So pubs and Lancashire just go hand in hand.”
This compatibility of pubs, fine food and regular folk is one of the main reasons gastropubs are soaring across the rest of the UK, Smith believes. “People just don’t want the formality [of a restaurant] anymore,” he explains.
“They just want to come out and relax, whether they’re in a dinner suit or in shorts and T-shirts, they just want to come out and eat the best-quality and value food they can and the pub is the perfect backdrop for that.”
On that note, there is room for gastropubs to become more refined, which Smith notes the Freemasons has continued to do too. He believes the estate of gastropubs across the country will all look to drive up the quality and style of the food they serve because that is what consumers are looking for.
Ambitiously, he rightly points out, UK pubs are famous the world over and he is prepared to predict the gastropub will one day take over the world too, saying nothing short of “the sky’s the limit for gastropubs”.
Smith continues: “The boundary between restaurants and gastropubs will merge, you only have to look at the various guides now to see that they are merging into one because we’re at a point now where we can’t categorise one from the other because you’re eating the same quality of food.”
That said, Smith is not ready to hang up the traditional facade that differentiates the Freemasons from what many (not Smith himself) would describe as the formal, uptight eating environments the majority of fine-dining restaurants have developed into.
A dream for the future
The future for Smith is firmly with his pub roots and the environment that he earlier described as familiar and comforting to Lancashire folk. Although, he is a man with ambitions that extend beyond the borders of Lancashire and even the seas surrounding the UK.
For Smith, his dream goes like this: “Maybe in the future there will be a Freemasons Mayfair or Freemasons New York. That’s a long way away, but we’ll keep aiming very high.”
For those thinking it is just a pipe dream, Smith is already sniffing out potential locations for a London expansion, saying: “There are a few Freemasons in Mayfair already. I’ve been to have a look already and if we could get one of those that would be great.”
Perhaps one day in the future, when Smith expands the Freemasons south or to the US, some will point out that you can take the Freemasons out of Lancashire, but not the Lancashire out of the Freemasons.