Steven Ellis: I’ve always had a love for pubs, even when I was working in high-end restaurants like Restaurant Gordon Ramsay where I was for six and a half years.
But, during my time, I really wanted to see what a Michelin-starred pub was all about, so I took a year away from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and worked with Andrew Pern at the Michelin-starred Star Inn at Harome, North Yorkshire.
I saw how they elevated pub food to restaurant standards without losing the character and charm of a pub and I knew I wanted to do my own version of it one day.
- The Oxford Blue was named One to Watch and Newcomer of the Year at the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs this year
When I bought this pub, it was very rundown. It was owned by a brewery, but before then a family had it in the ’90s and it was very good, they really looked after it. But no one after the year 2000 gave it much love.
I wouldn’t say it was picturesque when we took it, but you could see it had the potential to be something really good.
Daniel Crump: The outside was still as stunning as it is now, although a little overgrown. We were advised by a number of people to knock the whole building down and start again.
We could have done that because, and we were surprised to find this out, it wasn’t listed. But from the start of the project it was our intention to keep as much of the pub’s history and heritage as possible.
The history is phenomenal. It was bought by a gentleman called Tom Evans in 1829, but it was two gamekeepers’ cottages then and not a pub.
Tom fought in the Battle of Vitoria and, on his return, his wife fed him up and he became fat and unfit. He wanted to fight in the Battle of Waterloo, but he wasn’t allowed because of his health. He got upset about this and marched down to Windsor to the colonel and demanded to fight for his country. He ended up going to fight and actually saved his colonel’s life.
When he came back, everyone knew what he had done, which is when he bought the two cottages, put them together and turned them into a pub using a licence from a site down the road called the Ramping Cat, strangely.
He named this pub after his regiment, which was the Oxford Blues. They all wore blue, were the royal horse guard and were put together by the Earl of Oxford, so hence the name and the horse logo.
It’s a special story and people still talk about it 200 years on.
SE: The interior brings old and new together. We all wanted it to have some of that history in it and also represent us. So it’s still got the beams and we found some old pictures in the attic and put them up.
But to get it this way we had to gut the building and knock everything out from the middle. The cellar was too small for the amount of wine Margriet wanted, so we had to build the Wine Attic, which also became our private dining room.
How they all met
SE: Ami is my fiancée. We met while working together at the Star Inn and she joined me at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay as a pastry chef. I also worked with Dan at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay for three years.
Before I left Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, I helped to open Pétrus (also owned by Ramsay) where Margriet was working. So that’s how we all met.
DC: When you look back on it, it’s really strange that’s how it all happened, that we all worked with Steven individually and then all ended up here. It’s weird and great at the same time.
If you’re to test anyone, any friendship or relationship for that matter, then go open a pub and see if you can survive 18 months. If you can, then you’ll survive anything – and luckily we have.
SE: I’m pretty obsessed with game and my love for it came from working with Andrew Pern.
We use a lot of produce from Great Windsor Park and we use Great Windsor Park sparkling wine. I get a call every week from a game-keeper who tells me what has been shot and then I incorporate that into the menu.
Everything I do is a take on a classic pub dish, but I try to incorporate game into it. People respond really well to that, but you do get a few comments about it being ‘too gamey’.
The inspiration for the dishes started when I was working at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. When I was cooking there I would think ‘I could incorporate game into this dish’.
I really want to get people into eating more game because so many consumers are talking about not liking battery farming and how they want organic and free-range.
In England, we have so much game and it’s as good as organic and free-range. Venison is the leanest meat you can get and pheasant is pretty much wild chicken and tastes like what chicken should, not what people see in supermarkets now – that’s not chicken, it’s pumped full of water and whatever else.
We should be eating more game and one of the things that’s upset me this year is the amount of pheasants that have been burned – tonnes of them. Too many people have this idea that game is too strong and not nice, but that’s not true.
DC: We should especially be eating more of it in England, where we have some of the best game in the world and there’s so much of it.
SE: It’s healthy, lean and it’s had a good life. You can handle it the same way as any other animal; the way you butcher a pheasant is the same way you butcher a chicken, they’re just bigger.
Ami Blakey: I approach desserts in the same way Steven does his dishes, but obviously without the game. It’s classic dishes with familiar flavours, but with a little surprise in the taste or how it looks. So I’ll put my own spin on something like a lemon meringue pie.
I make mine with lemon parfait and burnt meringue. It’s about trying to surprise the guests and invoke memories. They know the flavours and what it’s going to taste like, but we’re putting a bit of fun in there too.
DC: I don’t think we talk enough about the cheeseboard. When we opened, we had 10 cheeses, but we now have – not at one time – 75 all-British cheeses.
Margriet Vandezande-Crump: Drinks have the same philosophy as the food; there needs to be a story with every product. It took us a long time to source everything because of that.
With cider, for instance, we tried 30 different ones before finding the one we liked.
It’s not a restaurant, it’s a pub, and so all of our drinks from beer to cider, wine and soft drinks, have to be special. It all needs to be sourced with quality in mind and we need to know there’s a genuine story too.
The beer we have on draught is from Windsor & Eton Brewery, because it’s really good beer with a great story and it’s local. They also work closely with the Royal Farm where the spent hops are fed to the cattle.
We cover all types of drinks on the drinks list, even cocktails, but we won’t do something like a Mojito because that’s not our style. Ami and I work together on cocktails; so, for example, with the new lemon meringue dish, we make a rum lemonade that is very refreshing and works with the dessert.
DC: Sometimes, members of staff put different drinks together and we name them after the member of staff.
SE: We want to make everything here personal to the staff in some way. For example, as much as we promote the British Isles, Margriet is from the town of Mechelen in Belgium and so we wanted to take on local Belgian beers from the Het Anker brewery, because we think they’re some of the best in the world.
Just because something is British, it doesn’t mean I’m going to put it in the pub if there’s a better alternative from elsewhere.
MVC: Schweppes’s new 1783 products are a new part of the Oxford Blue story. We were introduced to the brand through the Schweppes Cabinet of Curiosities by Phil Rushton (Coca-Cola European Partners account manager). I really loved the whole story and the history behind the brand – I thought it was amazing.
DC: I’ll admit, when Margriet said we were going to use Schweppes over another tonic, part of me thought OK, but why? But Margriet obviously thought about it and it was a no-brainer when we all learnt the 235 year Schweppes history and, importantly, found it tastes awesome.
MVC: We did a tasting of the 1783 range (Crisp Tonic Water, Light Tonic Water, Golden Ginger Ale, Salty Lemon Tonic Water and Quenching Cucumber Tonic Water) against other products and I said I would change because I was so impressed with them.
We didn’t know the history and story behind the brand until now, but that and the taste of the products was a big part of the sell.
Guests like it, since we’ve had it available I see a lot of guests are enjoying it on its own like the Quenching Cucumber one. They see it as a good-quality drink to have with ice and that’s a nice difference to be honest. It really works and it’s tasty.
Also, because of the training we’ve been given by Schweppes, whenever a guest asks for a gin and tonic we ask what their gin preference is and then we will recommend a tonic that enhances its flavours. It just works.
DC: Getting that information to the guest is important to what we do here, otherwise we wouldn’t survive. It’s not just about taking orders and putting down plates, you have to know how to give a good experience without being too intrusive.
If you want to find out more about the Schweppes Cabinet of Curiosities and the history that inspired the Oxford Blue to stock Schweppes 1783, click on the image at the top of this page
The four of us have a great passion for our respective specialities and that’s why what we do here works.
It’s really unique what we’re doing. Each one of us could open our own pub and they would all be good pubs, but each of our specialities would shine on their own.
But here, each of the specialist areas create the perfect pub and gives strength to the business in different ways – food, desserts, drinks and service. It’s the perfect combination.
This My Pub feature was sponsored by Schweppes 1783, which is proud to be part of the Oxford Blue's story.
If you would like to learn more about Schweppes' Cabinet of Curiosities and Schweppes 1783, call Coca-Cola European Partners' customer hub on 0808 100 000