Head chef Sean Jeffers has not only delighted diners with his culinary skills, he also manged to reach the finals of the Great British Pub Awards in the category of Best Pub Chef in 2023.
Here, Jeffers tells us about the site, its food offer and the team that makes it tick.
The pub was built in about the 11th century and it’s next to an old church called All Saints and it’s quite a destination pub.
There were a lot of smugglers back then who used the church to smuggle things like alcohol and treasures. We get quite a lot of people in who are into the ghost walks and the smuggling trade so the pub is used as a feature, which is always quite nice. It gives real character to the place.
It’s got an old flagstone floor pub with low beams and although looks like a house from the outside, when you go in you can see it’s definitely a pub. We kept a lot of the old features like the windows and wooden beams.
You get that feel of old traditional pub with our brick stone fireplace but we’ve changed that slightly to be more safety conscious but you can see its original features.
A two-minute walk away, we’ve got a causeway that opens up onto the River Yar where you’ve got beautiful scenery there with different ranges of birds. It’s amazing and we are also walking destination because a lot of people that walk from Yarmouth and into Freshwater come across the pub.
So it’s a little hidden gem.
Facts ’n’ stats
Pub name: the Red Lion
Address: Church Place, Freshwater, Isle of Wight, PO40 9BP
Owner and staff: Mark McDonald (owner), Sean Jeffers (head chef) and Danielle Herbert (GM)
Food: drink split: 60:40
I’m the head chef, the general manager is Danielle Herbert and the owner is Mark McDonald.
I got a call from Mark about two-and-a-half years ago and he said he and Danielle needed help to bring the pub up and I came on board. Mark owns the premises but lets me and Danielle run it.
Mark took the pub in 2014. It’s owned by Stonegate and he leases it from them. He’s been a publican for almost 30 years and has at least three or four sites.
I’ve been cooking for 20 years, from the age of 16. I went to Isle of Wight College and left school young because I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
I got an apprenticeship at a little restaurant in Cowes, which where I also lived so it was convenient. It was a little a la carte restaurant that served good, home-cooked food where everything was made from scratch. I was there for four years.
I completed my apprenticeship and got my City & Guilds in the first two years then became the sous chef and ran then restaurant at the age of 18 then I left to work on the [luxury cruise ship] Queen Mary 2.
It was supposed to be a four-month contract but I did seven and it was back-to-back seven days a week, which was a tough time for a 20-year-old.
I came home and got myself into a two-Rosette restaurant at a hotel. Then I started as a chef de partie at a pub where I met Mark. I worked for the company for about three years.
I worked my way up to be head chef as we opened up pubs across the island – so every time a new pub came up, I got the promotion.
In 2014, I decided I had enough of pubs and an opportunity came up to me to open up a restaurant in Ventnor and in my first year I got into the Michelin Guide. It went really well and I worked there for four-and-a-half years but I needed that work-life balance because I’ve got a wife and two kids so I needed to find a job where there was a kitchen brigade to give that balance.
I went to a hotel as a senior sous chef but Covid hit a year later and everyone was let go. I started working at a pub group as head chef and then Mark rang me and offered the Red Lion, which I’ve always had a soft spot for.
It’s been absolutely phenomenal two-and-a-half years.
When it come sour customers, we’ve obviously got our regulars, who tend to come in between 12pm and 5pm and like to do the quiz at the bar and things like that. They have a good jolly and are a good bunch. We feel quite lucky to have them.
We always have real ales on and they are popular with the regulars.
People come to the pub now because of word of mouth. We don’t really use social media as much as we should really but we also like the impact it has when people come and they’re blown away. Also, we don’t really have enough time to promote it because we’re just so busy.
I use social media a lot for my dishes but it also acts as a little repertoire for me so I can go back and have a look at what I’ve done.
We will sometimes get about 50 people walk in and that is especially true for lunch because of the cyclists and walkers we get on a nice day.
With all the accolades we’ve got, we don’t need to promote ourselves too much because the Red Lion comes up on search engines.
We get a lot of foodies come here now, which is really good.
We’re definitely a gastropub but I’ve always wanted walk-ins and be at a pub that’s filled and is relaxed where people can have fun but with the quality of food you would get in a high-end restaurant without having to talk quietly at a table and it’s not going to break the bank for customers.
We have five senior front of house staff and then we’ve got three younger members of staff who work weekends, running the food orders – and then there’s mark who is darting all over his pubs.
Back of house there’s me as head chef then I’ve got my sous chef and a junior sous plus two chef de parties (CDP) and two kitchen porters but there’s usually about three working at any time in the kitchen.
We’ve only just taken on the CDPs. During the summer we couldn’t find any chefs and we struggled and we had to close for two days so the staff in the kitchen could get a break.
What's on the menu?
Slow-cooked Isle of Wight beef crumpet, onion jam, parsley, horseradish emulsion – £9.50
Pigeon with thyme – walnut ketchup with toasted hazelnuts, confit egg yolks, pickled girolles and pan-fried chanterelles - £10
Orkney scallops blow-torched in chorizo oil, pickled kohlrabi, chorizo jam and roe-stock butter sauce - £11
Duck, carrot & potato rosti, confit duck leg croquette, spiced red cabbage puree, pickled red cabbage, duck-fat confit carrot, game jus - £22
Venison, cavolo nero, autumn truffles, girolles mushroom puree and a chocolate venison ragu tart - £26
Cod, smoked bacon & cod tortellini, leek, pickled mussel, salmon eggs and smoked bacon velouté - £21.
Malteser - caramel white chocolate cremeux and a dark chocolate ganache, ice cream - £8.50
Sticky toffee pudding with honeycomb ice cream - £8.50
Apple sponge with cinnamon cremeux, apple sorbet and salted caramel popcorn – £8.50
We got our own veg garden at the back of the pub, which is probably about the size of a quarter of a football field. We grow whatever we want from courgettes, cauliflowers, beans, artichokes, kale, rhubarb, etc.
We’ve got a massive range and also got lots of herbs growing such as lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage. There’s so much there that, because it’s not bought in, we’ve got a good mark-up it and means we can then can things like truffles in. We can get high-end, quality food in because we’re not having to charge the garnish on the plates.
When I started they used to have specials on, which to me aren’t ‘specials’. It seems to me it’s dishes someone just made up and are just trying to throw out the door but the a la carte menu we have now means we make sure the execution is right and we really work hard to create that dish well.
The food is French-British modern but there’s a lot of twists to it. We don’t overcomplicate it though. When you read the menu, I’ll just put the ingredients on there. So when it comes out, it that little bit of a surprise on how we do things.
We don’t really do the whole vac-packing sous-vide. A lot of it is pan stove cooking.
We make our own stocks, sauces and our own pies. About 90% of everything is made in house.
In summer we two menus, a lunch and dinner menu, which also helps preparation levels.
Proper Job is out biggest-selling beer and is one of our four ales on cask. Currently we have Black Sheep Yorkshire Best Bitter; Titanic plum, which is a porter; Otter Bitter; and Proper Job from St Austell.
On keg, we’ve got three or four lagers, Guinness, and three ciders in Strongbow Dark Fruit, Stowford Press and Henry Westons.
The ales are the biggest sellers and then Kronenbourg but our wines sell really well with the food. We have a big wine list.
We haven’t had time to come up with anything but I’d like to start doing a taster menu at some point in the new year now I’ve got the team behind me to do it.
We are just so busy all the time and that means we’ve never really had a need to put any events on.
It’s always something that we’ve looked at and thought about doing and we will do so again when the time is right.
Being next to the church we do quite a few wakes, which we do in the afternoons. We try to help people out and we will open up for wedding as well of course. We never really say no when it comes to the church side.
I’d like to do pairings of wine with food but that’s something we will have to look at in the new year.
I would like to put a taster menu next to the a la carte menu we currently have. I’m looking at about £59 menu.
It will be items mainly from the garden that I don’t get around to using on the a la carte menu.