Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Seven

Our Big and Bold Gamble

Eastwell Manor

It was a 17th century wine merchants house on the outskirts of Canterbury. Timber framed house of three storeys and a low cellar on Wincheap, number 74, just outside the city walls. We sold our house in Ashford and along with 2 boys from Eastwell’s kitchen, Darel & Mark and David from the restaurant, together we set about turning what had formerly been a fitted domestic kitchen showroom, into what would become a Michelin Starred restaurant (although we didn’t know that at the time of course). Sounds easy, doesn’t it? 

Alan Briggs, a really eccentric builder we hired to do the work, drove a 3-wheel Robin Reliant just like Del Boy Trotter, but it wasn’t yellow! He did us proud, in so many ways, and in what seemed like a lifetime then but in reality, was only about 5 weeks. He got us up and running and open on Friday 9th December 1983 having just obtained our drinks licence the day prior, which was touch and go, in fact, he screwed the door handle on the front door and then went straight out the back, as the back door closed the first customers came in through the front door and we were off and running – well off and staggering at least.

We’d sold our house and netted £14,000, we then had to set about finding some money to fund this venture. The bank, when we eventually found one willing to lend, had agreed to match our money – but only on a government backed loan, meaning the bank was only risking something like £3K while the government sponsored the rest, the rest being £11k, so for £28k we had leased a property and taken this former kitchen showroom with living accommodation above to be ready to function as a restaurant in only 5 weeks and £28k. Looking back on that now we must have been mad to take it on. We had no savings to fall back on, nothing! Everything we had was going into this new venture, there was no contingency money stashed away for an emergency, no 2nd job to bring in more cash, no wealthy backers, or wealthy parents. Nothing, just us, I still wake up now sweating just thinking about it. Thankfully I didn’t back then, I’d hardly given it a second thought, why should I? We weren’t going to fail were we, no chance!

Jane and I went to see if we could get a loan from Barclays in Canterbury but were turned down, there were already many good restaurants in Canterbury, they didn’t need any more, according to the manager of the branch. NatWest, pretty much the same answer there too. Someone, I think it was an accountant, mentioned Williams & Glynn in Maidstone, they were looking for new customers for a new branch they were opening in Canterbury. We’d never actually heard of Williams & Glynn but that mattered not, so off we popped. The manager there could not have been more accommodating, yep you can have a loan but only on the government backed loan scheme, banks – totally risk averse, so as little or no risk at all was what was on offer! Still, we got the money and that’s what mattered.

Being so old, Wincheap House was what it was known as a grade 2* listed building, this of course brought with it lots and lots of restrictions. Canterbury we all know is full of old buildings like this, the majority of them were within the city walls. Ours was different, it was outside the walls, probably why it was only grade 2* listed not 1*. Great points were that it had main road frontage and there was parking available on that road. We also had our own car park for about 6/8 cars along with a small garden area too, so quite a lot going for it really. We were renting though and had a bank loan so we needed to take a fair bit of money to cover it all, and pretty bloody quickly too!

So, I think my dates are right here, it was about the 9th December that we finally opened the doors but so much work went on before we got anywhere near that point. Along with Jane and I, Alan Briggs our incredible find of a builder, Darel Turney, who came with me from Eastwell along with two others that also worked at Eastwell, David Egerton as our restaurant manager and Mark Dobson. We set about turning this 17th century Wine Merchants house from a kitchen showroom, into what we hoped would be a high end restaurant that was going to set Kent alight with a quality of food it had never before seen.

The interior downstairs was all plaster boarded throughout the two main rooms, a series of fitted kitchens had been installed and the walls to each kitchen tiled, just like they do in the likes of B&Q these days, (other DIY superstores are of course available). All of these kitchens of course had already been removed leaving the place looking a mess.

Behind these two front rooms there were a couple of store rooms and a small toilet. Upstairs on the first floor a large living room, a small domestic kitchen a bedroom and a bathroom and a store room too. Above this on the 2nd floor were three other rooms, unused. Yes, it was a large building. Our idea was that Jane and I would live on the first floor, one of the store rooms would become an office/store the other we would turn into the ladies toilets. The 2nd floor would be used as bedrooms/living accommodation for our staff.

When we took the building over all the plaster boarding and dividers that were breaking the rooms into smaller kitchen type areas had to be removed and we had absolutely no idea what we would find behind it all. What we did find though was wonderful, if not slightly daunting at the same time. 

The larger of the two rooms, the one that became the actual dining room, was panelled all round floor to ceiling with oak panelling, sadly it was in poor condition with a fair bit of it missing. In the far corner was an inglenook fireplace complete with a metal fireback dated 1690. The other room which was destined to become a lounge for pre and post dinner drinks and relaxation was also boarded over and the removal of this revealed another smaller inglenook fireplace but this one in dreadful condition and with a series of fireplaces built into it over the years. This is where the incredible Alan Briggs really came into his own!

Alan took it on himself to remake, repair and renovate the existing panelling which, by the time he had finished, looked like it had always been there. He did an immensely impressive job. He then set about the smaller of the two fireplaces, as this was in a very poor condition. The original brick-built fireplace dating back to when the house was first built had the original wooden beam over it holding the wall above it up and at least 3 other fireplaces built into it over the years, each one getting progressively smaller right down to the tiny hearth of the Victorian era. 

Alan set about removing each of the later additions with great care. Extreme caution in doing this was needed as the original brick built one was so fragile. The brickwork was all soft and crumbling and full of deep holes where rats over the years had eaten into it and made tunnels through it. It took a fair while but he got all of the newer additions out, leaving just the original standing. He leant in to it saying “I wonder if I can get that metal spike out easily”, he did and immediately took a photograph of the uncovered original, then, all of a sudden and without warning, it all collapsed in front of us! The result was a gaping hole and a rather large pile of builder’s rubble in the middle of the room.

Matthew Bates, John Croft and Ian McAndrew

The Fireplace

Pre Restoration

The bricks that made up this fireplace were less than 2 inches thick (5cm) and no longer available, anywhere, some of the facing bricks were also carved and the mortar holding them was a specific mix that had to be matched to comply with conservation regulations. 

Alan of course was so up for the job! He hand-carved the required facing bricks, he had, if you recall and thankfully, taken a photo of the originals just before the whole thing collapsed. He then also hand cut the nearest type of brick he could get down to the requisite 6.5cm widths and then rebuilt the fireplace. My regret is that we only have one photograph of it, after it collapsed and before he rebuilt it. The rebuild took some time so was not ready for when we re-opened, in fact it was a long time before it was back in one piece again but at least it was a great talking point. 

Everyone worked their backsides off, day in day out, morning noon and night, literally. My plan was to be as open and up front as we could be with the local EHO so I invited them along just as soon as we had gained change of use permission to make sure that there would be no objections to what we were planning. We also kept the council and their conservation department in the loop at all times too. Then of course there was also the fire brigade to be borne in mind, we were after all a major listed building which brought with it all sorts of legislation and rules to follow.                                                            

The Restaurant

Alan proceeded to hand make and stain all the missing oak batons from the panelling in the dining room. Once done the room was fantastic, right back to the condition it would have been in the day they were first installed. He then had a whole kitchen to build from what was the shops store room, all walls were dry lined and levelled then tiled where necessary and tiled elsewhere, sinks had to be plumbed in too along with the gas stove. New electrics throughout, new floor surfaces. The lounge had to be decorated, no easy task as the walls needed re-plastering but it could only be done with a specific mix, the recipe to which the conservation department supplied. It was basically a horse hair and lime mortar. Not any old horse hair, but 2 inch long horse hair! Walls re-plastered they were like stroking a hairy pig! So before wallpapering could begin the walls had to be shaved first! I say shaved, but in reality it was done with the aid of a blow torch burning off the protruding hair then rubbing them down.

On top of this there were customer toilets to build, ladies upstairs, gents on the ground floor. New lights to be bought and fitted, new carpets to be bought and laid, stoves, fridges, work tables to buy, storage areas to construct, pots and pans to buy, suppliers to find, menus to write. Wines to select, and taste, well someone had to do it! It was never ending. 

EHO insisted that the cellar had to be, as a minimum, re plastered and painted, the fire brigade insisted the ceiling of the cellar had to be fireproofed too, then there were some of the internal doors that the fire brigade wanted fireproofing but conservation put their foot down and said no! These doors were also listed along with the building and were not to be touched or changed at all! Conservation won! The front door, not only mentioned in the Doomsday Book, but with an illustration too, could not be touched at all!

Never mind how much work we did it would all have been for nothing if we did not manage to secure our drinks on-licence for the premises. The hearing for this was due on Thursday when we were due to open on Friday, yes, the following day! On the morning of the Tuesday of that final week, three days prior to the planned opening, the head honcho of the EHO turned up with his colleague who I had up till then been dealing with. They’d both walked around the kitchen, inspecting the sinks and finding that none were yet plumbed in, equipment, fridges and back of house area as well as upstairs to see the part constructed and as yet, undecorated ladies’ loos. Down to the cellar to see that too was still in its unfinished state. 

The two of them stood in the middle of the lounge area, on the carpet, surround by 3 carpet fitters, trying to stretch it into place as it was in the process of being laid. He turned to me and said, “you’re not going to be ready for the licence hearing on Thursday, are you? The carpets aren’t even down yet”! “They bloody well will be if you get off the bloody thing so the fitters can finish” was my rather curt retort. “No chance” was his!

“Okay I tell you what I’ll do” he said, “I’ll come back on Thursday morning on my way to court and see if you have managed to get everything done, but be aware, if you haven’t, I will object to the granting of the licence.

For the ensuing 48 hours we all, and I mean all of us, worked as though our lives depended upon it. On Thursday morning just as I was descending the ladder in the ladies having just hung the last length of wall paper in he walked, as promised. He walked around the building as he had done so a couple of days prior, then came back to the lounge. He just stood there, looked around at a room complete with furniture and a reception desk topped with a diary and telephone.  Turned to me and said, well done you made it, then walked off!

I rushed off, got cleaned up and into a suit then off to the court with fingers crossed and serious butterflies in my stomach. If we didn’t get the licence we were stuffed as all the money was gone!

We got it, no objections, no problems we got the licence! Mind you, had he had a really good look around that morning, there was no way we would be opening. Yes, the sinks and the taps were in place but they weren’t connected to anything! Indeed, even working right through 2 days and nights we hadn’t managed to get everything done. Good job he didn’t want to wash his hands!

Friday evening 7pm, all day had been spent tidying up the front of house up and a serious job had been done in the kitchen getting everything on the menu prepped and ready to go. Alan had just screwed the door handle on the door to the vestibule and as he went out the back door the front door opened, and in walked our very first customers! Restaurant Seventy-Four was open for business!

Restaurant Seventy Four

was Open for Business

We had our own tables made to spec, made with removable tops so we could alter table sizes and shapes to suit, giving us as much flexibility as possible. Jane made the curtains and tablecloths, we did much of the building and decorating work ourselves alongside Alan, with the occasional help from his son. The lounge/bar area was furnished from what we could buy at auctions, and much of the kitchen equipment came from auctions too. I had done a consultancy job for a small hotel in Sussex some months earlier and bought the restaurant chairs and the crockery at the same time as I purchased the same items for them. So, thanks to some great detective work on my behalf, even if I do say so myself,  and thanks to bulk buying we got all these items far cheaper than they would have normally been. I say detective work, remember it was well before the days of computers and the internet and google, so one could not just sit at a desk and type in a few commands to buy things, it meant real detective work. I had found some chairs we all liked, found out who sold them then from there found out who made them, visited the factory in High Wycombe that made them and bought from source at a greatly reduced price. When you have very little money these are the measures you have to go to. I had done the same with the crockery, found out who made it (Rosenthal in Germany) and bought from them direct. 

Up until only 10 short years prior to this time I had never been to a restaurant, no, never! Don’t forget I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, restaurants really did not exist, not as we know them now or even then when we opened ours. I had certainly never worked in one either, in fact even now I had been in so very few. I only ever worked in hotels and an hotel is so very, very, very different to a restaurant, as I was about to understand, because even though I knew nothing about restaurants that was about to change, big time, as now I bloody well owned one! How mad was that!

I even completely changed and hand wrote the menus each week

It wasn’t until a few days after we had opened that I realised I had bought in sausages and bacon for breakfasts as though I was still in a hotel, being just a restaurant we didn't have overnight guests so these were redundant!

Those first 6 months were just a blur, I really remember nothing of it at all, except that is one thing. It must have been about 4 months or so in when the EHO turned up again, to see how we were doing! I remember he stood on the stairs to the ladies and said to me, Mr McAndrew, you really must invest in the upkeep of the restaurant! When he turned up there was a Rolls Royce sitting in my parking space, I swear he thought it was mine and I was raking the money in!

I can report that my response was unprintable and I am also pleased to report, I never saw that man again!

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