Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Eight

We were starting to be noticed

4 months after opening the restaurant the new Chef Magazine, a then monthly supplement of the Caterer & Hotelkeeper, featured Restaurant 74, and our story as their cover article. It was a highly thought of and respected magazine back in the day and was therefore a great honour to be included. It also helped bring in business. We used to open 6 days a week, always opening on a Monday night and as a result we used to get a lot of fellow restauranteurs in on Mondays as everywhere else was closed that day. 

Caterer Magazine Cover

It was still a struggle though, I recall one day sitting in the window in the lounge one empty lunchtime, between the window and the door was our menu on the wall outside. A couple came up and were reading the menu choices, they then looked in at the restaurant all laid up beautifully with starched and ironed white cloths, napkins, polished cutlery, flowers, all just as it should be, one turned to the other and said, we can’t afford this let’s find somewhere else. At the time we were selling a 3-course lunch at £12.50 per person. Yes, that cheap! I swear, if all the menu prices just showed £0.00 it would still have been too expensive, it was not the price they saw it was the set up that put them off.

A new brasserie type place had opened not far from us, Georges, no table cloths, no awards, brasserie style food, not only were they packed, but unbelievably more expensive. We had a Michelin Star they had nothing. Owning a Michelin Star restaurant back then was nothing like it is now let me tell you.

We had a couple that had become excellent customers and he gave me some great advice, advice that I have stuck by throughout my business career. He owned petrol stations, back in those days when cash was king, he took more payments in cash than any other form. Firstly, he said never bank cash in a high street bank, always put it into a building society account, you can then use it to pay your VAT each quarter. Paying the quarterly VAT bill is often a struggle for many small businesses. When your Vat bill is to be paid withdraw that amount you need from the BS in the form of a cheque and deposit it in the bank then write a cheque for the VAT man. At the time banking cash cost the business something like £15 per £1,000 and we all took a lot of cash back then, credit and debit cards were not that prolific, but banking cash at a BS cost nothing. Banking a cheque, no matter how much it was for cost something like 32p, a massive saving. The second bit of advice was – you are too cheap! Yes, we were, undoubtedly, but I never dared put my prices up. If you’re quiet then the normal reaction is to drop your prices not put them up. His argument was put your prices up by at least 50% and you might lose 20% of your customers but you will start to make money and eventually those customers will return. We put our prices up 50%, if we lost any customers, I would say it was less than 5%, if that. Takings were up and we started to make a bit of money instead of being on the bread line all the time. The two best bits of advice I have ever had and ones I pass on whenever I can as most small businesses offer their services or goods far too cheaply!

As the years went by we kept getting awards after awards, it was great, Drew Smith from the Good Food Guide loved us, as did his readers, we did well in the Ronay Guide and Ackerman guides every year too, we were flying high.

In 1985/86 we bought our first dog, I was desperately wanting my own gun dog so we got ourselves a little black Cocker Spaniel. What an animal she was, we called her Truffle as she was little, black and expensive, and I used a fair few of them too.

About 6 months or so later we had a friend, Eric, working for us as a KP, he was slightly down on his luck for a while and I was happy to be able to help him out. He bred and trained gun dogs, and I had also been shooting with him. I asked if he could train Truffle for me as I really didn’t have the time or patience to be able to do it myself. I paid him up front for 3 months training, after a month, Jane and I were both desperately missing the dog but were determined not to go and see her. As it happened it didn’t matter as a few days later Eric turned up with Truffle, two months early. He brought her back in disgrace, there was nothing he could do with her! She was just too much of a lady and being told what to do was not in her make up, scrambling through briars and thickets wasn’t her scene either never mind picking up dead things! To be fair though she was from show stock rather than working stock. She was still a great dog though and she taught us a lot about owning a dog that stood us in good stead over the years.

This meant he owed me 2 months of the money I’d already paid but he had a deal for me. His best bitch was in pup, so he offered me the pick of the litter rather than giving me my money back. The bitch in question was an awesome worker, she was a dream to watch and shoot over, in short, a stunning little dog. The sire was as good, nay, better, he was a field trials champion many times over and had sired quality dogs by the dozen. The family line across both dam & sire boasted 6 Field Trials Champions across 4 generations.

Bella, kennel name Bourne Park Beluga (we have always called our pets after either food or drink), was an astonishing bitch, she went on to be a multiple Fields Trail Winner and competed in the National Championship on 2 occasions, once at Scone when she should have won (her mother won it though so almost as good) and the other at Sandringham when she was also in with a great chance. She even had HM the Queen stop, admire, and talk to her when she competed at Sandringham, she ignored me but talked to my dog!

Bella on the left, and her daughter Clarie that we kept from her 1st litter, with some of her trophies. 

Bella went on to have two litters, we kept one of her daughters from the first litter, Clarie, short for Chateau Beychevelle a rather renowned Claret, she too was a Field Trails Winner and competed in at least two Championships, her first at Windsor Great Park. She then had two litters too and this time we kept 2 of her daughters. Donna, short for Chardonnay and Ella, short for Chantarelle. Sadly, all have now passed away and while I miss my dogs terribly, time, when running a restaurant, or as we ended up doing, a hotel, was never our friend. Once they had gone they were our last dogs.

I continued buying from local farms and market gardeners and growers like Francis and Neil Smith as I was while at Eastwell. I seemed to spend every afternoon at least 5 days a week at one farm or another picking what I needed for that night’s service, from baby courgettes complete with their flowers to heads of calabrese, each one just the right size for the dish it was to accompany. Baby leeks, herbs, fennel, frisée, different leaves and what now are called micro herbs, they were all local, some farmers and pick your own places understood and let me do it, others didn’t and banned me! I got friendly with a local market gardener just outside Faversham, an Italian chap. He had quite a spread and grew all sorts of soft fruit, vegetables, leaves and herbs. If I was on a farm then my dog was by my side, and my gun was never far away either.

I still used to go to London every week too, this time without a trailer though, but I managed to buy a Range Rover and it had lots of space with the seats down and was perfect for the London run each week. Eventually I was filling my car with boxes of baby leeks, courgettes, fennel, baby carrots, spinach, leaves of every description, herbs including the most amazing basil you’ve ever seen and the best most flavoursome I have ever had. Soft fruit such as strawberries, blackcurrants, red currants, blueberries, all sorts. I would take them to Hyams & Cockerton, Fruit & Vegetable merchants just along the road from the Roux pastry and where I used to get the majority of my stuff that I was unable to get locally. Sell them to him for my Italian friend then fill up with what I needed from them, go on to the Roux pastry depot and get chocolate, flour etc., from them then off to Peter Pugson’s wine shop on Wandsworth Bridge Road. here I would pick up many of the wines I had on our list. Unusual ones too.

I still bought from Dominic of Rouxell too. Indeed, much of our cheese came in weekly from Phillip Olivier of Boulogne through Domonic and they were amazing, the quality was stunning, always spot on and perfectly ready for eating. I recall Domonic bringing Phillip Olivier for lunch one day, yes the French used to come over to lunch with us in Canterbury in the same way so many English used to go to France for lunch too. Not only did they have lunch but they stayed all day and into the evening, then had dinner with us too.

It must have been 1985, we had a table of two ladies booked in for lunch, not that that was in anyway remarkable, but what came from it was. after lunch they asked to talk to me. They said they worked for a publisher in London and were looking to publish a cookery book on fish. They had asked around and the general consensus of opinion was that I – yes me – would be the one to write it, indeed even Clement Freud had told them that I would be the best person. You could have knocked me over with a feather, good job I was sitting down at the time.

A book! It had never entered my head. I bought a lot of them, not that there were that many good recipe books that interested me around at the time and very few by Chefs from the UK the majority were French or German in my collection anyway. I obviously also had books from Roux and Mosimann of course, and hundreds of others too, but to have my own, well that was something else entirely, mind blowing in fact.

Would I like to write a book. Not half! Could I write a book? I had no idea at all but was willing to try. 

The original idea was that if this proposed book on fish sold well then, we would look to doing one on Game and one on Meat after that. A potential 3 book deal and I hadn’t yet written a word! I just couldn’t believe my luck.

I already had recipes in various books such as the Master Chefs of Great Britain book, and one or two other places but that was nothing like having your own book! 

It was not easy mind you, it took all of a year to write, I was unused to writing recipes and basically the publisher had to teach me that side of things. They had a specific way they wanted the recipes to be written and set out, such as with both metric and imperial measures, all ingredients had to be listed in the order in which they appear in the recipe, written in a way to be totally specific and obvious if you like. All understandable to me now but not necessarily so then. I know I mentioned classical dishes often and the editor always picked me up on the wording saying that the word classical related more to music or literature than it did to recipes but I fought that and kept the word wherever I used it despite repeated objections.

It was necessary to be precise and I was adamant that my recipes would work. So many recipes in books by chefs did not and do not work, there was no way that would be the epitaph of my book. During the day I would be jotting things down and measuring everything I did, then after service every night I would sit at my computer and write the recipes up, often not stopping until the wee hours of the morning.

Computer! They might be everywhere now but back then they were like hens’ teeth, I certainly didn’t have one but I soon went out and changed that. Then of course I had to learn to use the bloody thing and learn to type! I bought a few reference books to learn about each fish I was to write about and I even bought a few of the fish books on the market at the time, none of which impressed me by the way, but that was probably why the publishers thought there was a need for a good one, or it could have been just me being big headed! 

There were lots of meetings, both in London at the publishers and once or twice they came down to me. It must have been the winter of 85/6 we had a massive snow fall, Canterbury and most of Kent was pretty much cut off from the rest of the country for nearly 3 days. I’ve never seen snow like it. I had a meeting at the publishers arranged, just before the book was signed off although we still had the photos to do, and I had to get to London. Roads were snowbound and blocked, trains were not running but I still had to be there. So off I went. Luckily, I was really looking forward to the drive as I had a Range Rover (an old one but still a Range Rover). From Canterbury to the other side of Maidstone I never saw another vehicle. I got to the top of Bluebell Hill and the snow drifts totally engulfed articulated lorries completely burying them, tractors were digging lorries out of drifts. There was a van in front of me, faced with the depth of the drifts he turned round and went back from whence he came, me I ploughed on, literally. The M2 was open but only just, the only lane was really only half a lane. I think I made it to the outskirts of London having seen only a handful of cars the whole journey.

I suffered from a really bad back during the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s since putting my back out when we lived in Germany, then couple that with the many hours and long days of hard work, and of course the stress of running ones own business, all conspired to leave me in agony at times thanks to my back. I recall going down big time during the months I was writing the book. For a while I was bed bound, and on some serious medication for the pain, I was constantly high.  My editor needed to come and see me as there was work needed doing. It was bizarre, I was lying there in a drugged haze, she was sitting on the end of the bed going through the recipes and I was asking her to keep the bed from floating off.

Another time my back was just so bad I was in a real state, I could barely walk, we had a busy week-end coming up and I had no idea how I was going to get through it. Thanks to this incredible profession I was part of and thanks to friends of long standing one came to my assistance. David Cavalier, who had Pebbles restaurant in Aylesbury at the time, said he was on holiday and would gladly come and do a couple of nights for me to help me out. What an absolute star. I was propped up on a stool against the wall by the hotplate and was giving directions to David at the stove while he did all of the cooking. I will forever be in his debt.

For the photography for the book, we used two different photographer, Simon de Courcy-Wheeler of London and Chris Lee, a local chap to us in Canterbury who was also a good customer. The local ones were done as and when we could fit them in while the ones with Simon were done at his studio in London. We closed the restaurant for a week so I could go up and spend all my time up there and get the photography bashed out and finished. Jane meanwhile, would go off and see her family for the week taking our dog, Truffle, with her.

On the last day of photography, I had arranged to meet Jane from the train and we had booked dinner at Nico’s on Queenstown Road for that evening and from there we would go back to Canterbury. Dinner was great, I always liked Nico and of course his food. Sadly though the night was ruined, when we came out of the restaurant we found our car had been broken into, the dog was going daft in the back and everything had been taken, Janes suitcase of clothes, mine too, but more importantly the manuscript for the book had also been taken. The police were called and the streets around the area were scoured as we expected to find things discarded but found nothing!

Thankfully it was all backed up on my computer and of course with the publisher but even so it still felt like a massive loss, and violation too. Ever since that day Truffle would go daft if an old person approached or walked past the car, but only ever old people, I have often wondered therefore how old that thief was that night!

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