Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)


Chapter Ten

Cogan House, an English Brasserie

A brasserie, I am not trying to be rude here but honestly the majority of people 1986 had no idea what a brasserie was never mind an English one! Many wondered why we opened a restaurant about bras’s of all things! Still, we persevered as it seemed logical to me, at the time at least.

Cogan House was (indeed still is) on St. Peter’s Street in Canterbury, I understood it to be older than the cathedral which was rebuilt in 1070-1077. With the first recorded sale of Cogan House apparently in 1066 meaning it had to have been built prior to that. I have recently read other accounts though that show Cogan as having been built in or around 1200. Either way it was a VERY old building. It featured some incredible one off’s too. It has, what was reported to be, the finest example of a scissor beam in existence in the UK. It boasted Jack posts, Queen posts and King posts throughout the property and stood 3 stories tall. Some of the wood carving was incredible, the history was everywhere one looked and, as a result, it was a grade 2* listed building and with that came extremely strict rules on what could and could not be done.

Caterer Magazine Cover

The Scissor Beam

The downstairs fronting onto the street was a shoe shop and the owners lived upstairs, the bit we were looking to turn into a restaurant. So, where we took on the upstairs someone else rented out the shop at the front and turned it into a fireplace showroom. We got a couple of rooms on the ground floor along with the passageway that led in from the street, and the hallway it led into, along with the garden too, which was huge!

Upstairs we had the whole of two floors, we were going to use the rooms downstairs and those on the first floor as restaurant and kitchen then convert the upstairs into accommodation where our manager could live. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t! 

We offered the chef we knew who had been an Egon Ronay Inspector for a while, and who had recently returned to kitchens, the opportunity to come into business with us. We would put up the bulk of the money and put our name to it and he could cook and run it. We asked him to put in £3,000 and we would invest the rest, £30,000, by way of taking out a bank loan and he readily agreed.

All well and good, now the hard bit started, firstly we had to get planning permission for change of use, then of course Conservation, EHO, Fire Brigade and Police buy in. Police and EHO were grand, Conservation and the Fire Brigade had a tussle between them as the FB wanted a lot of work doing to keep the place fire compliant and Conservation said no to virtually everything they wanted. Conservation won. They invariably do in a city like Canterbury.

The council would only grant change of use to a restaurant because it was us, in fact what they gave us in the end was personal planning permission, meaning only Jane and I could do this, no one else. The significance of this was lost on me at the time, not only that but it transpired that what the council had given was indeed illegal, more of that to come!

There was a good amount of work to do to convert the premises, we had a kitchen to build from scratch and equip to begin with, never mind adding a ladies and gents, a flat upstairs, etc. so we turned again to Alan Briggs, the brilliant builder who did us proud at Restaurant 74. Once again, he did not let us down.

Unfortunately, he found a major problem almost immediately. The roof was supported on dozens of 12-inch square beams, lots of them, all down one side in one section of the roof, each beam, I think there must have been at least 12 of them in this section, fell short of the crossbeam below it that it was meant to be resting on, by about 24 inches. This meant that the whole of one side of one of the roof sections was not supported at all as each beam ended 24 inches short and were basically dangling in mid-air. Basically the roof was supported by the air around the end of the beams. Yes, we had a full repairing lease! 

I don’t remember how much a 12” square beam of aged English Oak per foot was at the time but believe me when I say it was mega money! A great start to a new venture! 

The hallway downstairs just oozed history, it was panelled on 3 sides, each panel about the size of a foolscap sheet, possibly slightly larger, each one had been hand carved with grapes and grapevines, many were missing. Alan, bless him, said leave it with him, he would carve some to fill the blanks. He did, each one by hand, and they were stunning, you would never know which ones he had made and which were the originals, first class workmanship! There was a wooden carved frieze around the top of the panels around three walls, depicting Mr Cogan, his wife, bears on chains, he was into bear baiting, fighting dogs, he was into this too, all popular sports back in the 11th and 12th centuries, along with sacks of wool and wine casks depicting his trade.

Eventually we got the place up and running, must have been late 86/early 87. It was hard work and cost us a fortune, far more than we had anticipated but then again doesn’t it always? How ever much you think it is going to cost double it then add at least another 50%, you may then be close, or at least closer to the real cost.

We hadn’t been open long, I can’t remember how long but we really had not been open that long when Peter, our chef and partner from Cogan came round to 74, we were sitting in the lounge, he came in the front door, stood there with the keys to Cogan in his hand and said, “I’ve been to see my doctor, he has said I’m exhausted and need to take a holiday, I have brought the keys round for you, I am taking a couple of weeks off to rest, this start up has been so stressful for me I can not go on without some time off”.

Now bearing in mind we entered into partnership with this guy, supposedly, as at this point we had not had a penny off him towards his promised financial stake, we had been open for just a few short weeks, it was a Saturday and he was walking out on us because he was stressed!

I have to admit that I did not take too kindly to him at this point. Indeed, I think I probably got a little stressed myself on hearing this. I said, and I paraphrase here as you really don’t want to know my exact words, if those keys leave your hand, then you will never set foot back here again. How can you possibly be dropping us in the proverbial just like that! He dropped the keys on the sofa and walked out.

I have seen him a handful of times over the years since that fateful day and have never ever spoken to him. I just could not bring myself to, I’m certain that if I did stop and speak it wouldn’t have ended there, sometimes words just aren’t enough!

It must have been around 3 months or so later I was driving into Canterbury on the A2 and I saw his car in front of me, we were both coming off at the same junction, I speeded up, on the off ramp coming up to the roundabout I was catching up and trying to overtake him but as we went round the roundabout he edged marginally ahead, we both came off onto the same road, he was still marginally ahead. There was an embankment to our left, with quite a drop, I was determined to catch him and started to edge his car over firstly onto the hard shoulder then off onto the grass, I was trying to drive him off the road and probably kill him! His nearside wheels would have been on the grass by the time I came level with him and I realised, just in the nick of time, it wasn’t him. I don’t know who it was but whoever you were I am so sorry for what nearly befell you!

For a few weeks my mother came to our rescue, she came down to Canterbury to help us out by over seeing Cogan for us. She spent all her time there just making sure everything was okay, our eyes and ears as we could not spend much time there ourselves. Then our knight in shinning armour came to our rescue. David Spice paid us a visit, he had just finished his last job, can’t remember where it was but thank the Lord he had, and he’d popped in to see us. Without hesitation I offered him the position of chef manager which he thankfully accepted and started pretty much straight away.

Needless to say, he did a magnificent job, he ran it really well, cooked really well and it was a great place to eat, we did every Sunday lunch!

Menu

At the time I was still doing the weekly Thursday morning run to London to collect the weeks provisions, fruit and veg from Rouxell and Hyams & Cockerton, wine from Peter Pugson, flour and other bits from Roux Pastry, flowers from the flower market. I tried to get back each time by noon, in time for lunch service. This one Thursday I was driving down our street and thought – oh look there’s a fire engine over there, bloody hell it’s outside the restaurant, Oh my God there’s a fireman on our roof! He’s hacking lumps out of the chimney!

Turns out Jane had set fire to the chimney and had to call the fire brigade. They were bloody marvellous. The carpet ran right up to the fireplace, they had put a cloth up over the fireplace, stuck a hose in through the hole they had made in the chimney at roof level and pumped gallons of water into that hole. There wasn’t a drop on the carpet, in fact not a speck of dust or soot either. You’d never have known they’d been, I wonder if she would have told me had it happened a bit earlier in the day! As they left I gave them a crate of beer to share between themselves.

The following Monday I think it was David called me, I was about 6pm, he said “I think I have a bit of a problem here” 

“Okay, what sort of problem?”

“I can’t see the other side of the room” 

“What do you mean, you can’t see the other side of the room?”

“The room’s full of smoke and I now can’t see the other side!”

“CALL THE F++KING FIRE BRIGADE” 

I slammed the phone down, ran downstairs, jumped on my bike, it was quicker to get there on a bike than drive, and tore off to the brasserie. By the time I got there, 5-7 minutes maximum, there were 3 fire engines. Whenever the fire brigade is called out inside the city walls of Canterbury then a minimum of 3 will always turn up! 

Turned out that it was a smouldering fire surround in the fireplace shop below us and the smoke was seeping into the restaurant thorough the walls and fire places throughout the building! Phew!

It also turned out that the main crew were the same guys that had been to us a few days prior! It cost me another crate of beer!

It was late 1987, we had an Icelandic couple come to us a few times, lovely couple. They had moved over from Iceland while Siri did a media course at the University, Svava, (not sure if I spelt that right though) her husband, I’m not sure what he did. They loved what we did though, so much so that they invited us over to Iceland, by the way my book was translated into Icelandic. We went over for a few days and had the most fabulous time. I went duck shooting with Svava and Bennie his friend, we didn’t get anything though but we did see the Northern Lights in all their glory that night. We went back a 2nd time a few months later and I did a night’s special dinner in their restaurant, yep, they had bought a restaurant in the interim, not any old restaurant though, it was Iceland’s Oldest Restaurant, Nausti.

Article in Icelandic Newspaper

Jane and me, along with their team of 4 chefs did the dinner for about 60. One day’s prep and no ingredients! I had asked for lamb best ends for the main course, got split saddles of lamb, all frozen. Wanted some rainbow trout to make a terrine got some of the biggest trout I have ever seen, so fresh they were rigid with rigor mortis, almost had my hands off trying to fillet them. Wanted another fish so we went to the fish market. Saw the biggest halibut I had ever seen, it was absolutely enormous, weighed over 100kg and must have been 2 meters long if it was an inch. We bought a lump of the tail-end, the back bone was thicker than my arm and made the most amazing stock. Bought fresh peaches and raspberries on the fruit market. Poached the peaches (Jane spent most of the day skinning them afterwards), served them with a compote of raspberries spilling out of them and sitting on a glazed sabayon. What an experience that was. 

Svava and Bennie took me Ptarmigan shooting the next day. Walking across the side of a mountain at over 4,000 feet, in a blinding snow blizzard, unable to see more than about 20 foot in front of me. Wearing a thin Barbour Jacket, wellingtons with holes in them so had each foot in a plastic shopping bag, and a flat cap on my head and snow up to my knees. It was fantastic, shot 6 ptarmigan, the sun eventually got out while we were up there, an experience that will never be recreated. 

1988, times were tough, really tough, money was tight, interest rates were high, inflation was high, business was poor. We struggled. My search for a backer went on. We were in trouble financially, Cogan was just about breaking even, 74 was losing money, we were in a real bind.

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