FOR the first time in his career, Paul Bloxham is listening to his customers.
When his young family arrived, the East End boy left his London roots for a place in the country.
After selling the Cabinet in Reed, Hertfordshire, in 2004, Bloxham came back to the trade, taking on the Brakspear lease at the Tilbury in 2006.
But away from the generous footfall of a London eatery, Bloxham has to keep the locals happy - they make up 70% of his trade. "This is the first time in my career that I have ever listened to the punters," he says. "We`re part of the local community here - and the local economy. We all have to support each other."
Bloxham started his cheffing career at the Dorchester Hotel in London`s Mayfair before moving to Waterloo pub-restaurant the Fire Station as head chef.
During the mid 1990s the Fire Station became famous for its adventurous menu - a 1996 Dine Online review reads: "...when I visited there were lamb balls on the menu. I assumed this was a jokey description of meat balls made from minced lamb, so I passed.
"In fact they were genuine gonads, and all of them had been eaten by the young and vibrant clientele who thronged the place for lunch..."
It was no surprise, then, that the young chef was snapped up for TV from that very kitchen. "I`ve done Sky, Saturday Cooks with Antony Worrall Thompson, UKTV Food and stuff for ITV regional news," says Bloxham.
Escapism rather than ego
"I`m not really motivated by TV. I do it more for escapism than for ego." But he admits TV does open certain doors, though perhaps not conventional ones. "It is fantastic PR, but the main benefit has been the suppliers I have met through regional news programmes."
Rustic, seasonal and sometimes adventurous food makes Bloxham`s business a success. "You have to cook what suits a pub," he says. "But you have to keep things moving - like sometimes putting a pig`s ear on the `plate of pig` dish."
Although he`s an advocate of buying local, Bloxham warns other chefs that buying over the bar isn`t always the best option.
"Buying direct from a supplier is rewarding because it removes that extra layer of inflation," he says. "But I would never buy anything over the bar from someone who didn`t have the proper accreditation. Chefs are legally responsible to their customers. If something is wrong, people don`t ask to speak to the supplier."
Bloxham recommends finding medium-sized suppliers. "They are small enough to produce everything locally and large enough to be aware of red tape and paperwork."
Red tape isn`t the chef`s only worry. Although his is a food-led business, the smoke ban has hit trade hard. "I estimate I am losing out on £75,000-worth of after-dinner drinks trade a year," he says. "The industry has changed massively; we have to inspire diners and push the food concept even further to get customers."
Bloxham is planning to expand the bar to attract more drinkers, then turn the snug area into a private dining room with chef`s table.
Cooking meat on super-heated volcanic rocks is something the chef was well known for. "We`re always looking for ways to make the customer experience more exciting and right now I`m experimenting with different receptacles.
"Every Trappist beer has its own glass, and we need to use cheap cuts of meat to make margins, so dishes have to be served - like the beers - with a wow factor."
Bloxham`s current dishes of choice include black, cast-iron Staub ware, kilner jars and small casserole dishes. "It`s a way to enhance food in a pub - the mussels go to the diner in a sort of black, mussel-shaped coffin!"
Employing and keeping decent staff is definitely on Bloxham`s agenda. "Head chef Ben Crick is still with me from the Cabinet. We get on brilliantly and always mysteriously have the same ideas for new dishes." With Crick heading up the kitchen, Bloxham has time to run his catering business Junction Eight.
The front-of-house team is managed by Lloyd Willis and Becky Lott. Willis came from Mitchells & Butlers and his front-of-house experiences included beer training. His enthusiasm for the product has helped put the pub`s beer selection on the map.
The team are motivated by Bloxham`s ambition. He hopes the Tilbury will be part of a bigger empire one day, with staff able to see the venture as a career, rather than just a job.
The future looks set to change at the Tilbury. He says: "I want space for a tasting menu, so I can express myself more than on a pub menu."
Bloxham`s plans aren`t confined to the Tilbury. The chef entrepreneur wants to open a farm shop with a caf? and cookery school, to support local suppliers. "I don`t want to squeeze too much into one site so I`m looking for somewhere nearby where that will be possible.
"I also want another couple of pubs, but not until I can find freeholds. I don`t ever want another tied house. Hopefully we`ll have a second pub by the end of 2008, early 2009." He`s definitely on the right track - the Tilbury has just gained entry into the new Michelin guide.
Tenure: Brakspear leasehold
Staff: six in the kitchen, six front of house, plus part-timers
Average covers a week: 600
Average spend per head: £30 on dinner
Average weekly turnover: £14,000
Best-selling dish: Plate of pig - belly, black pudding, loin, crackling, sausage and sometimes ear, depending on availability (£14)
On the menu: lightly-smoked salmon, potato pancake, horseradish fondant, caviar (£8.95); steamed Shetland rope-grown mussels marini?re, chips and mayonnaise (£12.95); fig and almond fine tart, cr?me fra?che ice cream (£6.50).