Out the back of The Hand & Flowers, down a passage that runs between the main kitchen and the converted sheds which house the prep area and the office, there’s a ‘Wall of Honour’. Here brass plaques bearing the names, nicknames (inevitably) and years’ service of significant former staff members are mounted on the brickwork.
There are only about 10 people honoured thus far – reflective of the fact that most of the long-servers at the Marlow pub-restaurant are still working there today – and Tom Kerridge talks with humour and affection about each one.
It’s a small but still significant indicator of the atmosphere and philosophy engendered by the 40-year-old chef-owner and his wife Beth at The Hand & Flowers over the past eight and a half years. “The success of this business is built on great people. We find people we trust – whether it’s Aaron [Mulliss, head chef ] or Lourdes [Lista, GM] or our butcher – and we work together to produce the best food we can make, and to offer the best service we can. I want a place where people are happy to come to work,” says Kerridge.
The Hand & Flowers is undoubtedly achieving that last aim in spades. And it goes hand in hand with the extraordinary recent success enjoyed by Kerridge, his business and his staff. This approach is not just because big Tom – one of the most popular and likeable individuals in the hospitality industry – wants a happy-clappy ship so he can have a laugh, or for his own peace of mind (though these are, of course, factors in themselves). It’s ultimately driven by the couple’s strong intuitive business sense.
Over several hours of very wide-ranging conversation, Kerridge provides numerous illustrative examples of why his philosophy of building a broad team ethic pays off. The first involves his veg supplier, Martin Mash of Mash Purveyors in New Covent Garden.
Mash dropped in to The Hand (as it is often referred to) just a few weeks after Tom and Beth had taken it over in 2005. “I liked him, so I thought we’d give his veg a go, and it turned out to be great,” says Kerridge. But more significantly, when the pub ran into cash-flow problems in its early days (after over-stretching to buy the adjacent properties that now house its bedrooms) Mash was hugely supportive.
“It was the beginning of the recession. The bank agreed the mortgage and the loan to renovate the properties, but once we’d bought them they pulled the funding for the renovation. So we had to do it out of cash flow. For three years it was a constant struggle, and we got in trouble with the VAT, behind with suppliers. When we couldn’t pay for months, Martin stuck by us because he understood what we were trying to do,” he says.
The idea that if you treat people well you will get more out of them is not a new or startling one, but it is notable by its absence in too many hospitality businesses. “I’m not gonna lie: I’ve shouted at people, thrown things, even fired staff in the middle of service in the early days. But as you get older, you realise it works being nice and talking to people – then they’ll trust you. It means if two people call in sick, I know we can call someone on their day off to cover because they want to be part of something great here.”
This practice of encouraging open communication extends to the relationship between front and back of house too. The Hand eschews an automated check system because Kerridge wants the waiting staff and kitchen brigade to talk to each other. The FoH team even comes through the kitchen to the pastry section at the back to deliver dessert checks. “They should be comfortable in the kitchen, not scared that the chef is going to go mental on them.”
So The Hand & Flowers is a lovely place to work. If that was all that it had going for it, then the correct response would be ‘big deal’. But let’s recap on a smattering of other recent accomplishments.
Last month, this small 14-table pub on the outskirts of a Buckinghamshire market town was named the National Restaurant of the Year at our own National Restaurant Awards. That means it was voted the number one restaurant in the UK by a 150-strong nationwide industry academy. Up against three-times winner The Ledbury, as well as the likes of The Fat Duck, Restaurant Sat Bains, L’Enclume and Pollen Street Social, this shows how much respect The Hand garners from food writers, critics, restaurateurs and fellow chefs.
Watch the video from the National Restaurant Awards 2013 featuring an interview with Tom Kerridge
Kerridge was also named Chefs’ Chef of the Year at the AA Hospitality Awards in the autumn. Two years ago, The Hand became the first pub ever to be awarded a two-star rating in the Michelin Guide.
In media terms, the chef’s profile has also sky-rocketed. His primetime show – Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food – has just finished its debut run on BBC2, with viewing figures suggesting a follow-up is in the offing. The accompanying book of the same name, published by Absolute, is selling extremely well. Having appeared regularly on the likes of Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen, followed by a standout cameo on Masterchef: The Professionals last year, Kerridge’s warm personality and signature West Country burr are increasingly in demand on TV and radio, as well as at live events.
The National Restaurant of the Year award in particular begs the question: is this a restaurant or a pub? Or can it be both? On approaching the pretty but unremarkable whitewashed building, you’d certainly describe it as a classic pub. Enter the front door to be confronted by low beams, exposed brick walls and an old-fashioned bar in the centre of the room and that impression is confirmed. Sit on the comfortable leather-covered seats at an uncovered old wooden table – or even at the bar itself – with a pint and you could be in a traditional local. Three prominent pump handles at the bar dispense real ale in volumes not normally associated with posh restaurants. And there is no sommelier, just people on hand that know their wine.
Classic British pub food
Two facets, however, alter the equation. The first is the process of securing a seat at that table in the first place; the second is the food itself. Kerridge is somewhat sheepish about the fact that you now need to book several months in advance – or even further ahead for a coveted weekend spot. “As a businessman I’d be an idiot not to be happy about that. But on a personal level I’m a bit embarrassed that people can’t get in. It almost defeats the original object [of being open to all-comers]. It’s a catch 22, but then I’m not complaining!”
But it’s the food here that is the real gamechanger. The menu is rooted in classic British pub dishes there are omelette, Scotch egg and terrine options in the starter section; mains include versions of roast chicken and steak and chips; desserts number apple tart and crème brûlée among them. But these have been elevated in execution to such a degree that they are incomparable to even the finest gastropub fare.
Instead, this is genuine two-star restaurant cooking studded with individuality, replete with big flavours, and consistently executed with skill and precision – largely with prices to match. The omelette, which to Kerridge’s pride has been on as a starter since he opened, comes with smoked haddock and parmesan and is served in its own blini pan for £11.50.
The menu also features whole baby truffle en croute with foie gras and port (£18.50); lovage soup with bramley apple, smoked eel and blue cheese tortellini (£8.50); Essex lamb ‘bun’ with sweetbreads and salsa verde (£25); spiced tranche of Cornish monkfish with roasted cauliflower, peanut crumble and verjus (£27.50); and Kerridge’s Great British Menu winning slow-cooked duck breast with peas, duck fat chips and gravy (£28).
Some of the processes are complex and the techniques often high-tech: Kerridge is a considered proponent of sous-vide cooking and a fan of the Pacojet, amongst others. But the chef is also careful not to bamboozle diners. “We try not to have anything on [the menu] that people don’t understand, so customers are happy ordering because they know what it is, or is likely to be. Our seabass comes with a mushroom tart – so that’s what it says on the menu.”
“There’s nothing subtle about what we do,” he continues. “We’re about big, bold robust dishes. And that’s why we wouldn’t do a tasting menu. I don’t think it works in a pub environment.”
Changing face of pubs
That takes us back to the pub debate. Kerridge views The Hand & Flowers’ transformation from down-at-heel boozer to foodie destination as reflective of the changing face of pubs nationwide. “People don’t have a couple of pints at lunchtime anymore, they don’t go down the pub after work so much – and the pub industry has had to adapt. Food is the one thing that still brings people together.”
When he and Beth took over the Greene King tenancy, the business was turning over £500 a week. Within a year they had gained a Michelin star and were reasonably busy every service, but it remained a struggle, with the pair juggling cash flow on tight margins for several years. Now average spend is significantly higher and they will usually serve between 65 and 75 covers across 50 seats, increasing to 80-plus on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday lunch. And their clientele now comes not just from the wider area, nor the country as a whole, but from all corners of the world.
Despite this, The Hand retains several key characteristics of the great British pub – and not just physically. “We are a pub in the way that pubs are about a feeling, an atmosphere, an informality. You walk in here and it’s a space that everybody understands because everyone over a certain age has been to a pub. But not everyone, by any means, has been to a two-Michelin-star restaurant.”
Of course, the semantics don’t matter in the end. What is of more significance is that the anointment of a pub as the UK’s best restaurant epitomises the wider casualisation of the eating-out sector overall.
Indeed, the service style at The Hand is as far from the stiff, old-fashioned image of stuffy French restaurants as one can imagine. Staff are professional but personable: “I don’t care where someone’s trained or what qualifications they’ve got, if they don’t smile at customers as soon as they walk through the door, they’re not right for us,” says the boss.
“The way the tables are set up here you have to pass plates over people; you can’t serve it all from the diner’s left shoulder and top up their wine all the time. It’s much more important for them to build an individual relationship with each table.”
The Hand & Flowers is on the point of unveiling a new £300,000 side extension, which will add 30 per cent extra floor space to the building. It will not result in any more tables in the dining space, however, but instead will house a new oak-beamed bar. The aim is to free up the currently cramped entry area and provide somewhere for customers to have pre- and post-meal drinks. It will also mean that guests staying in the four letting rooms next door will have a check-in and lounge space. More room are coming on stream next year too from a house the Kerridges are soon to convert in the centre of Marlow.
The addition is about ‘softening’ service and reducing bottlenecks; essentially improving the customer experience rather than increasing revenue. But it also gives Kerridge the chance to reintroduce a few seats at the new bar which will be reserved for walk-ins – something that has inevitably been lost in recent years. “I still want the locals to be able to pop in and have a drink and some food,” he adds.
After such an extraordinary year, Kerridge is hoping for some breathing space in the coming months. He still works plenty of shifts in the kitchen and is currently focused on improving his lifestyle too: having quit drinking and shed a lot of weight in recent months, he now swims a substantial 1,800m most mornings.
But there are always fresh plans bubbling away. Having turned down the chance to open in London, he is now looking closer to home. “I’d like to open another pub nearby, probably in Marlow itself. I’d want it to be a simple affair. My target is to be the first pub to win a Michelin star with Sky Sports on the telly!”
This article is in the November 2013 issue of Restaurant magazine. Out now.