Your latest opening is something of a homecoming...
I was born in Whitby. We lived along the Esk Valley and I played rugby for Whitby. I also went to catering college down the coast in Scarborough. It’s nice to be able to bring what we do to the area where I grew up.
Tell us about The Star Inn The Harbour
It’s a great site. It used to be the town’s tourist office. We’re 10ft away from the harbourside where they land the fish so we’re able to buy straight from the boats. The look is very much inspired by our surroundings, we’ve hung lobster pots and fishing ropes from the ceiling.
What's on the menu?
Our launch menu includes simple stuff like fish and chips and devilled whitebait but we also serve more adventurous dishes such as a dressed Whitby crab salad with avocado ice cream, seashore vegetables and scallop ‘sand’; halibut T-bone, melting potted shrimps, marsh samphire and horseradish; and poached lemon sole veronique with sauternes-poached golden raisins and braised lettuce.
What are the prices like?
Like our venues in York, it’s a fair bit less than The Star Inn at Harome. Nearly the whole of the Whitby team has worked at the original site so we’ve got the knowledge and expertise to deliver great food at a decent price point. We have snacks from £3.50, starters from £7 and generous mains from £14.
Is there much of a restaurant scene in Whitby currently?
There are one or two fish restaurants but the bulk of it is fish and chip places, diners, hotdog shops and rock shops. There’s a scent of fried onions in the air. It’s a simple seaside resort but it’s a lovely place, there’s a lot going for it. A lot of people wanted to open in the building we’re in but I won the tender because I’m a local guy.
Tell us about your other venues
I have The Star Inn at Harome, which I opened in 1996, and we have two places in York. The Star in the City is a massive place and has one of the biggest turnovers in the north of England. That opened four years ago and the menu offers anything from a club sandwich to a fillet of turbot. Last year we opened Mr P’s Curious Tavern, which serves what I call English tapas – local produce with global flavours.
What is driving your expansion?
We’ve only had three head chefs at The Star in 20 years. We work very hard on staff retention. We’ve expanded because the time has been right but also to help us hold on to great staff. If you can’t give them the right opportunities within the business, you’ll lose them. We have a few more things lined up for the next couple of years, including a third site in York, but we’re not able to talk about it just yet. We’re waiting on planning at the moment.
Were you the first ever pub to win a Michelin star?
Frustratingly, no. We were the second. The Stagg Inn at Titley in Herefordshire beat us to it by one year. We got the star in 2002.
And you lost it in 2011...
Yes, although I’ve tried to erase that from my memory. It was a tricky time for me. I’d recently got divorced and we’d just opened The Star in the City so the team was spread thin. We also made a bad senior hire. It was a turbulent time and an amalgamation of many different factors. We regained it in 2015.
How did you get it back?
In true northern fashion, my head chef Steven Smith and I rolled our sleeves up and got back in the kitchen. For three years one of us was in the kitchen at all times to get that consistency back. We were also ranked number one on the Top 50 Gastropubs list this year, which meant a great deal as we’d been kicked around a fair bit. We’re always busy but the win has been great for recruitment. To take the top spot was amazing. It’s a nice community. All the high-profile pub chefs are good mates.
Why do you think the top pub chef community is so close-knit?
I think we’re more relaxed than the restaurant guys, you only need to look at us to know that. The restaurant industry is a bit more cut-throat. The other great thing about pub food is that there’s no south or London bias, we’re spread across the whole country. The industry has a great future. The buildings have character and are in great locations and usually have strong links with the local community. As Albert Roux said, pubs are the bistros of England.
And we hear you've just had your seventh child...
Yep. It’s been a bit of a juggling act. The age range is 16 weeks to 18 years. I’m trying to lure one of them into the industry but none of them have bitten just yet. The odds are good that one of them will eventually join me in the trade. I can’t think of anything better.