The menu at Jeremy’s looks rather different this year...
Jeremy Ashpool: Yes. Our former head chef Jimmy Gray has returned from a year eating and cooking in Asia. The menu at Jeremy’s has a lot of Eastern influences now. It’s not quite fusion - I like to think of it as a cross between modern British and Asian.
Vera Ashpool: We want to raise the quality of the cuisine here. Jimmy is a very ambitious young man. One day he would like to win a Michelin star and that would obviously be wonderful for the restaurant. We think he will do it.
JA: We have given him the title of executive chef and operational manager. The hope is he will take over aspects of my job in addition to running the kitchen.
Jimmy Grey: I’d done 12 years in kitchens without much of a break. I decided I needed a year out of the kitchen to learn about different food cultures. I’ve always loved Asian food but I never felt I knew enough about it.
Where did you go exactly?
JG: My girlfriend and I went all round India, then onto Sri Lanka and into Southeast Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia. We ended up in Australia, which included a stint for both of us at a high-end Asian restaurant in Brisbane.
What was the highlight?
JG: Probably India. We used Airbnb and stayed in a lot of people‘s houses and saw how they cooked. I also learnt some street food dishes. Some of the best food I’ve eaten in my life was in India.
Give us a few examples of your new dishes...
JG: For starters we have scallop, XO, blood orange, lardo and shiso; and mungbean fritter, pomegranate and cabbage. Mains include cod, crab and potato curry, turnipm and black garlic; and beef sirloin, cheek, black bean, mushroom and broccoli. Desserts include celery, liquorice, sesame and yuzu; and rhubarb, dill and almond.
How have the changes gone down with your customers?
JA: Much of our client base is the grey pound. But older people can afford to travel and, as such, many of our customers are familiar with Asian flavours.
VA: Of course we have some customers that are resistant to change. There have been a few moans. But in general our regulars trust us and want to try new things.
Your number two is French and prior to Gray’s return was cooking more classic food. How has he reacted to the new menu?
JG: He’s classically trained and worked in some great place in France. He came to this country because he wanted to learn something a bit different, and what we’re doing is certainly that. French cuisine is great but when it comes to embracing different influences it often falls down. The UK is a melting pot of different food cultures.
This pocket of West Sussex is affluent but short of ambitious restaurants? Why do you think that is?
JA: London being so close by probably doesn’t help. A lot of people would rather open in the capital. And if we’re honest, it’s tough out here. Fine dining is a labour of love. To some extent the main restaurant is propped up by functions and our adjoining Café Elvira. On busy nights we have six back of house and four front of house so our staff costs are high.
VA: It takes a long time to build up clientele when you’re in the countryside. We’ve now got to the point where we have a good number of very loyal customers. They’ve followed us everywhere we have been.
You’ve been based in this part of the world for sometime...
JA: Yes, for 30 years or so. We’ve taken the Jeremy’s name with us across a number of different venues and our customers have followed us. I used to be an inspector for Egon Ronay. Vera and I actually started out in pubs, in fact I like to think we were early proponents of the gastropub genre. We can also take a good deal of credit for the popularity of sticky toffee pudding in the south. We popularised the dish down here. Our sticky toffee pudding is excellent and never leaves the menu.
JG: It’s the one dish on the menu I’m not allowed to play around with. People would go nuts.
JA: Vera and I are both cooks. We used to work together in the kitchen but about 10 years ago Vera took on the cafe next door, and a very good job she’s done too. I’ve since stepped away from the kitchen to oversee the overall business including the marketing. Technically I’m semi-retired but I still work a lot. You can often find me on the restaurant floor, especially on busier nights.
Has the growth of the wine industry in the area given you a boost?
JA: Yes. We’re close to a lot of great vineyards including Ridgeview, Bolney and Albourne. We do a lot of wine dinners with producers, but we work with overseas wine producers too because wine is a key part of what we do at Jeremy’s. The success of the wine industry in this bit of the country is certainly contributing much to the local restaurants scene.