Finding a decent place to stay is an important part of planning a stage. If you’re lucky, restaurants provide accommodation but the majority don’t so it’s up to you to find a proverbial room at the inn.
Josh Eggleton’s The Pony & Trap is in Chew Magna, south of Bristol, so I found an Airbnb 20 minutes down the road in a place called Paulton. It was cheap and the hostess offered free holistic massages and raindrop therapy (whatever that may be). I almost took her up on the offer after a crushing three-hour coach journey from London to Bristol plus a two-hour ride on a local bus the day before.
The brigade at The Pony & Trap are lucky enough to have cars and were all in the kitchen when I arrived just after 10am. When the pub opened in 2006 it was just Josh and a single apprentice cooking, but now there are eight in total. Three were on shift with the head chef, Gary Johnstone, who was all smiles and energy as he set me up prepping ‘nudies’.
These are essentially pasta-less ravioli balls made of ricotta cheese (their real name being gnudi). They’re part of one of the mains on the à la carte, paired with gnocchi, purple sprouting broccoli and sesame. I was to make them from scratch, which meant mixing the ewe’s milk ricotta from local supplier Homewood with white pepper, salt and rapeseed oil, from a producer in Bath.
I made small balls out of my ricotta mix, then rolled them in semolina. They were to be deep fried to order during service.
Josh visited his School of Food training programme for chefs in the afternoon so Gary led lunch, which had 15 bookings plus walk-ins. I was to flit around the kitchen to see how things worked during service, with a commis named Shaun (who I’d previously met at The Sportsman in Kent) on meat, a CDP Ollie (who’d joined after staging from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons) on pastry and a commis named Jacky on the larder.
Jacky had run a Chinese takeaway restaurant in Bristol for 13 years before deciding that he wanted to try fine dining. Two years ago, he got a three-month stage at The Pony & Trap through a local college he was attending, decided it was for him, closed his restaurant and took a permanent role. His second name is Chan.
He was busy with the classic tasting menu that afternoon and he showed me how to plate the venison saddle with carrot and eel, the gougère with pickled walnut and apple slivers, and the lamb kofta and sweetbreads dish with wild garlic mayonnaise and kimchi.
After lunch service finished (incidentally with a terrific lemon sole with brown shrimp, turnip and buttermilk from The Pony & Trap’s own butter), I was asked to go with Shaun in his Jaguar to pick more wild garlic leaves in a wooded stretch by Chew Valley Lake down the road.
The chefs had started picking the leaves at the end of February and they’re hardly likely to run out any time soon. We crammed a bin liner full of them and hurtled back to The Pony & Trap, passing Josh’s lakeside chippy, Salt & Malt, on the way back.
I sorted and washed our haul back in the prep kitchen near the garden, which is run by their enigmatic gardener Tim Jones. He maintains not only a polytunnel and fruit tunnel but also a ‘no dig’ veg and herb garden. The chefs help every month with the garden and they’ve been through almost 20,000 tonnes of mushroom compost in the past year alone.
“Scotch eggs!” I heard Josh exclaim as he arrived back in the kitchen before dinner at 7pm. “I want them on the menu tomorrow!”
He was a presence on the pass, plating and then often serving dishes to the guests. During those moments, Gary had me calling tickets as they came through – a rare experience for a young chef, let alone a stagiaire.
During a busy weekend service, I might not have had the chance, but The Pony & Trap has a nurturing kitchen with Josh himself a big advocate of the training of the next generation.
“I consider kitchens and restaurants to be basically classrooms,” he tells me in between spoonfuls of fermented leek powder courtesy of his R&D chef and right-hand man Oli Grassi.
“Staging is a chance to be a sponge and to get first-hand experience. The guest chef series concept is like staging. If I work with another chef in their kitchen, I’m learning from them!”
Near the end of service, I called a ticket for the whole suckling pig shoulder for two and it was met with cheers from the chefs. We’d sold one during lunch too and it was a sight to behold, flanked with tempura squid, mushrooms, broccoli and hand-cut chips.
So good was it, Josh was hauled into the dining room to sign the menu for the rather stuffed patrons just before we got a timely beer from the bar and cleaned down.