Call to Arms: how Dan and Natasha Smith cemented their reputation as power publicans

pub & bar

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

How chefs Dan Smith and Natasha Smith cemented their reputation as power publicans Fordwich Arms Bridge Arms

Related tags: The Fordwich Arms, Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards, Gastropub, Pub & bar, Dan Smith, Natasha Smith

Chefs Dan and Natasha Smith have overcome a pandemic and the ire of locals to establish a mini empire of Michelin-starred pubs in rural Kent

It’s lunchtime on a busy Friday in late March. Spring is in the air; the sun is shining and in the dining room of the Michelin-starred The Fordwich Arms in Kent service is about to begin. Tables fill with diners, many of whom wisely opt for the five-course tasting menu. Snacks start to arrive, including a silky cod’s roe tart; a poached oyster topped with Oscietra caviar; and a moreish pot of scallop tartare that’s finished all too quickly.

Suddenly, a chef appears tableside with a giant block of pink Himalayan salt lined with giant prawns that they then proceed to torch in front of the guests; an alluring, chargrilled aroma filling the air. Later, plates of duck liver parfait arrive accompanied by warm doughnuts; another course sees roast lamb served with new season asparagus, stuffed morel and green pepper mustard; and for dessert, a dainty English rhubarb tart with honey cream and rhubarb parfait that smacks of the season.

As lunch experiences go, it’s one with all the trappings of fine dining restaurant, which is to be expected given the tasting menu costs £85 per person before drinks and service. And yet, somehow, The Fordwich Arms still has the unmistakable spirit of a local boozer; exemplified on this afternoon by a single local, propped up against the 1930’s bar, nursing a bottle of brown ale as he reads the morning paper.

“We’ve always wanted it to be a pub,” says Dan Smith, the chef-patron who took over the running of The Fordwich Arms with his now-wife Natasha in November 2017. “There has been a pub on the site for more than 1,000 years. It’s a pub setting, and we can never stray too far from that.”

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Dan and Natasha were both just 25 when they upped sticks and left the country’s capital city to go and live in its smallest town, Fordwich. Dan had previously spent five years working at The Clove Club in Shoreditch, being an integral part of the team that earned the restaurant its first Michelin star; Natasha had most recently been one of the head pastry chefs for luxury catering and events company Rocket, having also worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in both London and Kent.

While the pair had primarily spent their early careers in restaurant kitchens, the chance to take over a pub was impossible to turn down. “When we lived in London, we were always looking to go to pubs where we could have really good food and take our dog; we’d choose that over a restaurant every time,” says Natasha. “And that’s what we wanted to bring to Fordwich.”

“A pub offers a relaxed environment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have quality food and a quality experience”

For Dan, who has previously cited Stephen Harris’s beloved gastropub The Sportsman – located less than 15 miles up the road from Fordwich – as being an inspiration to him, taking over The Fordwich Arms was an opportunity to bring together the feeling of proper old school hospitality with a more modern and forward-looking approach to pub restaurant cooking. “What a pub offers is a relaxed environment, and that’s what we love about it. That doesn’t mean you can’t have quality food and a quality experience, though.”

Trouble with locals

Dan and Natasha make no bones about the challenges they faced in the days and weeks after they took over The Fordwich Arms. The pair had just two weeks from signing the lease and getting the keys to opening the doors, and in that time they had to: relocate, redecorate the site in their image, write a menu, hire some staff, and set up supply chains.

“We were so naive when we opened,” says Dan, reflectively. “We’d both run kitchens before, but having your own business is a completely different thing. And there isn’t a school that can teach you that.”

Despite the struggles of those early days, though, the pub almost immediately carved out a reputation for itself under their stewardship. Writing in The Guardian​ not long after the launch, Grace Dent described it as serving ‘food that makes you want to move house’​. Within six months it secured a place on the Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards top 100 list, and before their first year was out the couple’s cooking had earned the pub a Michelin star.

Guinea-Fowl-Dish

Yet while the national reception to this new iteration of The Fordwich Arms was almost unanimously positive, locally the mood was a less buoyant. “It was difficult with Fordwich as the previous landlord and landlady had been there for 25 years, and they were the heart of the community,” says Dan.

“They were big boots to fill, and that was tough for us. Not that we were trying to the same thing as them, but because there were a lot of people against our vision for the pub from day one. We got a lot of stick when we did Fordwich.”

The vitriol levelled at pair didn’t go unnoticed. Reviewing The Fordwich Arms in the Daily Mail​in early 2018, food critic Tom Parker Bowls wrote: “The locals are not happy. Not happy at all. Because The Fordwich Arms, formerly a good old-fashioned sticky-carpeted, condoms-in-the-bog Kentish boozer, set in a ridiculously pretty 1930s redbrick building, has gone all posh.”

Parker Bowls went on to review The Fordwich Arms favourably, describing it as ‘a good pub with a rather fine restaurant’, but on Trip Advisor, the verdict could politely be described as more mixed. “Unless you want an overpriced fancy dinner,” fumed one local. “You can now only get fancy, overpriced nibbles for lunch.”

“We were so naive when we opened The Fordwich Arms”

Natasha notes that while some remain hostile to the concept, the local climate has thawed significantly over the years. “When we arrived, it was framed as two 25-year-old chefs coming down from London and taking their local pub away,” she says. “That’s the backlash we got from there. But having been at The Fordwich Arms for nearly five years now, we’ve settled in. And a lot of the locals have come back, and love that we’re there.”

“It’s enticing for them,” adds Dan. “People say they used to have to go to London for a special occasion restaurant, but now they come to us, which is really nice as well.”

A second pub

From the beginning, Dan and Natasha always had it in their minds that The Fordwich Arms wouldn’t be a one off. “We had thought for a while that we’d like to do another one; something different,” says Dan. “Naturally, when you do something like Fordwich it takes its own direction. When we launched it was the two of us doing six days a week with a few other team members. It was full on, and if we weren’t there the pub wasn’t open.

“Our attention has been on cultivating a strong team, and now a lot of our core staff have been with us for three or four years, maybe longer. After we came out of the first Covid lockdown it felt like we were at a point where we could look at doing something else. We didn’t want to rush getting a second place, but we were in a good place.”

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Soon enough, the pair happened upon a pub in the nearby village of Bridge that was up for sale called The White Horse, which they managed to secure the lease for. And then, in April last year, they relaunched it as the Bridge Arms.

“It was the perfect fit for us,” says Natasha. “We’d actually been living in Bridge for a while and that pub was our local. We used to go for drinks there.”

Unlike with The Fordwich Arms, the reaction from the local community has been much more positive; although Dan notes there was some backlash to the changing of the pub’s name – a decision made by the pair owing to the fact the pub’s previous landlord had gone to prison. “Changing the name and having the ‘Arms’ there is in keeping with our brand, but we also didn’t really have a choice given the pub’s recent history,” he says. “I understand why people would get upset, though, as it does take away from heritage.”

“It wasn’t our intention to get a Michelin star at the Bridge Arms, but when you put that effort into the quality of the ingredients and the food, if you cook as well as you can, naturally things will happen”

“We had some people saying it’ll just be another restaurant pub like Fordwich and that they’ll have to take out a mortgage to eat there,” adds Natasha. “But then there was a lot of others who were really excited about it.”

Compared to The Fordwich Arms, the Bridge Arms is a markedly more relaxed proposition. Rather than a tasting menu, there is just a daily à la carte option with a focus on grilled meats and fish, much of it cooked using a Josper oven. Sample dishes include hand-dived scallop with garlic butter and seaweed loaf; dry-aged Aylesbury duck breast with confit leg, fennel and spiced date; south coast monkfish with roast king oyster mushroom, brussels sprouts and madeira; and leek and potato pithivier with Black Bomber cheddar, caramelised onion and smoked potato.

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“The idea for the menu at Bridge is relaxed, family-style eating. There’s elements and influence from what we do at Fordwich naturally because it’s our style of food, but the dishes are made for sharing. It’s the sort of place we really want to eat on our day off.”

While Dan and Natasha’s idea was for the Bridge Arms to remain a casual gastropub that’s not how it’s been received in some quarters. Indeed, in an unexpected turn that surely cements the Smith’s reputation as power publicans, the Bridge was awarded a Michelin star of its own earlier this year.

“It was very surprising,” says Natasha with a grin.

“They say one star is entirely about the food and I fully believe that,” adds Dan. “It wasn’t our intention to get a star at the Bridge, but when you put that effort into the quality of the ingredients and the food, if you cook as well as you can, naturally things will happen.”

Future plans

With two Michelin-starred pubs under their chef’s hats now, one wonders whether there’s scope for Dan and Natasha to take on more sites. “We probably will,” says Natasha. “At the moment, though, our focus is adding other arms to our business.”

In the immediate term that relates to the launch of a bakery that will be used to produce fresh bread for both The Fordwich Arms and Bridge Arms, as well as operate as both a wholesaler for other restaurants and pubs in the area, and a place for locals to buy bread and pastries or get a coffee.

It also references upcoming extensions to The Fordwich Arms. The pair have recently taken over the town hall, which is adjacent to the pub, with the idea to use it as a private dining and events space. They have also extended their outdoor terrace, which overlooks the river Stour, ready for the forthcoming summer season.

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When The Fordwich Arms first launched, Dan and Natasha wanted to change the menu almost weekly, but these days the food development structure is more focused on the seasons. “We’ve certainly found our own style now,” says Dan. “We’re nine miles from the coast in the garden of England, the produce we have access to is some of the best in the world and that dictates the menu.

“Our head chefs have been with us for four years and have a lot of influence over what we serve. When we change menus, we try to get teams to taste it and give input. We want it to be as collaborative as possible.”

And what of the prospect of trying to earn a second Michelin star? “We just want to carry on doing what we’re doing,” he says. “Obviously if we were ever to get to that stage it would be incredible. It’s amazing to get these accolades, but you can’t lose sight of what you cook for.”

Related topics: Pub & Bar, Business Profile

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