You wonder how many people would know of Bray’s existence were it not for Heston Blumenthal. No offence to the people of Bray – your village is beautiful and your houses gigantic. In fact, if any readers are ever planning to visit the area, and you’re fortunate enough to bask in some sunshine that day, I’d advise taking on the half-hour walk from Maidenhead station to the village where Blumenthal set up shop in 1995. There’s some mightily impressive real estate on that stroll.
Fortunately, the sun was shining strongly when I visited Bray earlier this month to interview the executive chef of The Fat Duck group, Jonny Lake. I find him in the garden of The Crown pub, shades on, about to tuck into a rather dazzling tomato and mozzarella salad. Lake has been overseeing the food operation of The Crown (Blumenthal’s traditional pub), The Fat Duck (his three-Michelin star restaurant, also in Bray), The Perfectionists’ Café (Heathrow’s Terminal 2 restaurant) and The Hind’s Head Bray (what was once an inn, but is now more of a Michelin star bar/restaurant) for the past two years, having taken on the role of executive chef across the group. Prior to this, he was solely head chef of The Fat Duck, where £275 per person bookings are like gold dust. In fact, you’ll probably sample some gold dust during your time at the esteemed restaurant. The set menu is full of surprises. So when the time came for Lake to start working on, for want of a more illustrious saying, ‘pub grub’, how did he cope with the enormous contrast in food style?
“I’ve never worked in a pub before,” he says. “But for what we do, it all translates. I’m a big believer that whether it’s front-of-house or kitchen, there are basic things that translate across all levels. Taking care of people and making sure they’re having the best time possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s three star, no star, whatever. It’s basic hospitality.
“You have to be honest with yourself and not try to force anything. With The Fat Duck, there are a lot of people to put on menus like that. At The Crown, there isn’t a team of 20 to make one dish. It has to be simpler, quicker. Things translate across it – take this dish here, you’re not going to see many pubs with a tomato and mozzarella salad with toasted coriander seeds. Even though that’s simple, it gives you encapsulated flavour bursts. That has come from the people involved in The Fat Duck.”
While working as The Fat Duck’s head chef, Lake was in charge of a team of 30. The Hind’s Head requires 17 chefs and The Crown employs eight. These businesses are all within 30 seconds of each other. As he presides in the kitchen at three highly regarded venues, I suggest to Lake that he may not be struggling to find back-of-house staff as much as other hospitality businesses around the country. Who wouldn’t want to come and work for Heston? However, when you take the location into account and the fact that they’re staffing three neighbourly businesses, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple.
“It’s a problem at all levels,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s The Crown or The Fat Duck. Yes, we’re at a slight advantage as we have a name with it and it’s not standalone. Most people know it’s one of Heston’s pubs and that carries a level of reputation. But it is a problem. The industry is changing a lot – it is getting more difficult. At the same time, while it is difficult to run places, what you’re able to do with food is way more exciting, but you struggle to find the people to help you to deliver it. It’s not just chefs, it’s front-of-house as well, which can be even harder.”
As Brexit looms and the concerns over recruitment increase, it’s ever more intriguing to hear what operators think would be an achievable solution to finding the right people to work in their venues. A standard response would be, ‘to showcase how hospitality is a fun, rewarding and credible career path’. Yes, this would be ideal, but that still doesn’t stress how a shift in perception is going to take place. What about Jonny? What does he think?
“Unless there are huge changes, those people aren’t going to be there,” he warns. “There have to be big changes that happen to make it more attractive again. Hours, wages… but so many things need to happen for that to become reality. The system is broken at the moment.”
By this, he means the balance between what money is allocated to staff costs and how much the customers are being charged for their experience. Ask consumers who have never worked in the industry to solve the problem and chances are they’ll say that operators need to pay their staff more. In which case, would they be happy to pay an extra £2 for that tomato and mozzarella?
“Guests would want us to pay our people more, but you can’t increase the price of their meal,” adds Lake. “You try to economise these things, but people might need to get used to paying more for food.”
Glancing at the garden blackboard, which lists The Crown’s barbecue menu, I notice that for a steak sandwich with kimchi and soya mayonnaise, a customer would have to pay £12.95. To be honest, in such an area and in such a pub, that’s not too outrageous, is it?
“Here, we live in a certain area and people will be willing to pay for something that is good quality,” says Lake. “The flat iron steak in that sandwich, I can tell you where it’s from, what breed it is. If you pay £6.95 elsewhere and claim you can tell me where that steak is from and what breed it is, then you’re lying. No butcher is going to supply you meat at a price where you can sell it for £6.95 and actually identify what the cow is.”
How does your garden flow?
The garden at The Crown is a big draw for the pub – countryside village, greenery, sunshine – the Bray-descending tourists lap it up. However, for such a small kitchen space, the pub struggled to serve food to the extra covers that are added from the outside on a hot summer day. So, what to do? Well, at the beginning of this year, Lake and the team addressed this by building an outside bar and barbecue station. The food is different to what you can find on the menu indoors – it is very much determined by the set-up of the outdoor area. Lake explains:
“The big thing for me with the garden is that it’s weather dependent,” he says. “If you’re designing something like an outdoor cooking area that’s going to take 10 people to operate, and you put a rota together, but then it rains, then what? You put so much into it and then the weather stops people using it, so you probably won’t end up doing it in the first place.
“This whole new space was based on a food truck. What does a food truck do? A food truck serves meals to loads of people with as little staff as possible. A big food truck has three people running it – two cooks and one person doing drinks and orders. You need one or two on the bar and one or two in the kitchen. That’s what we designed this around. It’s different to the inside operation, as people aren’t being served at the tables. They’re ordering it and picking it up at the bar.”
As Lake details the structure of the outdoor bar and barbecue, sure enough, there is one person serving drinks to a wedding crowd that have just walked in, while two chefs light the barbecues and begin spinning some lush looking pineapples on a spit – you can understand why I had trouble leaving. But you could see it working. It has brought a whole new revenue stream to The Crown. It’s no wonder that this pub has scooped the Berkshire Pub & Bar of the Year at the National Pub & Bar Awards for the past two years. It’s a forward-thinking operation that stays true to its roots; a pub where front- and back-of-house are seamless. Lake talks freely about how the customer-facing teams should work, despite being, as he puts it, “just a chef”. He clearly knows his hospitality.
“It comes from The Fat Duck in that it has always been about the two teams together as one,” he says. “That has been apparent from the first day and has got better over time. It takes both teams, it can’t be separate. There’s a power with that which is clear to the guest. They have to work together, otherwise people can see it’s disjointed. I’ve learned a lot from the people I have worked with. From coffee service to planning a rota, there’s always that help there.”
As I leave Bray, I make a point of visiting The Fat Duck and The Hind’s Head to see the varying styles of operation that Lake has a hand in. I’ll tell you one thing, the locals are a lucky bunch – food here is high on the agenda. What’s more, there are three more Michelin stars being boasted up the road at The Waterside Inn. Maybe it’s not all about Heston after all.
“There are seven Michelin stars in one village,” says Lake. “It’s quite rare. This is different from the surrounding villages – there are a lot of people coming here internationally and it’s only 20 minutes from the airport. They’re coming here and staying here for the weekend and they’ll eat at each place and see the different things in each place. When you work here, you can take for granted how special the area is. But it really is a special bubble.”