Back to The Bildeston Crown
PUBLISHED: 12:41 14 January 2016 | UPDATED: 12:41 14 January 2016
Tessa Allingham goes to see Chris and Hayley Lee, newly returned to the Bildeston Crown
“Ta dah! We’re back!” Hayley Lee flings her arms out wide, a smiling blue-eyed bundle of energy, as she greets me in the dining room of the Bildeston Crown.
She and her husband, Chris, are indeed back after two years with the Chestnut Group, and in particular the Packhorse Inn, Moulton. We get the clichés out of the way first, the sort of ‘it’s as if we never left’ and ‘I feel like we’ve come home’ before drilling down into this latest chapter of the Chris-and-Hayley story.
“It’s true,” Hayley insists. “We’ve had a wonderful reaction from local people, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing, and James [Buckle, local farmer and owner of the property] is really happy and proud. We’ve moved back into our old house, and all my pots and pans are back in their old cupboards – it’s perfect.”
The pair – he at the stove, she front of house – spent a multi-accoladed decade at the Bildeston Crown until the promise of a fresh challenge tempted them to the Chestnut Group in September 2013. “We felt we had done everything we could here,” Chris explains. “It was right to leave when we did.”
It wasn’t news to many when the press release finally pinged into inboxes on September 1 – the Suffolk rumour-mill had been spinning fiercely for months. “It was tricky,” Hayley says. “James had remained a good friend – we had worked for him for 10 years after all – and we were seen around the village a bit so people started talking. It was a relief when we could at last talk openly.”
Importantly, Chris and Hayley are back at the Crown having signed a long-term lease on the property. It is they who are responsible now for the success of this 15th century coaching inn on Bildeston’s pretty High Street. They’ve been there barely four weeks when we meet. I wonder what it’s like waking up in the morning and knowing that the business is theirs to shape?
“Wake up? We hardly sleep!” Hayley laughs, with a mock-manic stare. “It is unbelievably hard work, but we have to make it work. We go to bed in the early hours and Chris will say before we fall asleep ‘right, what about that VAT bill?’ or ‘did you turn the lights off’!’” Chris, for a moment, is serious.
“We left The Packhorse having learnt a huge amount from Philip [Turner, Chestnut Group owner]. He’s a brilliant businessman. I realise now I need to know the price of gas, oil, water, the fact that it costs £1.5K to service the oven. I now go round turning power off. I wouldn’t have been able to run a business without the Chestnut experience, so I am very grateful.” Hayley is more direct.
“We’re both 40, we felt the need to develop our reputation, do something that’s about us. That’s why we left Moulton.” Hayley has wasted no time recruiting fresh blood front of house, and training a young team to her standards.
“I’m tough, but youngsters have to learn to see things always from a customer’s point of view.” She takes care to explain menus, ingredients, dish construction, not to mention how to put a plate down correctly, how to develop the ‘eyes in the back of your head’ skill that makes the difference between first and second rate service.
There has been an immediate simplification throughout the pub. Gone are the tablecloths in the 80-seat restaurant and out goes the concept of Ingrams as a separate fine dining space, though the name still appears above an archway. Chris has streamlined the menu and cut his brigade from eight chefs of two years ago, to just four. “I’m paying the wages now. We’ll manage!” he says, adding that the “monstrous” number of wine suppliers has been trimmed too.
The menu is tucked into the grey and cream folders familiar from the old days. They’re not pristine any more, but Chris has insisted on bringing them out of storage. Hayley and l leave lunch decisions to the expert. “Right, off to ring the Chinese takeaway,” he jokes, striding off to his kitchen.
The food he brings is unmistakably Chris Lee food. No amount of careful budgeting will stop him using the plumpest langoustines and lobster, the silkiest foie gras, the most fragrant truffles. He plunders Suffolk for his beloved game – a main of partridge Wellington from Elaine Rushbrook on the Ampton Estate is tender meat wrapped round foie gras with a leaf of spinach under the crisp pastry. Vegetables throughout are from Mrs Buckle’s kitchen garden at nearby Nedging Hall, which will also supply lamb and other ingredients in season. Everything Chris offers is a deliciously crafted and tasting picture.
He can’t resist jazzing things up on the more everyday Classics menu either. Choose a regular Red Poll burger (supplied by James Buckle) with fries and a Mexican salad, or a deluxe version with decadent foie gras and truffle mayonnaise. Likewise, a Caesar salad (£12) is made with lobster, not run-of-the-mill poultry.
It comes as no surprise that the caramel-topped lemon tart is a stunning, precise confection of whisper-thin pastry under a smooth, sparklingly citrus filling. A quenelle of crème fraiche sorbet adds grown-up creaminess and the blackberries are plump, glossy and gorgeous.
Chris and Hayley are a joy to interview, rarely lost for words, candid and fun. But they are now focused business-people too. “I am very price conscious now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t cook with local and seasonal produce – it makes sense to continue that way. I’ve also learnt the importance of offering food that will please all customers.” So there’s now plenty of pasta and fish, and a nibbles menu (The Packhorse opened his eyes to ‘small plate’ appeal) that might include deliciously crisp Tandoori-spiced soft shell crab with pineapple salsa, or a bowlful of delicate squid with pokey chorizo.
The tasting menu is effectively canned, only there because it’s on the inside of the menu folders and deliberately priced high, but Chris is hopeful that a game night priced at £75 for seven courses, each paired with a Rhone Valley wine, will fill that gap, while ‘spice nights’ might appeal to more casual diners. “There’s stiff competition round here and I want the Crown to be a Monday and Tuesday restaurant, not just a Friday and Saturday one.” w
Selection from the Bildeston Crown Select menu
• Celeriac and truffle soup, smoked eel, quail’s egg, apple £7
• Suffolk blue cheese fondant, goats’ cheese cannelloni, tomato and onion spears £8
• Langoustine gnocchi, baby vegetables, endive £10
• Mallard Barn partridge and duck liver Wellington, artichokes, greens, peppercorn sauce £18
• Dark chocolate fondant, peanut brittle parfait £7
• Glazed lemon tart, crème fraiche sorbet, blackberries £7
The Classics menu includes more pub-style food, and lunchtime sandwiches and snacks are available for £7. The seven-course Tasting menu costs £120 per person.