Food: Full of western promise
PUBLISHED: 12:43 25 February 2014 | UPDATED: 12:43 25 February 2014
© Jake Eastham
Tessa Allingham catches up with chef Chris Lee as he embarks on a new venture at The Packhorse Inn, Moulton
Chris Lee talks at breakneck speed, fidgeting restlessly. Lunch service is over but he’s clearly got kitchen stuff to do, and sitting down for a chat is not a priority. There’s a grin on his stubbly face, though, and the constant banter between him and new boss, Philip Turner, is relaxed and happy.
Observing them, it’s clear that my feeble opening question “how’s it going?” is redundant. Chris’ emphatic “awesome” is a predictable answer.
At the time of our meeting he’s just a few weeks into his new job cooking at The Packhorse Inn, Moulton. The village, just outside Newmarket, is a proper one, a practical mix of new builds and pretty flint or pale-painted thatched cottages with flowery gardens. It’s a place with a primary school and where the WI, a general stores, a community oil-buying scheme and a Scout troop thrive, not to mention the medieval packhorse bridge that spans the trickling river Kennett and provides curiosity to ramblers on the Three Churches Walk through Moulton, Gazeley and Dalham.
As for the village pub – renamed The Packhorse Inn by Philip – it must be special to have tempted Chris and his wife Hayley to leave the familiarity of the Bildeston Crown, where the couple had notched up three AA rosettes, a commendable score of 4 in the Good Food Guide, and a slew of rave reviews during their 10-year tenure. “Of course it was a hard decision to leave,” says Chris, now fidgeting less. “But we’d done everything we wanted to do at Bildeston. We were ready for a new challenge.”
The Packhorse certainly provides that. Chris is now a partner in Chestnut Inns, the company that Philip, a City >> >> corporate financier and local resident, set up in order to buy and refurbish – with investor input – the down-at-heel local pub, formerly known as the Kings Head. What clinched it, Chris says, was the prospect of becoming the company’s executive chef as more pubs are brought into the Chestnut Inns fold.
For now, however, the challenge is a more immediate one – to cook good food twice a day, seven days a week for a mix of local residents, business people, weekenders and families. He has a small kitchen, kitted out to his spec, and support from sous chef Philip Skinner and pastry chef Tecora Smith. And he’s drawn up a menu that, while not a direct transfer of the Crown menu, is recognisably Chris Lee food with all his trademark attention to detail and elements of surprise.
He has toned the surprise down a bit for The Packhorse – after all, as Philip says, Chris’s west Suffolk customers might not be familiar with his Bildeston ways – so a bestselling dish of pigeon and foie gras Wellington with potato dauphinoise, buttered greens and mushroom and herb gratin is just that, as is a char-grilled Red Poll ribeye steak. But Chris can’t resist presenting his shepherd’s pie in a Kilner jar and using smoked potatoes, or offering his “posh” take on a ploughmans with Iberico ham, truffle, quails eggs and Manchego cheese. “It might read like a pub menu,” Chris says, “but this is my food, so there’ll always be some surprise!”
He’s kept his obsession with provenance intact. Lamb is reared in the village, pork is from Nedging, he uses a game dealer in Ampton and buys much of his vegetables from the Elveden estate.
Philip buys wines from Norwich-based Peter Graham Wines – not a surprising choice given that his sister, Louisa, is managing director of the company. Beer is an eclectic mix. “I totally buy into the provenance argument when it comes to food,” says Philip. “But with ales I want a wider range, so we stock Adnams, but we also sell London Pride. I’m trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.”
So far, customers seem to like what The Packhorse is doing. On a November midweek lunchtime there is no room at the inn, Philip is flat out, welcoming, pouring wine, taking compliments with grace, explaining the project to those who inquire. “We’ve averaged 34 covers a day this week for lunch, which is way beyond what we expected,” he says. It’s been like that from the start, it appears. “The biggest Tattersalls yearling sale of the year happened just a few days after we opened and we were jam-packed; then one evening in the second week we had 15 locals in and a well-known Newmarket trainer having a birthday dinner party. I love it when we’ve got a mix of people and the atmosphere is buzzy. I hate places where you can hear the clink of cutlery!
“On one Saturday, a family came from London for lunch. They liked it so much they went into Newmarket, bought PJs and toothbrushes, cancelled a dinner invitation, and stayed the night!”
Such success hasn’t come cheap, however. Philip and his investors have ploughed a good £750,000 into buying the freehold and carrying out the five-month renovation, but he’s convinced it’s money well-spent. “You have to invest to create something like this, there’s no point in doing a half-baked job.”
It has required bucket-loads of vision, as well as money. Philip may have no experience of the hospitality industry, but he knows what he likes in a pub. He reckons he’s one of the alleged 75% of men that fantasise about buying their local to create a place where a dog dozes by an open fire, where you’re known, and where the beer and food are good.
“I wanted to bring the best parts of a pub, a restaurant and a hotel together. I wanted to create a place where locals would want to spend time, that was at the heart of the community [The Packhorse is part of the Pub is the Hub scheme], where others would happily travel 20 miles for a good meal. And I wanted the rooms to be magnetic enough to attract Londoners wanting a weekend away.”
His wife, Amanda, has provided the interior magnetism. There’s plenty of stylishly mismatched furniture – much bought on the Gum Tree website – quirky art (a stone horse sculpture and a boar’s head both feature), warm shades of mushroom and aubergine, waxed floorboards, open fires, rugs and back copies of The Field and Country Life. The separate dining areas create a meandering feel and offer quiet corners and armchairs by the fire, away from the convivial bar. A private dining room, all exposed flint, new oak, sumptuous fabrics and glittering glassware, has emerged from the dereliction of a rubbish-filled barn. “I could see exactly how this room would be from the start,” Philip says, clearly particularly proud of the space.
Upstairs, the four bedrooms offer full-on luxury – giant glimmering mirrors, giant beds, giant numbers of pillows and an orgy of fresh white linen that defies anyone to get out of bed.
“Amanda was apprehensive about the job, but I knew she could do it,” Philip says. “We’ve spent hours and hours, and driven hundreds of miles sourcing stuff. It was hilarious – Amanda would make the decisions and I’d follow with my spreadsheet and an eye on the budget!”
That eye on the budget is probably what prevents The Packhorse from tipping into fantasy landlording. Philip has called on his 20 City years – he still spends a day a week there – to bring business acumen to the project. “There’s a gap between the romantic idea of a pub and the financial reality and this place is very much a real business.”
It’s an ethos he intends to take to other parts of East Anglia as he rolls out the Chestnut Inns concept, and while he won’t be drawn on detail, he says he’s targeting a triangle between Norwich, Woodbridge and Cambridge. “There are plenty of places like the Packhorse outside our region, but there’s a gap in the east that I intend to fill.”