The wheel turns at the The Mill

PUBLISHED: 14:49 17 March 2014 | UPDATED: 14:50 17 March 2014

New head chef, Lee Bye, at Tuddenham Mill.

New head chef, Lee Bye, at Tuddenham Mill.

Tessa Allingham meets the new man in charge of the kitchen at Tuddenham Mill

“I grew up on toast and Rich Tea biscuits, none of that poncey ‘I learnt to love food while baking with my nan’ stuff.” Lee Bye pauses, points at my notepad, grins. “Go on…put that in, Mum’ll love it!”

Lee’s mum did not perhaps shape her son’s culinary abilities, but hours spent watching his grandfather at work on his allotment in Fordham certainly sparked an interest. “We would have roast dinner at my grandparents’ and have the luxury of eating all the veg he’d grown. Not many children get that, do they? I didn’t realise it at the time, but it made a huge impact, my palate was being educated from a young age. I was lucky. And I found it fascinating.”

And so, a fascinated 16-year-old, Lee found himself at catering college in Cambridge, and within a few hard-working years was working under Paul Foster at Tuddenham Mill. “I was his sous chef when it all went mad at the Mill, when Jay Rayner raved about it in the Observer. It was the place of the moment, the accolades and press were flooding in. I think I found it too much, I lost a bit of focus, so I left.”

Not for long, though. Flirtations with other jobs soon brought him back to Agellus, working in the kitchens of the group’s various properties (the Westleton Crown, Oundle Mill, Ship at Dunwich and of course, Tuddenham Mill). “I was effectively the company’s relief chef for two years. I’d jump in where needed and it was a great way to get experience.”

When Paul Foster decided – not unexpectedly – to pursue pastures new, Lee leapt at the opportunity to head up the Tuddenham Mill kitchen.

And so I find myself in the restaurant’s bar overlooking the lovely millpond in this village between Newmarket and Bury St Edmunds, listening to Lee talk. Thoughts, passions, ideas for the Mill, opinions tumble out in an – at times – chaotic burble. This is the sort of interview to put the pen down and soak up the personality rather than record every word.

He is disarmingly candid. He considers Paul a friend and certainly someone he looks up to if the frequent references to “filling big boots” are anything to go by. But he’s open about where the restaurant had gone wrong, and the need to adapt the food to the market in order to “get more bums on seats”.

“The Mill had come unstuck,” he says, holding up his hands, in a gesture of admission. “Paul is very, very good at what he does, but the restaurant wasn’t getting enough return trade, whether because it was perceived as too fine dining, too expensive, or the menu not quite right. There comes a point where you have to listen to feedback and change.

“I want the Mill to be known as a place where you can have a sandwich, a bar snack, afternoon tea, or Sunday lunch, bring the kids, and feel relaxed, not that you’re breaking the bank.

So what’s the plan? Some three weeks before the official February 17 handover, Lee has a whole new brigade in place – “it just happened that the boys were ready to move on at the same time as Paul” – and is putting the finishing touches to his menu.

Foraging is off. “I’ve learnt a huge amount from Paul, and I really respect his talent, but I’d be a fool to do the foraging thing. I believe in it, but it doesn’t define me. What I want most of all is bums on seats.” He takes a rare pause, considering his words. “I’m not sure chickweed and nettles is the way to do that.”

Instead, there will be some familiar classics, always a soup (but an interesting one, like the white onion and cider soup with Norfolk crab toast that’s on the launch menu), and bags of comforting ‘nostalgia with a twist’. His interpretation of Cullen skink – “it’s basically a smoked haddock chowder” – makes reference to his own Scottish roots, and the influence of Scottish chef, Gordon McNeill, under whom Lee worked for a time. “For me, that dish is about full flavour, great taste, comfort, but an element of surprise too in the confit egg yolk, which gives richness, the oatcake crumble that gives texture and a cucumber ‘gel’ (“I hate that word!”) for freshness. It’s got eye appeal, but everything on the plate is still relevant.”

He’s not too proud to put chips alongside a piece of Cumbrian Dexter steak. “I’d be crazy not to – but they are triple-cooked, so a bit special, a bit cheffy! I love cooking underused cuts, so I use skirt here, classically cut and seasoned and I poach the palourde clams then roast them with smoked garlic. The meatiness of the clams brings another dimension to the steak and the sweet onions counteract the saltiness.”

The pudding line-up shouts old-fashioned comfort too. Yorkshire rhubarb comes with a lemon curd, ginger milk and toasted meringue. Lancashire baked apples are served with a mead ice-cream, and the warm chocolate tart with espresso, hazelnuts and lemon thyme.

Lee is confident that the introduction of a £19.50 three-course early dining menu – served between 6.30pm and 7.30pm every evening bar Saturday – will be a winner. The menu might include a venison terrine and Irish soda bread or Cornish mackerel cocktail starter, followed by Cumbrian lamb and leek pie with rapeseed mash and carrots from legendary Isleham grower, Clem Tompsett, or a beetroot risotto with Norfolk White Lady cheese and celery leaf. A chocolate and hazelnut cream trifle might tempt for pudding.

He is clearly hugely ambitious for Tuddenham Mill, but claims to have little personal ambition for awards or celebrity. Self-preservation, I suggest?

He smiles. “All the accolades Paul got were great, he deserved every one,” he says, referring to the score of six in the Good Food Guide, the three AA rosettes, and an appearance on the Great British Menu that brought the Mill to a nationwide audience.

“But they didn’t fill the restaurant, did they? Chasing Michelin stars is fine if that’s what drives you – it’s just that it doesn’t drive me. The thing is, once you’ve got the accolades, you’ve got to keep them, and cooking becomes hugely stressful. Nobody goes to a restaurant that’s just lost a star or a rosette, do they? I want to kick over the traces, cook my food, and just get more people through the door.

“Yes, I am driven by fear of failure, but I am also confident in what I do. I’ve got a great young team, and I think we are taking this place in the right direction. I can’t wait to get going.”

Lee’s mum must be very proud.

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