"I slid into catering by the side door: my passion was wine. I joined the family business as the wine expert and I've progressed from there. It has helped that I wasn't a trained chef or specialist caterer."
John Hoskins is speaking about his earlier days. The "family business" was the Poste Group of hotels and pubs in East Anglia. After a restructuring of the group, he is now managing director of his private company, Huntsbridge, based at Huntingdon, Cambridge, operating three of the original pubs plus one in Essex that was added last year.
"I know how difficult it is to run more than one establishment. My answer is that I don't run them, my key role is to appoint and encourage young, enterprising people to be chef-patrons of the individual pubs or restaurants. Each chef runs the business, creates the menus and is responsible for all food buying, staff hiring, cash control and profitability. I set the overall direction, style and ambition for the company and insist on the highest standards possible - within our market - for food, wine and service."
Hoskins is a Master of Wine, having entered that rare coterie at the first attempt. He selects all the wines for the group. His 120-strong wine lists gained the Egon Ronay's Guides' Cellar of the Year award for 1996 and are remarkably good value - there are no less than 13 wines available by the glass.
Other major functions under central control are production of management accounts; some dry goods and non-food purchasing; legislation matters; and marketing. High-quality wine, food and music events are kept low-key and carefully targeted. "I would rather undersell than oversell. We are a pub group after all. I want customers to be pleasantly surprised by the standards we achieve," says Hoskins.
The Pheasant at Keyston is the most "pubby" of the four. It sits comfortably in a tiny village, apparently remote but now just south of the A14, the new A1-M1 link. The long, low, thatched building faces a small, triangular green. There is no aggressive signage, in line with the company's philosophy of allowing the product to speak for itself.
Inside, there are open fires, oak beams, traditional wooden furniture and a relaxed atmosphere. There is no doubt this is a pub - Adnams' Bitter and two or three other cask ales are on tap - but also one that serves exceptional food.
Chef-patron is Martin Lee. His pedigree includes working with Paul Heathcote and Raymond Blanc, as well as his predecessor at the Pheasant, Roger Jones, who is now at the White Hart building a reputation for that new addition to the Huntsbridge group.
Lee is enthusiastic about his role: "Where else could I get the chance, at the age of 26, to run a pub/restaurant like this, where I am encouraged to be creative, not only in the kitchen, but with responsibility for the whole operation? I'm managing a £500,000-plus business with up to 30 staff. At busy times I'll have seven in the kitchen and 10 front of house."
As with all caterers, finding good staff is a major concern, but the Pheasant has the advantage of being able to offer 12 people live-in accommodation. Many of them are young, so training is vital: responsibility for this falls to Lee's wife Jayne, who is also part of the management team. The Huntsbridge food handlers' manual and induction booklet indicate the thoroughness and professionalism of the organisation.
Lee returns to the subject of management. "The chef-patrons produce quarterly budgets. The four of us meet monthly with John Hoskins and discuss progress or problems, new ideas, legislation, marketing, suppliers - whatever is relevant. It's a democratic meeting, definitely not the four of us sitting there listening to what the MD says. Huntsbridge is called a partnership of chefs and so it is, not in the legal sense, but in the way we work together."
The customer who visits all four establishments is struck by the quality in the buildings, presentation, food and drink, and by the conviviality of the service. There is no branding, in the big company sense. The opposite, in fact: a high degree of individuality.
"There are very few exceptional food pubs," says Hoskins. "I believe we fill a valuable niche for high quality at the top end of the pub market, where we can be stylish but un-stuffy. We tell our customers they can eat anywhere in the pub and choose as little or as much from the menu and in any order they like. We are there to please the customer, not to set out pompous rules," says Hoskins.
Maintaining standards and consistency are two areas where Hoskins particularly involves himself. He visits each pub once a week and meets with the chef, usually over a meal and bottle of wine. "Meal" is something of a misnomer: Hoskins orders four or five dishes and taste-samples them, making notes or comments - not, he stresses, as a professional caterer but as an informed customer. No aspect of the business escapes his constructive view of what the customer is entitled to expect.
The core of the enterprise is the food. Sixty per cent of the lunchtime and evening menu changes monthly and there are two or three daily specials. Although Lee's cooking has strong French influences with intense flavours, he claims to keep his dishes simple. "I cook what I feel and use only the very best ingredients." The February menu featured breast of woodpigeon with beetroot purée, roast potatoes and a red wine and tarragon sauce at £9.95. A particular favourite is wild boar sausages with Dijon mustard, onion sauce and mashed potato at £6.95. Typically there would be 10 starters (£3.75 to £6.25) and 11 main courses (£6.95 to £13.95).
This is serious cooking accompanied by some very serious wines at value-for-money prices. And the effort is reflected in the awards the Huntsbridge pubs consistently win from respected trade bodies. At a time when there is so much criticism of the anonymity and conformity of so many of Britain's pubs, it is refreshing to find a company that prizes enthusiasm, individuality and creativity in the pub catering world.
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