Albert Roux once said "pubs should be the bistros of England". Unfortunately, few are. All too often, convenience food, prepared without care or imagination, is the standard fare. Pubs serving freshly prepared, home-cooked food tend to be in the minority.
But there is a glimmer of hope for this low-profile sector of the hospitality industry. A growing band of quality chefs are trading in their basement city kitchens for a better quality of life by taking on a pub-restaurant of their own.
In 1992 the Tied Estate Order was implemented, which meant breweries with more than 2,000 tied pubs had to free from tie half the number above the 2,000 mark. Consequently, a glut of properties came on to the market, presenting chefs with new opportunities to buy or lease pubs.
Writing for the Independent on Sunday, Michael Bateman picked up on this trend some three years ago and loosely tagged them "landlord-cooks". "This new breed of publican", he wrote, "have absolutely no experience of warming up catering packs of frozen food. They tend to astonish their customers with the sort of meal which would cost three or four times the price in a restaurant or hotel. Many of them are having tremendous success."
For Kit Chapman, owner of the Castle Hotel, Taunton, this revolution had been a long time coming. In his book Great British Chefs, published in 1989, Chapman says cheap eating outside the home mostly means fast food. "And most fast foods are unnourishing, technologically reprocessed junkyards which have devastated the palates of a predominantly young and impressionable market."
"How much more difficult is it," asks Chapman, "if a young person likes junk food, to persuade them to pay the same or a little more for the pleasure of honest-to-goodness fresh food? The battleground must be the pub which, for the British, has all the social allure of the bistro or café in France. What is needed is more chefs like Franco Taruschio [chef-proprietor of the Walnut Tree Inn, Abergavenny] to take up popular feeding with the same passion and enthusiasm as their confrères in the glitzier places."
Andrew Eliel, editorial director of Egon Ronay's Guides, believes chefs have been increasingly drawn to pubs because of the potential lifestyle benefits. "Obviously it's nicer for families to be brought up in places such as the Lake District rather than the hurly-burly of London."
According to Eliel, though, food standards in pubs are not necessarily improving across the board. "More and more pubs are becoming part of multiple pub operators that aren't automatically raising the standards of food. The really good pubs stand out as gems."
However, in the 25 years Egon Ronay's Guides has been publishing its guide to pubs, Eliel says the number of pubs awarded stars for "outstanding" bar food has steadily increased.
Over the next five weeks, Chef will be featuring five such gems. Some have left city kitchensto start afresh, while others chose cooking in pubs as a vocation. One characteristic they share, though, is their determination to raise food standards in the sector. n
As head chef of London's Le Gavroche restaurant during the late 1980s, Steven Doherty established himself as one of the most respected chefs in the UK. Now, more than 300 miles from the metropolis, Doherty can be found cooking in a Lake District village that has a population of only 600.
Realising his dream to make good food accessible to a wider range of people, the Mancunian chef took on the three-bedroom Punch Bowl Inn, Crosthwaite, near Kendal, Cumbria, a year ago. Two sleeping partners - Lionel Yates and Alan Bell - had owned the property since 1990. But when Doherty and his wife Marjorie bought a half share, giving the four partners equal equity, the day-to-day running of the pub was passed over to the Dohertys.
The 16th-century coaching inn is extremely traditional. Black painted timbers and plain white walls form 99% of the decor, although a local artist's paintings and log fires help to enhance the monochrome room. Walls that had previously jutted out into the room to form snugs were pulled down to make the pub open-plan. But the most interesting area is upstairs, where two galleries look down on a grand stairway. There, the tables are laid up for service and menus from all over the world adorn the walls and hint at Doherty's background.
Probably the most endearing quality of the pub, though, is its panoramic views across the Lyth Valley, a huge contrast to the basement city kitchens Doherty was used to.
"Every morning, as soon as I get up, I open the back door and look at the scenery. I think to myself 'Hyde Park Corner would be hell right now,' says Doherty. "I can't imagine living anywhere else."
Doherty maintains he is not writing menus to woo the guides. Nevertheless, inspectors have swarmed to his pub like bees to honey. In the past 12 months he has been awarded numerous accolades for his exceptional standards in pub food. He often serves Gavroche dishes, such as Albert Roux signature dish soufflé Suissesse, and while the rest of the menus are his own creations he says they are cooked as close as possible to Gavroche standard.
"I get a thrill out of cooking this standard of food in this kind of place," says Doherty. "But I am careful about exactly what level I am taking the food too - I don't want people thinking it's pretentious here."
A quick perusal of the à la carte menu sends any thoughts of pretentiousness flying. Home-made garlic crisps served with guacamole (£2), goats' cheese salad (£3.50) or rump steak Bordelaise (£7.50) are typical dishes.
Although the à la carte menu changes twice a year only, the 70-seat restaurant offers a weekly changing set-price Sunday menu (£7.95 for two courses, £9.95 for three). "It provides interest for me in the kitchen and allows me to be more seasonal," explains Doherty, who has a brigade of four.
Doherty says he spends more time planning menus than developing dishes. As a chef of 20 years he knows if ingredients will work together or not. His priority, though, is sourcing quality ingredients from local suppliers. The goats' cheese, for example, comes from a supplier in Keswick. "It's excellent," says Doherty. "It resembles a crottin and because it's a Cumbrian cheese, I'm keen to use it."
The cheese, which is known as "stumpy" in the area, is used in Doherty's ploughman's (£4.50), which is offered as a running special on the blackboard. Doherty presents it with four other farmhouse cheeses - Lanark Blue, Wigton, Lancashire and Swaledale - together with salad, home-made chutney, pickled onions and a basket of bread, biscuits and oat cakes.
The hors d'oeuvre plate (£4.75) is one of the most popular dishes on the menu and "will always remain there in some guise or other". Doherty has been interested in Lebanese cuisine for years and says the idea to serve certain specialities had been in the back of his mind for some time. The plate includes hummus, guacamole, couscous salad, falafels and samosas.
"I used to live on the Edgware Road, close to many Lebanese restaurants. I was thinking of vegetarian dishes to put on the menu, and a lot of Lebanese food is strictly vegetarian. The basis of the recipes come from cookery books, but I have played about with them a bit."
Hot vanilla and white chocolate pudding (£2.50) uses one of Doherty's favourite ingredients - damsons. Fortunately for Doherty, they grow in abundance on his doorstep. Local farmers sell directly to him around September/October. He immediately freezes them and when he wants to use them they are cooked from frozen and stored in the fridge.
Such is the volume of the supply, Doherty serves damsons at the pub virtually all year round. "I often serve them stewed for breakfast with yogurt or poached with puddings as a dessert." For the chocolate pudding, Doherty poaches the damsons with granulated sugar and lemon juice.
Working for Albert Roux for years had a profound affect on Doherty's style of cooking and business acumen. But, surprisingly, the Punch Bowl is largely modelled on the late Alain Chapel's restaurant near Lyon, where Doherty worked for two years.
"I was flicking through Great Chefs of France a few days ago and in it Chapel said he always liked to feel what customers wanted to experience. That's what I would like to do, without being seen to be slithering up to tables.
"The most important observation Chapel made about his restaurant, though, was that he considered it to be a 'provincial auberge'. In his eyes, customers were not table three, they were people. My customers are not table numbers either. I want them to go away thinking the food they ate at the Punch Bowl was the best pub meal they have ever had," says Doherty.
After 12 years with the Roux empire, Doherty's decision to switch into pub management was a unique move for a chef of his calibre. While working at the Grand Hotel in Amsterdam in 1992, to which Roux is a consultant, Doherty became disheartened with fine dining operations and warmed to the Café Roux outlet within the hotel. "I don't want to be detrimental to upmarket restaurants, but I started feeling I wanted to get away from anything associated with pretentiousness. It's not that I'm against those places. I just realised I did not want to work in them any more."
Doherty returned to England in May 1993 and decided to make his move, becoming one of the first in a new wave of chefs to manage pubs. He took over the Brown Horse pub in Winster, Cumbria, as chef-manager with an option to buy the property. "I had no intentions of returning to the North-west, but the position came up at the Brown Horse and I had always loved the Lake District."
Two years later Doherty learnt the owners of the nearby Punch Bowl were looking for partners. After a brief inspection of the property, a deal was struck and the Dohertys moved in.
Doherty's inspiration for dishes comes from many sources. He is an avid cookery book reader and makes no secret of gleaning recipes from contemporaries such as Alastair Little and Gary Rhodes. But one of his most surprising sources of ideas is the retail industry.
"When I look into writing a menu, I check out Marks & Spencer to see what people are buying off the shelves. I noticed many dishes were being sold with salsas so I put seared salmon and salsa on the menu. Customers went bananas over it."
One of the key differences Doherty has noticed having switched from restaurants into the pub sector is that he believes customers are more complimentary about his food. "If I serve a sablé Gavroche-style here, the customers probably wouldn't realise where it comes from and what it represents. But they are so appreciative. It's such a good feeling," says Doherty. Albert Roux will be cooking a "Gavroche dinner" at the pub next month.
"I can honestly say that I feel perfectly comfortable in this environment. My only regret is that I did not make the move earlier."
NEXT WEEK: Chef visits a 15th-century pub in Essex where the head chef specialises in taking British food back to its roots.