Most chefs want to produce original cooking and set their own standards in the kitchen. But not Tom Norrington-Davies: the head chef at the Eagle pub, on London's Farringdon Road, is happiest if his customers cannot tell the difference between his cooking and that of the previous chef.
"It may seem strange for a chef to say he wants the food to stay exactly the same," he says, "but I strive to maintain what we have, and in the eight years the pub has been open the standards are still the same. What we want is someone who was here five years ago to come back and say that the food is exactly as they remember it. I am happiest if, at the end of the year, a customer can say they have tasted no difference."
The Mediterranean-style food created by the previous chef, Portuguese-Mozambique born David Eyre, also former business partner of owner Michael Belben, is something close to an institution in Farringdon. So there were no changes when Norrington-Davies took over a year ago. "David's culinary influence came from where he was brought up," says the current chef. "And he has a passion for letting all the food speak for itself and to make it all uncomplicated."
Norrington-Davies, 29, adds that he has had no formal training as a chef, but gained experience through working part-time at the Peasant, a one-AA-rosette pub in St John's Wood, London, before moving to the Eagle, which also has one AA rosette.
In the Eagle's case, Norrington-Davies is happy to admit that the reputation of the food far exceeds what any one chef could do to it. Harden's London Restaurants 1999 described it as "excellent" and the AA Best Restaurant Guide 1999 says it is "robust with strong Med overtones". The pub has also been voted best London pub in the Carlton Food Awards and has been nominated again for this year's finals in March. And the 100 or more lunches served daily in the 60-seat pub prove that the customers agree with such sentiments. It is this love of the food that has diners happily standing round on the bare wooden floor of the one-room pub, eating with cutlery purchased from car-boot sales. Norrington-Davies adds: "In a way, the beauty about the place is its simplicity. It's full of no's - no tipping, no waitress service, no tabs, no starters, no mains and no desserts."
The last three of these injunctions form the basis of the pub's "one-plate eating" menu strategy. "The portions are generous, so people don't need to havemore than one course," says Norrington-Davies.The daily changing menu features just nine dishes that rotate regularly and range in price from soup at £4 through pasta at about £7, up to the most expensive dish, wild sea bass, at £11. These are concocted at early morning brain-storming sessions between Norrington-Davies and his six-strong kitchen brigade, who work in shifts of two. One token dessert is sometimes included - the thick egg custard Portuguese pudding, pastei de nata. And in true Mediterranean style, olive oil and garlic are prominent in most dishes, as is salt cod. All ingredients are delivered daily, with vegetables coming from George Allans at Covent Garden in London, and game and beef from organic Welsh butcher Mark Jones.
The Bife-ana (£8.50), the top-selling item, is the nearest the pub comes to a signature dish. The sandwich, said to be a typical recipe in Portuguese-Mozambique cuisine, consists of very thin cuts of rump streak marinated overnight in red wine, olive oil, chilli, parsley and garlic, then thrown into a very hot pan for a minute and served with ciabatta bread. It is on the menu every day and is almost always sold out.
Other favourites include pork belly with Puy lentils. Norrington-Davies uses a whole belly of Gloucester Old Spot that he prefers "because it has a sweeter taste and is more juicy". It is marinated in bay leaf, sage, rosemary and garlic with some olive oil and black peppercorns. He slits the skin with a Stanley knife for closer incisions, and rubs it with sea salt and adds a bit of sugar because "it is helpful with the crackling". He leaves it on the bone to enhance the flavour, covers it with foil and cooks it for 90 minutes at 200¼C. For the final 20 minutes, he removes the foil and puts it in the hottest part of the oven to finish the crackling. The pork is served with lentils cooked with cloves of garlic and a few bay leaves and mushrooms (£8.50).
For Norrington-Davies to be able to use a whole belly of pork highlights another of the special positions that the Eagle finds itself in. "Because we know lunchtimes are going to be popular," he says, "we can afford to throw a whole pig into the oven knowing it will be sold." If any does remain it can be transformed into something a little grander for the evenings. There are fewer customers eating in the evening, so Norrington-Davies can create more elaborate dishes.
He also has an unashamed passion for purple sprouting broccoli. "For me," he says, "its appearance at market signals the end of the winter and the beginning of spring. And although it doesn't have a very long shelf-life, it is incredibly robust. It has a stronger taste than the calabrese and its almost black green leaves have a strong, bitter taste. It's like two vegetables in one."
However, it is harder for him to decide between his two favourite dishes, the fish stew - caldeirada (£11) - or the lasagne (£7). "I love the stew because it can change with the seasons," he says. "In the summer it's light, and in the winter there is nothing like sitting over a hot steaming bowl."
During this cold season the stew consists of fish stock made with onion, garlic, fennel, red and green peppers, leeks and carrots fried in olive oil. Tomatoes are added, along with saffron and beer. It is seasoned with bay leaves, salt and pepper, and mussels, squid, hake, prawns, and then a large fish, maybe tuna or salt cod, is added. It is all served in a large terracotta bowl.
Talking about the lasagne, Norrington-Davies waves his arms to indicate his pub surroundings, and says:"I find it strange that people think it's odd that we have lasagne on the menu because they see it as being typical pub food." But the dish is extremely traditional, made with rabbit, hare or Italian sausage. Norrington-Davies says he also loves to get stuck into cooking paella, made in the traditional Spanish style using meat, seafood and vegetable rice.
Literally cooking behind the bar, Norrington-Davies rustles up dishes using only a charcoal grill, a six-burner oven, two fridges and two work benches. The back kitchen, really more of a galley, is now used for washing up. A former actor, he says he loves cooking in front of his customers, adding that he has merely progressed from one stage to another while retaining the same unsociable working hours.
The front-of-house staff, overseen by three managers, are also bit-part actors. Not only do they clear tables and serve drinks, they also improvise as commis, regularly helping to prepare vegetables and gut fish. And in great democratic style, everybody from manager to head chef has to do the washing up.
Norrington-Davies the actor wants to add more props to his tiny stage. "If I could do anything," hesays, "it would be to bake my own bread. If I had anice wood-burning oven, I could even do pizzas. And can you imagine the smell of the bread floating out over the pub?" n