Only three months after opening his own business, a bustling pub-restaurant in the heart of the south Oxfordshire countryside, Chris Barber is coping remarkably well in the commercial world, considering he has spent the past 11 years in a rather more cosseted work environment.
As chef to the Prince of Wales, he never had to worry about food costs. Now, while costs obviously have to be considered, the busy throng of customers eager to try out his food is enabling him to be slightly cavalier about the ingredient she uses.
Having been given the opportunity in recent years to work with only the very best of ingredients, some of which he used to pick himself daily from the prince's abundant kitchen garden at Highgrove, Barber has no intention of making do with second-rate alternatives.
"By operating a short menu and having a good turnover of customers, I can be sure that no ingredients hang around for more than a day," says Barber, who with his wife Kate has bought the freehold to the Goose in Britwell Salome. "I can then afford to put exactly what I want on the menu - maybe sea bass and truffles - balanced against cheaper ingredients such as pigeon."
With two courses at dinner priced at £18 and three courses at £22 (dishes at lunch are priced individually), Barber believes he is providing excellent value for the quality of food offered, a philosophy which was very much to the fore when he decided to run his own venture. The daily changing dinner menu offers a choice of three starters, four main courses, and three desserts or cheese.
The decision to leave the prince's service came last year following his marriage to Kate, who had previously worked in public relations. "I loved my job and it was a great wrench to leave, but it was time to move on," he says. "I had to look to the future, and it was a job where I was always moving around, travelling the world with the prince - that wouldn't have been fair on Kate."
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Brought up in Essex, Barber came to royal service after training at Southend College and a two-year spell as a commis at London's Hotel Inter-Continental on Hyde Park Corner. "I decided I wanted a bit of a change," he explains. "I was rather demoralised that all the best jobs were going to the French and Germans - British chefs at the time didn't seem to be getting a good crack of the whip. So I got a job at Buckingham Palace as a junior cook - equivalent to a commis."
Initial impressions, though, were not good. "Having come from a progressive company such as Inter-Continental with extremely professional and cosmopolitan staff, going into an institution such as Buckingham Palace was a great shock," he recalls. "The senior members of the brigade, which numbered 22 then, had all been there a long time. The work wasn't very intensive and there were no responsibilities - it wasn't very challenging. Most of the work was during the day, so I took a job working in the pastry section at Le Caprice for a couple of evenings a week."
He continues: "I could have hung around for a long time at Buckingham Palace and eventually got rewarded, but after 16 months I decided that I had had enough." While pondering whether to go back into hotels or take a position on a private yacht, he heard through the grapevine about a job with the Prince and Princess of Wales and went for it.
Following a successful interview, Barber joined a team of three chefs based at Kensington Palace and suddenly he assumed some of the responsibility he was looking for. "I was the most junior member of the brigade at the beginning," he says, "but it was always very much a team effort and I was given a chance to express some creativity."
Following the separation of the prince and princess, Barber took over the prince's kitchen at his new home at St James' Palace. "While I was catering for a lot of dinner parties and functions, I was really only having to cook to please one person, which gives you a lot of scope and confidence," he reveals. He was, he says, never pushed into cooking one particular style of food and so had plenty of opportunity to experiment and develop his repertoire - and, of course, work with quality ingredients.
While reluctant to talk too specifically about his work with the Prince of Wales, Barber dismisses recent press reports that the prince doesn't like British food, which arose after the prince had selected an Italian dish for inclusion in a cookery book. "It was blown up out of all proportion," says Barber. "It's rubbish to suggest that because he likes Italian food he therefore doesn't like British. He has always been enormously supportive of indigenous ingredients and does have an interest in British food. He is, in fact, appreciative of all types of food."
Barber's food at the Goose (see recipes) is predominantly British in style, in that it is very much influenced by the availability of local produce. But while most dishes are cooked in a modern British manner, local ingredients are also used to create the likes of vegetable fritata with tomato and basil, penne with fresh porcini, and crispy duck with Oriental spices and basmati rice.
"This is an excellent area for quality ingredients," enthuses Barber. "It is packed with game which I get from the Earl of Macclesfield's estate at Sherbourne Castle, there is a good butcher nearby, and the majority of my fruit and veg comes from local farms." Fish, though, is bought from London.
In particular, Barber loves to make use of local ingredients which rarely find their way on to restaurant menus, or even those of other pubs. For example, he serves Brussels tops, which are generally only available for a week or so at the end of the sprout season, with a potato purée to accompany a crépinette of oxtail. "They have a wonderful nutty flavour," he enthuses, "but are usually ignored."
Barber also likes to serve white sprouting broccoli by sautéing the outside leaves and serving the steamed heart on top. Young spring greens are a favourite to accompany a saddle of lamb.
"I keep in very close contact with my suppliers, so I'm always aware of anything special they have," he says. "I was speaking to a farmer the other day who was just about to plough a load of artichokes back into the ground - and did I want a bag? Of course, I did - and I made a wonderful cream of artichoke, lentil and mushroom soup with them."
Eggs from Marran hens, which are supplied by Barber's butcher, were the inspiration behind a starter dish - feuilleté of soft-boiled egg, wild garlic and porcini. "The eggs have a vivid yellow yolk and a wonderful flavour," he explains. "Mushrooms go very well with eggs, so I added some porcini, which had just come in, and wild garlic, which is currently in season."
Barber, who is helped in the kitchen by one other chef during the week and two at weekends, allows himself the luxury of working with expensive ingredients by using them across a number of dishes and matching them with cheaper items. Crab shells, for instance, are used to make soup, while the meat goes into a salad of crab with cucumber dressing.
"Pigeons, which only cost me £1 per portion, are lovely and fat this year because of the mild winter," says Barber, "so I serve roast pigeon with some lentils and truffles, which bump up the cost. But overall it is a very balanced dish."
Puddings are generally simple and inspired by the best seasonal fruits. Rhubarb is a particular favourite - Barber likes to use it very young. Recent dishes include a compote of pear and rhubarb with rhubarb fool, and an apple and rhubarb crumble.
Barber is delighted that business at the Goose is so buoyant. An average of 30-40 covers are being served on weekday evenings, 50 on a Saturday night, and around 40 at Sunday lunch - with an average spend of £30 per head. There is a bar at the front of the pub, but predominantly the Goose is somewhere people go to eat.
Barber realises that a lot of business at present comes as a result of the curiosity factor and the royal connection - and he certainly has done nothing to dissuade an avalanche of journalists and photographers from such diverse publications as The Times and OK! magazine from flocking to this quiet corner of rural Oxfordshire to check him out.
"I'm aware that having worked for the Prince of Wales has given me an incredible boost," he acknowledges, "but I'm not trying to pretend that I'm now serving the same food that I once cooked at St James' Palace and Highgrove."