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Steven Smith, Freemasons at Wiswell, Lancashire
Steven Smith is the chef patron of the multi award-winning Freemasons at Wiswell, Lancashire. He is not the product of a catering school, only spending one day a week at Blackburn College, starting his culinary career from school at 15. Steven perfected his skills in good kitchens, starting as a breakfast chef at the Old Moathouse in Blackburn.
He was head chef at Stanley House in Mellor and has also worked at three AA Rosette Gilpin Lodge in the Lake District and Michelin-starred The Box Tree in Ilkeley, which is also in the Good Food Guide’s top 50 British restaurants.
The food served at Freemasons is simple, wholesome and tasty, their signature dish being their style. It’s British pub food taken to a different level for example the dish pan-dived scallops with gammon and pineapple with pork pie sauce. Most restaurants stopped putting a soup on the menu in the nineties, but Steven still puts soup on his menu for example his chargrilled sweetcorn with roast chicken soup – served with a foie gras Hot Dog.
Steve can we start by you giving us a brief outline, your role, your responsibilities, at the Freemasons at Wiswell please?
Freemasons is a very informal but smart looking country pub/inn, where we operate a restaurant that is more accessible to as many walks of life as possible. So my role here is chef-patron, which means I do whatever is necessary to achieve this. We can seat about 80 covers, upstairs and downstairs, in two private dining rooms. We're a six day a week operation, employing more than 20 staff and the focus is on seasonality.
How would you describe the food style here at Freemasons at Wiswell? If someone comes to the Freemasons what can they expect?
Our style is very modern and very light, but relevant to our surroundings and locality. So there's a nod towards the pub with things like the scratchings and the Sarson's vinegar with the fish and chips. But this is not a retro fish and chips dish, and not quirky for the sake of it, just a little modern nudge, which you can find throughout the menu.
Give us a typical Freemason's dish please Steve.
A typical Freemason's dish would be foie gras, which is poached and roast, the restauranty side of the dish, but served with rhubarb and custard, so that people can associate with a bit of humour and don't feel intimidated when they're eating it.
Foie gras can provoke quite a big debate can't it, you've got the ethical issues. Do you have to worry about that?
Yeah we do definitely.
We've seen a lot of menus where people will just put duck liver on their menu now have you had the foie gras terrorist bit whilst you've been here.
Yeah we have had a little bit yeah.
But that hasn't deterred you?
No because the customers that come in here week in, week out, want to see foie gras on the menu, so that's where it stays.
And that's what you're here for isn't it to look after the customers?
Exactly, yes, and if the day comes when they say, "We don't want to eat the foie gras," then of course we'll look at it, but while it's one of our best sellers and people are saying "˜You must go to the Freemasons and try their foie gras', we'll carry on doing it.
Fantastic good for you. And in terms of the business it's obviously your business, you run back of house, your fiancée runs front of house, what are your goals and aspirations for the business?
Keeping the customers happy and then, fingers crossed, if we can keep it busy and making money, then we can progress and be known as one of the best top-end real gastropubs.
So that's the goal is it to benchmark yourself against the Hand and Flowers?
Yes, of course, to be placed in the same sentence as these types of people is a goal.
And you've just recently won an award I understand?
Yes that's right, Publican Newcomer of the Year, which is good because we do have people that just come here for a drink, so it just keeps that bit of "˜pubbiness' and hopefully people don't feel that we are moving exclusively into being a restaurant. We are serving the community, and we've got a lovely little village here. So we want to keep that side to it.
Gastro pub, good term, bad term, blessing in disguise? A bastardised term maybe?
Yeah I'll probably go for the latter, yeah definitely a bastardised term.
I think it all started with the right ethics behind it didn't it?
Yes gastronomic, and I would definitely say we are gastronomic and we are a pub, so we are a gastropub. That's why I would probably use the term real gastro pub - what a gastro pub should be.
I guess like everything it becomes a bandwagon and everybody jumps on it.
Yeah, the same as the local produce, it's all the same.
Which was going to be my next question, driving here today beautiful, beautiful countryside, lots of great suppliers here in Lancashire, is that part of the cooking style, part of your ethos to use"¦
Partly! At this time of year just down the road we've got wild garlic so the boys go picking wild garlic for the chicken dish. Sometimes there's asparagus coming out of Yorkshire, and the beef comes from Yorkshire. But we use the dairy just down the road.
Do you shout about that in Lancashire that you're using stuff from Yorkshire? ((laughs))
I just had Enjoy England here yesterday and they've marked us down on the local produce.
Yeah all I have to say on that is that we use the best produce available at that time of year. So, for example, Yorkshire asparagus is very best, but as it warms up then we'll swap round and move onto more local asparagus, as the season progresses. So we get it from where it's best. In some areas the wild garlic's not flowering yet, but down in the local woods it is flowering and it's good. The beef we get from Yorkshire is fantastic. It's a great price and the customers love it. So why not have it on the menu just for the sake of having Lancashire beef on the menu, when it might not be as good?
No because at the end of the day you're actually taking something away from the customer. If you know that something is a better product, but it's back to this giving it to the customer the best you possibly can. Obviously running your own business comes with a lot of challenges what would you say has been your biggest learning curve since you took over the Freemasons?
In terms of managing them, resourcing them, keeping them or all of those things?
All of those things! I just treat every single member of staff differently"¦
Because they're all individuals aren't they?
You can't treat front of house staff the same as you can treat kitchen staff and you have to watch the pennies a lot more than you normally do
So when it's your own business and a plate drops you think, "˜Oh my God, that's twenty quid.'
Yeah, I think that's the one most chefs use as a concern - that it's coming out of their pocket.
So how have you combated those things, staffing, wherever you go these days staffing is an issue isn't it? What do you do to attract staff?
Again as we're progressing and we're becoming more known for what we do tomorrow, we've got our first stagier coming.
Fantastic where's he coming from?
Luke Thomas is doing stages all over the country and he works for the restaurant Bar and Grill. I think the problem with staff is when we started here, there was just no interest in what we wanted to achieve. We're still trying to achieve it but now we've got staff who have an interest in what we're trying to achieve.
They share your vision.
Yeah they want to produce the kind of food that we serve on the plates, whereas before, when I took over, I had five good chefs that didn't like doing that. It didn't matter what food they were producing they just wanted to get their wage at the end of the day.
Looking back since you started then we've talked about your challenges what do you feel has been your greatest success to date? If you could stop at this moment in time and look back and just say, "That's the one thing I'm most proud of?"
I don't know that's difficult.
Yeah, no, just the fact that"¦
The fact that you're still here?
Yeah, yeah! The fact that we're knocking on some doors
Depending on which political party you listen to today I mean some are saying we're stagnant in the economy, some are saying it's growing but what no one can argue with the last two years have been bloody tough for everyone"¦
"¦have you noticed that and did you change what you did? Did you have to become meaner, keener?
There are so many different places that produce the same type of food and as long as we stay ahead of them we'll be busy. I think that's it, make yourself accessible. Don't just say you're going to just do this type of food and ignore another. I think that we're accessible to as many customers out there - having a drink in the afternoon outside, or a three course tasting menu. Some might just come in for a bowl of soup, so I think that's the key to what we do and that kind of probably sums us up in a nutshell.
How important was it for you to not alienate your locals because at the end of the day it's a very small local community and I have known people in the past who have taken over places and are going to make them very food driven and have actually alienated the locals and that to a degree has been often their downfall.
It's still very accessible for all groups. The younger end of the community understands what we do and what they're eating. Some of the older end, for whom this pub was their own for 40 years, perhaps don't like it as much, but we still try our best to bring them in.
Who do you think has been your biggest influence in your career to date and why?
Difficult one! Many people - obviously people like my mum and dad who make you the way that you are. And a chef called Michael Short, a fantastic guy. He is fantastic in pastry and I was five years with him, which was really good. I wouldn't be able to cost menus, do GPs and things like that without him. Tight as anything!
You talked earlier about staffing and that's been one of your main sort of learning curves, obviously you've got bigger and you've expanded in terms of numberwise.
How important therefore is it to have a good team in place?
It's the most important thing.
And what sort of things do you do with the team to create that team ethic?
Well, we go out drinking!
((laughs)) Most chefs like that. That always works for chefs.
If you can get them on your side and you're the one that's leading by example then they want to go along with that and you'll get there. We used to do seven days last year and we're down to a six day week now. On Monday everybody gets a day off. Plus, I'd say you just to be there - you've got to be everyone's dad.
You have to a degree yeah you've got to be a social worker, a mum.
That's what I was saying you have so many different roles
You need to wear lots of different hats.
Yeah you have to try and"¦you've just got to remember that unfortunately not everybody has the same mindset as you. And I'm kind of getting there - not all the way there, but kind of getting there.
Last question then you've had great success with newcomer of the year, the pub awards, what does the next five years hold for you? Where do you want to be?
Like I've always said before that the food can be held in the same bracket as the Hand and Flowers and, still be doing our thing, then we'll be happy.
Would you ever see yourself doing, maybe not another Freemasons but would you ever see yourself taking another pub on?
Yeah we've looked into that. There are no rooms here, so I'm looking to do rooms and that would be the next step.
There's a lot of money in rooms isn't there?
Yeah. So that will be something that we will do in the future but only when we're happy that this place is getting up there and we've got the right staff that we can transfer into somewhere.
Do you ever see a time when you can be totally out of the kitchen?
I don't know, I just can't"¦the problem is when you've set a menu in place that changes seasonally. I've got a head chef now so, I don't know, maybe one day but I've not really too much interest in not being in the kitchen at this moment in time. So, no!
Well listen I wish you every success for the future.
Thanks very much.
Thank you for your time. Thank you very much indeed.