James Durrant, The Plough, Andover, Hampshire

The  Staff Canteen

Since this interview Chef James Durrant is now Executive Chef at the recently launched The Game Bird restaurant in The Stafford hotel.  Former winner of Great British Menu 2014 and having previously worked in Claridge’s and Maze, James opened The Game Bird at the end of March in celebration of the diverse produce of Great Britain.

So James first and foremost thank you for inviting me in today, give us an overview of The Plough as a business.

The Plough is a rural country pub. We’re here to provide our guests with great beer, great wine and great food. That's really it at the moment.

You've had a very high profile background, Gordon (Ramsay), Jason (Atherton), why the sudden shift in operation that you’re working in? Why the change of direction in career? Is it a lifestyle choice? Is it to be your own boss? What’s the thinking behind it?

I want to do my own thing. I wanted my own restaurant, I wanted to be my own boss. As a family, my wife and I and the two kids wanted to do it outside London and for me a pub was the right thing to do. Restaurants in my opinion outside London are somewhere were people go for special occasions, maybe weekends, maybe once a month, a pub is somewhere where people go every week, come here every Sunday and for me it made it a more viable business much more obvious to say that..

What’s the goals for the business? Is it food accolade, is it bums on seats, is it profitability? What gets you out of bed in the morning? It’s bums on seats, it’s profitability first and foremost we’re here to make a living basically, we’ve got two kids to feed.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that is there profit is what you need?

It’s what it’s about and I mean yes it would be amazing if we could win a star  like Tom, I'm certainly not going down the route of chasing any accolades, it’s about creating a great product, serving good beer, serving good wine and just making people happy and wanting to return and hopefully in the end of it we’ll have a profitable, decent business where we’ve got a great living coming from it and if we’re awarded for that on the way then fantastic, if we’re not certainly not going to deviate from it and start putting tablecloths everywhere and increasing service just to try and win everything, it’s about making the patrons eat here and the customers enjoy what they’re here for.

How important is that for you, again with your background, to actually listen to the customer and give the customer what they want because you are a community pub and you are going to have people that are going to come in for their pint and their pie?

It’s very important. They’re paying the wages and without them we’re nowhere, there's no point in sitting here creating foams and purées and water bathing food all over the place and having two customers in the restaurant. Our most popular dish on the menu and it has been since we opened is fish and chips, fish chips and mushy peas and for me it’s actually been a lifesaver because we’ve been really busy in the kitchen and if someone wants just fish and chips you can just get it out, it’s done and it’s easy and it’s food that I like to eat as well. So why not do it?.

In terms of the clientele you’re looking to attract how important are families to your business?

Yes very much so. We’re open to everyone. I mean my restaurant manager hates having kids running around screaming.

It’s a difficult one isn’t it because you want to appeal to families but then you don’t want to put people off that having got kids.

We’ve got a decent balance here. There's a lot of families in the village who use us. We’ve got a really reasonable kids’ menu on and that attracts people here. Summer holidays, half terms, but it’s important for me to offer something to everyone.

You’re in a very rural community here, Hampshire some wonderful, wonderful, produce in and around this area is that predominant on your menus? Are you sourcing locally or how is your suppler network growing?

Yes it’s growing. It’s getting there. We spent a long time before taking over the place looking and researching the farms and the kind of suppliers in the area. We’re taking as much as we can from local suppliers but again sometimes you've got to go for quality and if it means you've got to go further afield to get it then you've got to go further and farther to get it. I think people get a little bit lost in the romance of pulling everything from, it’s all local, but if the quality’s not right then you've got to then just say, “Actually do you know what let’s go and get it from somewhere else because it’s better.”

 So quality will always win over local?

Yes for me it just makes more sense if the produce isn’t right we’re not going to use it. My veg supplier is based down in Salisbury so it’s really local. He uses numerous local farms but he also goes to Covent Garden once a week and he will get me whatever I need, whenever I need it. If the quality’s not right he’ll phone me up and just say, “This isn’t right we’re going to go and get it from London” So I just go with that.

And in terms of the business here how much of it is wet sales, how much of it is food?

At the moment on average 65% split really on the food side.

So people are coming here predominantly for food and then buying beverages whilst they’re here as opposed to just popping in for a pint?

Yes I mean we’ve got a couple of locals who do just drink but there is another pub in the village half a mile up the road, historically I believe before we took over that pub was known as the boozer and this place has always been known as an eating house. We also haven’t got a massive bar which if you’re sat in here we tried to make it as comfortable and as relaxed as we can but food’s creating the revenue so at the end of the day we need to make it profitable and we don’t make a major profit on beer and it’s not going to make us a decent living so we have to push the food side just to make it a viable business.

We’ve heard lots of horror stories about pubs, I don't know the exact statistics but you’re told so many pubs are shutting down week after week after week, why do you think it is at the moment so hard for pubs to survive?

It’s a tough market, full stop. I mean I think you've got to be attractive, you've got to be setting yourself aside from everyone else. You've got to be better, you've got to be offering something different and I think the pub companies and breweries will always make their money and always make their profits irrelevant of whatever anyone else is doing and you've got to go into these things with your eyes wide open well we’ve done that and we’re aware of what we’ve signed up to and it’s a matter of how do we make our money in the situation we’re in and we looked long and hard for a free house because we didn’t want to go down this route but after two years without having a job I started to get fat so we signed up for it and we’ve done it and you've got to find a niche in the market and you've got to be better than other people..

How many guys have you got in the kitchen now?

There's three plus myself.

And covers?

On average we’re doing around about 30 for lunch every day. We’re hitting on average we have 30 at dinner most nights. Weekends it picks up a lot so come Thursday lunch we’ll hit 50 covers for lunch and the same Friday, Saturday, lunch and dinner we’ll be hitting 45, 50. Sunday lunch now averaging 70.

You've mentioned the fish and chips but what one dish on the menu at the moment says, “This is me?” 

I've got a couple of dishes actually on the menu something a bit strange I put cod cheeks, we did a tongue and cheek, similar to what we’d done at  Maze, I suppose I nicked the whole title off Jason but…

There’s no point in reinventing the wheel is there?

No, no completely different ingredients I mean we did a tongue in cheek at Maze which was ox tongue and cheek and we’ve done this one with cod cheeks and pigs tongues with a lentil stew and carrot purée and baby leeks. So it’s just unusual and it’s tasty and it kind of sums up the idea of what we’re trying to do here. I'm not using expensive cuts of meat and yes we’ve got a couple of prime steaks on but the majority of the menu you will get pork belly, you will be getting pig’s head and you’re going to be getting the tongue and the cheeks and I'm trying to use cheaper cuts of meat and just show our cooking ability to make them taste great..

Last question for you then if I may let’s fast forward five years where are you and your family going to be in five years’ time? What’s the vision? What’s the goal?

That's a tough one that really. It’s hard to say.

I always like to end on a tough question just when you thought you’d got away lightly. Is it another pub? Is it retired? Is it a bigger car? Is it a bigger house?

Well I won't be retired I don’t want to be living above it but that'll hopefully change.

So you’re living above it at the moment yeah?

I mean I’d love to be saying yes in five years’ time I’ll have built up a great reputation and we’ll find a free house somewhere and we’ll do the same thing in a free house and sell that. If this place turns out to be suitably profitable then I don’t see why we’d be moving anyway. So it’s too soon to say. I think it will be easier to answer that after I've done my first year here anyway to see how it goes.

So I guess it’s fluid and it’s reactive?

Yeah, yeah very much so.

>>> Have a look at our jobs board for numerous head chef vacancies in restaurants and pubs like The Plough. 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 7th December 2012

James Durrant, The Plough, Andover, Hampshire