Aaron Mulliss on why The Hand and Flowers is still the only two Michelin-starred pub in the UK

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th June 2019

When Aaron Mulliss left The Hand and Flowers two months ago, it was bittersweet.

Aaron described the feeling as both "scary" and "exciting" and said he wasn't sure what to do next; he may just as well start his own business as he might seize the opportunity to work in a different kitchen.

Two days later, the former executive of the Marlow gastropub made his way to Stratford-Upon-Avon to record an interview for The Nightcap podcast and reflected on his tenure at Tom Kerridge's flagship. 

The chef said he cried three times at the Hand and Flowers: once, four weeks in, when he thought he was ready to leave it was so tough; a second time when the pub became the country’s first to receive two Michelin stars and a third time, the day he left.

When he started there, although the pub already had a Michelin star, he said it was a "tiny little battered kitchen" with a "corrugated plastic shack" in lieu of a potwash.

Despite working 90 hour weeks cooking for 900 covers and waking up clinging to pictures of his family, the chef saw it through, and, in 2012, he and his team's efforts paid off - in the form of a second Michelin star.

“It was surreal. Everything that you’ve worked for and you’re constantly driving for. You never think it’s going to happen, because if you do, I think you’re nuts.”

“It was like winning the lottery. It was crazy.”

The secret the Greene King pub's success, he explained, is the "elevated simplicity" that characterises Tom Kerridge's food; taking dishes like soup and lamb bun and cooking them to the highest standard.  

“It’s having the same respect whether it’s a potato or a fillet of beef or a piece of seabass or a tomato or a piece of asparagus – treat it with the same respect.”

With that goes the same kind of rigour required by Michelin inspectors, but at a much bigger scale: to get an idea,  the chef said that The Hand and Flowers gets through 150kg of potatoes a day and 200 kilos of butter a week. 

Aside from using technology like waterbaths for steaks and heavy-duty blowtorches for crème brûlées, the pub classics are prepared to a meticulous standard - the chips, for instance are cut with an apple corer to make sure they are completely identical - to the point that any changes would completely disorientate the team. 

"If you changed a garnish – just the simplest thing - the garnish chef’s head would just split, he’d be useless for about three services. Two lunches and a dinner, he wouldn’t know where he was. It’s bananas,” he laughed.

But a large part of the restaurant's success, as one would expect, is down to the chef owner's creative abilities.

For Aaron Mulliss, Tom Kerridge invented refined pub food. 

“As soon as you walked in the building and you met him and you understood his ethos, his drive, his passion and his personality – he’s a one in a million kind of guy. And you see that from day one,” he said.

And Tom Kerridge's food isn’t just consistent, he explained, it’s a reflection of who he is. “Tom’s personality is in that food. You put an Essex Lamb bun in front of someone, you’ll know it’s Tom’s.”

“To be able to stick one thing on a plate and send it – one thing, there’s nowhere to hide, it looks like an upturned toffee apple on a plate – they’re sending that out and a customer looks at it and says: ‘where’s the rest of it?’ But they eat it and they understand. The guy’s got skills.”

Despite having left, Aaron said he would always look back fondly at his time at the Hand and Flowers.

“It’s very special, I’ll always hold it close to my heart. It’ll always be home. It’s somewhere that I’ve invested a third of my life and the place is very special.”

Watch Tom Kerridge talk about stepping back from running the day-to-day operations in the kitchen at The Hand and Flowers, his growing restaurant empire and his responsibilities in the face of increased media attention: 

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th June 2019

Aaron Mulliss on why The Hand and Flowers is still the only two Michelin-starred pub in the UK