'We've got to be pro-active and react to what's happening'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

The kitchen operation at Ribble valley's Freemasons at Wiswell has always prioritised mise en place to ensure services run smoothly. 

But since the pandemic, Steven Smith, chef patron of the multiple award-winning pub, now in its tenth year, has made the most of the refurbished space and has ramped up the prep even more.

By taking on more staff to work weekdays, service is streamlined, meaning he and his head chef and business partner Matt are able to manage it with fewer people than before. 

"We've flipped the whole kitchen," he said. 

"We always were very mise en place heavy and then service was kept smooth, crisp and clean," but now, he explained, "we have more staff working Monday to Friday doing preparation than we have staff doing Saturday Sundays actually cooking."

Not only has this helped them remediate some of their staffing issues, the chef said, "we're cooking better than we ever have, we've slimmed down the menu, we've really thought about simplifying a lot of dishes and it's made the food better."

Adaptability is key

This isn't a one-size fits all solution by any means, nor would they forego additional staff moving forward, but shows that showing flexibility goes a long way. 

"I've been doing this a long time now, it's been a given that you go in and do what's necessary. But to close down, take a step back and personally think about these things, you do realise that you've been doing it wrong for a lot of years." 

Instead of getting upset about the current situation, he added, "we've got to be pro-active and react to what's happening." 

As far as his team is concerned, "everybody is getting the time off, people want to have a family and have different lives so we've just got to adapt to it." 

Working with a skeleton team is undoubtedly a burden on him and his head chef, but given the circumstances, the pair are doing their utmost to focus on the positives: a busy pub, fully booked accommodation, happy diners and happy staff.

"I just keep going. We'll get to a point - my head chef Matt has been with me for seven years now - so I'm putting things in place so that eventually we'll get to a point where we have a balance too."

"The food still has the same Freemason's touch and feel, we haven't turned away from that, we're still using all the same sauces we've always used and the concept of the dishes is the same, we've just refined it and taken a lot of stuff off the plate that didn't need to be there."

"It's about striking that balance of being able to deliver what we want to deliver as a product - we want to achieve so much more and I firmly believe that we can - but I also want people to feel like they've got good value for money, which is also really hard to do."

All in all, he said, "we're in that middle ground - we just need to get a few more staff in that want to stay for a good period, and we'll be in a good place." 

'They cannot believe how much work goes into a little pea tartlet'

The addition of the chef's table and the pub's kitchen bench, Mr Smith's, are helping to show guests how much hard work goes into producing the food, which Steven hopes will go some way to educating the public - and justifying the cost of eating out.

"It's been a good thing, guests have told me that they actually appreciate it more." 

"They cannot believe how much work goes into a little pea tartlet," he laughed. 

"The more we can get that out there, the better for the industry - not to charge money for the sake of it, that's wrong, but actually charge correctly for what the dish is worth."

Not only that, but he thinks having these open spaces could help show people what a functional kitchen operation looks like, dissipating any misconceptions guests might have.

"Hopefully it can contribute to getting that next generation interested," the chef said, "because if the parents see how we operate and it gives them the confidence to let their kids come into the kitchen, and go, 'it's not that horrible hostile environment everyone's been telling us it is." 

But rethinking staffing and engaging more with the public may still fall short of driving the necessary changes to make hospitality more viable. Steven would like to see more being done by the government.

"Nobody is having a go at them," he said. "There's plenty of things they could do contribute to things being better," such as subsidising employment while the sector recovers and extending rent moratoriums.

"Even leaving the five percent VAT in place would make a huge difference to the business and what you can afford to pay people."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 30th July 2021

'We've got to be pro-active and react to what's happening'