James Winter, The Butchers Arms, Gloucestershire

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th July 2013

James Winter, chef-patron at The Butchers Arms in Gloucestershire, is a 38-year-old chef from Bristol who originally wanted to be a journalist.

Taking a year out before going to study photography at university, James went to work in a kitchen and loved it so much he has stayed in kitchens ever since. In 2007 he opened The Butchers Arms with his wife Elizabeth and their three-year-old daughter Sophie as well as their dog (and pub mascot) Snoop.

Since then it has taken off and stayed permanently busy, winning a Michelin star and some rave reviews to boot, all the while with James as the sole cook in the kitchen.

The Staff Canteen caught up with him to find out about his philosophy of food and why a Michelin-starred chef is still doing his own pot wash…

What influences shaped your menu and cooking style at The Butchers Arms?

James and Elizabeth Winter
James and Elizabeth Winter

My mother is French and we used to spend a fair amount of time on holiday in France going round the markets so I think food was always there, subconsciously in the background. After I made the decision to take up cooking I went to work with Stephen Markwick who’s quite famous in Bristol; he was a disciple of Joyce Molyneux and George Perry-Smith, the original chefs from the seventies UK food revolution.

Of all the chefs I worked for he influenced me most because of his attitude to food: not being too complex, concentrating on the main ingredient, seasonality and locality – all the things now that are thought of almost as clichés but back then in the eighties were really cutting edge. He made all his own bread and stocks and used all the parts of the animal – all the things that everyone is doing nowadays, so he was really ahead of his time.

How did you come to open The Butchers Arms?

We wanted to open our own place and we were fed up with the fine dining scene. We wanted to open a real pub not a ‘gastro-pub’ which is a word I can’t stand and which to me sums up places that look the same no matter where they are in the country and serve the same clichéd food. I was looking for a place to buy and I drove past The Butchers Arms and I knew this was the place. I didn’t even need to come inside. We bought it in 2007 and we opened it up literally the next day. 

Palourde clams cooked in cider with parpardelle pasta chilli garlic

Palourde clams cooked in cider

with parpardelle pasta chilli garlic

We opened just for drinks at first to show people we weren’t going to turn it into a restaurant. We had literally no equipment in the kitchen apart from a bit we’d bought off eBay. One of the regulars here happened to be a kitchen fitter and he gave me the fridges on tick. I had one six burner stove and that was it.

And it all took off just from word of mouth?

Yes, we never did any press or advertising. I think we kept the locals on side by not making any drastic changes to the pub and all the local farmers really supported us. After a year or two the Good Food Guide called and told us we were in it. Then Mathew Fort came and gave us a good review and it really took off for us from there. We got the star in 2011 and obviously it went crazy again and we had a ten-day-old baby at the time. We probably turn away dozens of covers on a Saturday; at the weekend we’re booked up five to six weeks in advance.

And you’ve never thought about expanding, or at least getting some more staff in?

Not really, it feels perfect the way it is. I think if we wanted to do something else, we’d go somewhere else to do it rather than change things here. In terms of cooking on my own, it’s not something I want to do all my life but again it just feels right here. We do the covers we want to do and it feels like cooking for people in your own home. The most covers we do is 34 and we don’t do turnovers; if people are here, they’re here for the night. When we first got the star it went absolutely crazy, especially with having the new baby. We could have expanded then and had twice the number of tables but we didn’t want to because we’re not motivated by money at all. I’m motivated by the satisfaction of serving simple, top quality food.

The Butchers Arms
The Butchers Arms

Does a lot of that quality come from great local produce?

Yes we get Middle White pork from Richard Vaughn at Huntsham Court Farm in Ross on Wye. He’s been a great support and his meat’s amazing. I get my fish from Alan Sparks in Cornwall who also does the foraging for me; I get my mushrooms off him as well as my fish which he gets straight off the boats from Looe in Cornwall.

I get Hereford beef from Roger Warner, a local farmer who comes in here to eat. I get the oxtail off him, the ribs, the cheek and tongue with which I do a tongue and cheek dish. A local couple, Jane and Alex Morton from Vine Farm, come round twice a week with fruit and vegetables – salad, asparagus, potatoes, courgettes, eggs – things like that. They’re very much small-scale artisanal producers, very much like The Good Life!

Do you grow your own stuff?

We’ve started doing that because we’ve got about four acres of land here. We’ve put in about 50 fruit trees – damsons, quinces, crab apples, bramleys – I won’t see them of course; I’ll be dead by then but it’s nice to put those back because there used to be a lot of trees here before they were cleared for horses. I’ve also put in a lot of horseradish and rocket, but to be honest, with me on my own it’s easier to get other people to bring it in for me, and I need to focus on what I’m good at. I’m not a great gardener; I planted some trees the other day and Elizabeth went behind me replanting them all!

The Butchers Arms
The Butchers Arms

How would you say your food style has developed over your career?

I know it’s a bit of a cliché but I’ve grown the confidence to treat ingredients simply. I like what innovative British chefs like Heston do but I think too many chefs try to do it without really thinking it through like Heston does.

I’ve seen things like oysters served in sand so if you accidentally tip one of the oysters over it gets covered in the sand; you need to think these things through a bit more instead of  doing them just because they look nice or are in vogue.

That’s why I never put ‘local’ on my menus or write the names of suppliers because I just get fed up with it, when I go out and have to read a list of names all over the menu!

View James's recipe for pink praline & pistachio Macarons here

View James's recipe for Crispy middle white pig’s cheek with egg yolk ravioli here

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 9th July 2013

James Winter, The Butchers Arms, Gloucestershire