Roger Jones, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 31st July 2012
Roger Jones has had a Michelin Star at The Harrow since 2006, and has been awarded three AA Rosettes for the past seven years, but he started his career working for the government. Roger cooked for Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street, served the Royal Family and at the age of 21 he was the youngest chef to run a state banquet at the Guildhall. Roger’s passion is fine wine, and he often visits Australia to add to his collection. Consequently he has a reputation for excellent wine knowledge, and is a Decanter World Wine Awards judge for Australia. The Harrow won AA Restaurant of the Year 2011, and their signature dish is lamb’s fries, otherwise known as lamb’s testicles.   Roger thank you very much for inviting me in it’s wonderful to come down and see you. Talk me through the number of menus you run here at the Harrow. All our menus are available both lunch and dinner. An à la carte, a set lunch a tasting menu and a gourmet menu. Now the slight difference to most people is that every single dish, whether it’s à la carte, set lunch or whatever, it’s matched with a different wine. We’ve been doing wine matching now for ten years, so obviously a lot of people do it now with gourmet menus but we were the first to do wine matching with every dish. How do you find the great British public’s perception to wine is now? Has it changed in ten years? People are spending a lot more on wine, the price on a bottle of wine or a glass has certainly risen hugely, our wines by the glass  are not cheap house wines, but expensive good quality wines. Perhaps a Penfold’s Grange, a £400 bottles of wine, which we sell at £30 - £40 a glass, but in smaller measures. How do you structure your menus then? Do you work from the wine to the food or from the food to the wine? It’s a combination because I've got hands in both sides, so besides cooking and everything else I do a lot in wine. So it’s a bit like bread and butter, when I write a menu down instantly I know which wine… Is that from sort of years of having a memory bank? No it just comes naturally, probably from having the opportunity to sit on so many wine tasting panels. So how do you go about structuring your menus then? It depends what’s available. We can change our menus and we do twice a day, We don’t print the menus until quarter to 12 or quarter to seven daily. So you're very seasonally driven? Seasonally and daily, we’re on the phone to the fishmonger, I hear people say they get fish delivered every day and order straight from the market, being that far from the sea its slighter harder for us, I'm on the phone to the chap at six o'clock in morning when he's at Newlyn Market, but that catch at six o'clock doesn’t get to me that day obviously it’s the next day. I mean if you do get it straight off the day boats and on the plate you couldn’t eat it anyway because most fish need to relax for 24 hours from death.. Talk us through a dish at the moment that’s on the menu that would typify your food style. We do something that few people do here in England is lamb’s testicles. We call them lamb’s fries because testicles written on the menu doesn’t sound very good. And are they popular? Very popular. Wow. It’s a little bit like the old ‘I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here,’ sort of thing isn’t it? You’d be surprised they taste in between chicken and turbot, tender, very sweet, but the secret is you can only use them a certain time of the year, June, July, August, that's it, without going into the technical details because that time of the year they’re quite clean, they’re fresh and they’re perfect. They go off very quickly. Is that something you've been serving for a long period of time? Yes. Okay so your clientele is familiar with that? Absolutely yes. What about when you have new customers in what’s the sort of reaction to that sort of dish? Sometimes people say, “What’s lamb’s fries,” and you’re not going to hide anything so the answer is, “Lamb’s testicles,” and the reaction is… Oh my God. …oh my God or, “Ah we’ll try them.” I mean the good thing is they’re 10p each and you get two portions. If people are going to a restaurant like this they want to put their trust in the chef, it’s nice that they have confidence in you. You can’t buy lamb’s testicles in England it’s not legal tender I don't think. So these come from Wales, I was brought up with them, every Friday when I was a kid we were served them. Mum used to slice them up, put them in cornflour and deep fry them and it’s a normal staple diet in West Wales. How do you cost your menus Roger? You’re a business owner, it’s wonderful to have great things on your menu but we are all here to make money so how do you cost your menus? Well all our starters are the same price, so they’re 15 pounds. Some we lose, some we gain. So sweetbreads, or fries we gain. Lobster we’re going to not hit our target on it. We do have some nights where we go, “Bloody hell we’ve just sold 28 lobster starters and we’ve sold none of the lamb’s fries at 10p a portion,” but it averages out and we hit a GP of 73, 74% on average throughout the year. We only buy prime cuts so we have to be very careful. Our wastage is pretty minimal. But do you have a formula, say if your starters are £15 do you have a formula that says your starter can't cost more than £3 or whatever? No because something like lobster will cost more, £6. It has to average out and we’re small enough to control it. If it was a much bigger enterprise you couldn’t do it. How big a driver in menu change is customer feedback, you've got a very regular clientele here but if people simply just don’t like something does that constitute menu change would you stick with it? I mean some people don’t like certain things on the menu. Which is normal isn’t it? We had a letter from a customer and said that they were fed up with the same menu every time they came and every time a season changed, so in  August they said we’ll always see salt marsh lamb why can’t you do something different? Well I just said to them, it’s very nice that you come ten, 12 times a year but in August salt marsh lamb is perfect and we don’t really want to do calf’s liver as the lamb is really the best on the market. A few people say that but the circle goes round and unless new produce comes on the market we’re not really going to change it. I mean the important thing for us is outside the door there's a slate, plaque with all our suppliers engraved, so lobsters come from Danny who’s got one boat in West Wales, we buy salmon from Ronnie, Ronnie the Fish, who’s got half nets up in Scotland. Is provenance very important to you then? Yeah it’s the quality. I'm very anti organic because I think it’s just a complete scam. What we need is natural free-range food, animals cared for as if they’re your kids, if they need Vitamin C, if they need medicine give it to them. We want proper old fashioned food, organic is just animals being fed on organic pellets, it’s nothing about natural… But it’s a lovely banner and bandwagon that everyone’s jumped on isn’t it? Well they all did, I mean Sainsbury’s for years had five to six aisles of organic, now… Is quality more important than local? Yes I  mean if the (remove) Doves Farm was in Scotland I’d still buy from them. It’s the quality that drives you? Yes. I think the other thing is a restaurant saying, “We only buy local,” why would people go to it because the local people can go and buy all that produce, customers want something which they can’t themselves… Great if everything around you is the best that it can be but the reality of that is it’s not going to be. We source truffles locally. We are the only commercial truffle hunters in the UK. Okay. And how do you find the quality compared to the traditional of France or Italy? The quality of our truffles which are summer truffles has been quantified by Roger Phillips who’s the Britain or Europe’s top mushroom mycologist, as the finest he's ever seen. Read his book if you don’t believe me. Wow. There's samples of them at Kew. He's had to rewrite his book. We found them originally nine years ago. And do you use the traditional method, dog, pig? What do you do to… I used to use my son because he was quite short then. And cheap. And cheap, we called him the Piglet and when Sky TV came down to film where we were finding them or talk about it, because we couldn’t take them to the site because they might give away the secret, they said, “Could we see the piglets?” and we said, “Well he's at school,” and they said, “You send a pig to school?” “No, no it’s our son.” So because he's quite low down what you do is you walk around and you feel the golf balls and as soon as you feel that sort of ball you bend down and you pick up the truffle……then put a piece of string to the tree, draw a circle and you just pick them up. We never dig for them because that spoils them...so over the last nine years by not digging, by allowing 50% of them to go rotten and just remain there… Almost like a fertiliser I guess yeah? Yeah the crop doubles every year … Where are you on the whole foraging bandwagon at the moment? To be truthful I can't be arsed but with the truffles for us I’ll go and do it but the farmer who owns the land it’s him and an old chap who actually forage for us. It’s quite fun getting but I don’t have time. I've got a couple of guys who bring stuff in which they forage for me which is great. If I had time to do it great but I just think there's more important things I can do. Roger last question for you then if I may? You’re very seasonally led but as a chef what’s your favourite season and why? I think for me probably again because we do a lot of fish throughout the year which is quite easy to get hold of because we’ve got great contacts with day boats, doing things like woodcock, snipe… So are you hoof and feathered or one or the other, both? I’m more after feather, so I'm after proper English partridge. I think there's very few people who are doing English partridge now as opposed to the red they’re three times the price but the quality is brilliant. You've got to be careful where you source then from because for years they got quite rare. There's a lot of farms now putting hedges back in and thankfully we’re seeing them again. Woodcock too, there have Stornoway Black Pudding been lots around so that's a great bird to use and obviously grouse and for us it’s a huge seller, Well we’re not far away from grouse now so we’re getting very close. hopefully the weather will brighten up. Roger thank you for inviting me in it’s been wonderful to come and talk to you and I really, really appreciate your time. No problem Mark. Thank you very much indeed.
Roger Jones Vice Chairman & Fellow The Master Chefs of Great Britain
Owner & Michelin Star Chef of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn
Consultant Chef to The Park House Club Cardiff
Australian Wine  Judge for The Decanter World Wine Awards
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 31st July 2012

Roger Jones, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn