Steve Smith, The Devonshire Arms, Skipton

The Staff Canteen

Steve Smith started working at The Devonshire Arms Hotel in 2008, and within eight months had regained the restaurant’s Michelin star. 

He has also gained the restaurant four AA Rosettes. At the age of 24 he was the youngest chef to gain a Michelin star, which he won for Gordleton Mill, where he was working with Jean-Christophe Novelli. He then went on to work at places like Gidleigh Park, Heathcote’s and the Four Seasons Park Lane hotel.

Steve spoke to us about menu flexibility.

Can we start by you telling us how many menus you run, here at The Devonshire Arms.

Well, at the moment we have got three menus.  We, have the a la carte, which will  have between four and six starters; four and six main courses , five desserts and cheese.  Then we have a the tasting menu, which will be around six courses. Then we have a prestige menu, which will be around ten/eleven courses. OK. It can go up to twelve depending on what we do with it.

Right.  Are they inter-linked, those menus? Your Prestige menu does that showcase dishes on your a la carte menu?

Yes, I tend to find that the signature dishes that we have go onto the Tasting menu, However, there is a little bit of repetition in terms of some dishes, for example the Scallop dish will be on both.  They will both start with the same two Amuses and then as you go through the menus the  dishes change. I suppose what we have found is that these set menus now make up 60 -70% of our sales and people have moved away from a la carte.

Do you enjoy that from a Chefs perspective?  So people can taste a wider range of your food?

I think you enjoy it from a Chefs perspective because you are cooking a wider range of food; you are giving people more interesting dishes  you can play around with the flavour combinations on the menu a little bit more and more importantly these menus are helping us to refine and change our cooking. When you are cooking smaller amounts of food on a plate you have to revise the way you go about cooking. Simpler in effect.

So in essence they have helped us refine our food; to simplify it; and to make our kitchen more consistent.

And what would you say is currently your best selling dish?

Our best selling dish  is the Scallop dish, which I suppose has been a signature dish which has evolved over a period of seven or eight years. That's the Roasted Scallops with the Celeriac Truffle, Apple and Smoked Eel with a Truffle Vinaigrette.  And that dish has really developed and moved with me and the restaurants I have cooked in for a large amount of time.

Would you say that is reflective of the type of Chef you are? 

I suppose it is reflective of a style of food more than anything else. OK. It's the fact that you only really have three or four key elements on the plate all needing to be technically very sound and the flavours being well executed for the dish to work as a whole.  I suppose, it is also a direction that the food has taken in being quite stripped down now.  A few years ago we were a bit too complicated.  Putting things on to the plate for the sake of technique or a modern twist. Where as now we have really gotten a lot simpler and our palettes have gotten much better at  putting things together that work in harmony.

Yes, how often do you change your menus, Steve? 

We change menus with the seasons, really.  It is driven by seasons and also driven by what we can get consistently and in good supply.  You know, recently we had a great week for getting hold of a bit of (John) Dory and Halibut, so those items were on the menu.  This week, the weather is not so great so we will be struggling. So we will work around what we can get in good supply.

So you have got the flexibility to change dishes, have you?

Yes, we have the flexibility. If we need to we will re-print the menu everyday. When we get something that we are really happy with then it goes onto a menu.  We do keep diaries. Certainly here, over the last two and a half years, we have a record of every dish that we have had on the menu.  So you know, what time of year, certain produce starts becoming available.  We are building up a fairly precise tool/record .  So we know that when we start looking at  November we already have an idea of what we should be able to get hold of; when and who we can get it from.

That all helps with your planning.

Yes,  so when we come to putting a dish together we think we know what flavours will work and then we do four days of serious cooking and serious testing to get the dish right before it sees the light of day on the menu.

So, going by what you have said when you change a menu it is not a case of changing every single dish on that menu?

No, it is just unrealistic to ever contemplate changing the whole menu over a short period of time because it just creates carnage in a kitchen, from an organisational point of view. From a teaching perspective. It's not just me that needs to be able to cook these dishes - my Sous Chefs have to be confident in them and then the guys underneath them - they have to be confident because they are preparing it during service. Yes. If you haven't gone through the process of putting the recipes in place and making them aware of what is going on then we wouldn't have a very pleasant service.

And ultimately our customers don't get a particularly pleasant evening in the restaurant.

Steve, what makes you strike a red line through one of your dishes?  What makes you decide what is coming off?  Is it maybe because something is seasonal?

Yes, it maybe something that has changed seasonally - key elements of the dish that we have had on the menu for some time, for example Pea Volouté  once you get to the point that peas are no longer in season then it is pretty much time to say "Right we need to do something with Artichokes or Sweetcorn or something else.  Maybe the principal behind a dish will remain the same.  The Pea dish for example, is a chilled Pea Volouté with an ice cream and normally Parmesan during the summer and we serve it with,  Chicken Nuggets. Which are boned out flattened chicken legs, we fill them with a wild mushroom mousse.

I am glad you explained that - my mind was wondering there for a minute (Laughter). 

We cook them in a Water bath so they are just cooked; we portion them up;  panne them and deep fry them, so you have got variation of what a lot of people are familiar with in the restaurant.  The Chicken Nugget will remain the same, we would perhaps change the ice cream in the autumn when we would start to use autumn Truffles or we are starting to use Butternut Squash.  The soup will change depending on what vegetables we can get in really good condition and are at the height of it's season. So that is really how we go about changing dishes.

How bigger factor is customer feedback in the way you structure menus?  I Mean, if you put something on and it just didn't work customer-wise - would you change it?

I think we'd have to because ultimately. They are in the restaurant and they are the ones paying for the food.  I think one of the things that we have learnt over the years is that if we have got a dish on the menu and we are constantly prepping seven or eight portions of a dish that nobody eats then we are just wasting money. Time and energy so we will go in a different direction with it.  Sometimes it can be down to something as simple as the way it is worded on a menu, Our menu descriptions here are quite brief; quite to the point but they are designed to add an element of surprise to everything that everybody gets.  So if they read a dish they only get an idea of the key components that are in the dish, they are not entirely sure how it will be put together or how it's cooked which is where our relationship with the restaurant manager comes in, and the guys that take the orders. As they will ask everyone "Is there anything that you want to know?  Can I tell you about a couple of dishes ..."

Yes, I think that is important as well from a customer point of view, if they are questioned it is essential that the staff know.

Yes, it is incredibly important. They have to have that rapport and build it during an evening with a customer. They have to be able to judge whether someone is enjoying something or not enjoying it or just let them take their time with a dish. Feed back is incredibly important.

Absolutely.  Earlier, Steve you mentioned prepping and it not being used and therefore becoming wasteful, as Chefs now we are tasked with costing menus - do you cost all your menus? 

Pretty much everything that we have on a menu will be costed.

It's  on a day to day basis is going to fluctuate due to market. We make sure that we are aware of what we are spending and how much revenue we need to earn to justify spending that money. If a certain type of fish ends up over £15 per kg we leave it well alone.

OK.  And what GP do you work to?

Well, we work in the Burlington, to 70% which is a pretty decent GP and it pretty much comes in at that, thankfully !!! So my arse isn't getting kicked around the building on a day to day basis! (Laughter)  But as Chefs, we also have to have a responsibility to the people we work for as well as our customers and we have to teach the guys in the kitchen o be aware of stuff financially... Yes. ... because without that they are not going to get on; it gives them more respect for the produce they are handling, as they know  what it costs; where it comes from and it's an invaluable tool for teaching them to be respectful.  You know, if they waste a piece of Turbot they are not just costing us the price of the turbot we have lost £35, in revenue terms, so it is VERY important, especially in times which are now quite challenging. Where we do have to work harder for custom and we do have to make sure they get value for money and want to return to us.

Yes.  I mean, you mentioned Turbot there and that is quite a luxury item - do you have to balance that against using less fashionable, cheaper cuts?

I suppose across the balance of the menu we tend to find that it is not so much of a problem.  There are cheaper items on the menu.  Just because we have a piece of Turbot on - if the dish doesn't sound well or read well then it doesn't sell, so the skill really is in trying to make sure that the dishes you have got on the menu are exactly what they say on the tin!  The way that you have described it is right - if you have described it as Turbot, Shrimps and Cauliflower then they must be Turbot, Shrimps and Cauliflower in the dish. Yes. The customer is not sitting there thinking "Where's the Shrimps?  I can't taste ..." Yes. So I suppose actually looking at how you word menus -  is a massive tool. If you get descriptions wrong on your menu then it doesn't portray you in a good light . Customers have got issues with the ingredients on it or what they have perceived it to be.

Absolutely.  I took on board about what you said earlier about getting the descriptions right because that is the first point of selling a menu, if they are not right ... 

Then are people going to enjoy it, but ultimately if it is misguided and there is an element of that dish that they think is going to be prominent but it's not worded in that way then they are ultimately going to be disappointed.

I suppose the other thing is when people are paying as much money as they do do in restaurants now at the top end, when they have a bad meal they are quite happy to tell us and they are quite happy to tell us what they think we are doing wrong.

Yes, I guess that comes with the territory - the more people are paying the more you have got to get it right and if you don't people are going to be vocal.

But I suppose the other thing is, if you do get criticism from a customer being open and saying "Yep, he's made a point let's have a look at it."  If we don't think it's made with any foundation then we will move on, carry on and not do anything.  You know yourself, if you are honest with yourself if it is wrong then it's wrong and you stick you hands up and you go " Sorry."  Because of the amount of work we do on dishes to get them right on the menu then that doesn't happen very often - you know one person in perhaps five hundred will have a massive issue. The other part of it is in perception.  If somebody's perception of something is perhaps different to how it has been worded again that then comes back to trying to get your descriptions accurate.

Yes,  in terms of seasons, you mentioned seasons - what, as a Chef is your favourite season?

Flip in hell!!  I suppose ... the thing with Chefs and seasons is you are always looking forward to next season, I mean we have been looking forward to a lot of the root vegetables coming through; we have been looking forward to getting our hands on the range of beetroots that we have got in the garden; we have been looking forward to being able to put venison, grouse and pheasant and partridge back onto menus but as soon as we get into January we be saying "Can't wait "˜til spring when we can  start getting first season morels, so I suppose my favourite season is ...

The next one! (Laughter)

Yes, it is because we are always looking forward to what's coming next.

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Editor 26th January 2011

Steve Smith, The Devonshire Arms, Skipton