Name: Chris Lee
Pub Company: The Packhorse Inn/Chestnut Inns
Job title: Executive Chef
Tell us about your career path:
I was born and bred in Kent but I studied catering in Northampton on a day release scheme at Northampton College. After that I got some experience under my belt whilst working at the Windows restaurant at the Hilton Park Lane and at Fawsley Hall Hotel in Northampton.
In general, I’d like to think of my style as very much self-taught – inspired by eating out as much as time allows, at the very best restaurants in the country.
My big break came when Suffolk farmer and businessman, James Buckle, bought Bildeston Crown in November 2003. My wife Hayley and I ran the pub as chef and manager for 10 years, during which time we won many awards and gained 3 AA Rosettes.
But after 10 years we were ready for new challenges. We joined Philip Turner – who had just set up Chestnut Inns – to acquire The Packhorse Inn, in Moulton near Newmarket. Now I’m the executive chef across a growing business – but the Packhorse is my baby. Last year we were awarded 3 AA Rosettes, which is huge. We’re the only restaurant in Suffolk with that accolade and so it holds enormous value to us. We also won “Best Food Pub” for the East in The Great British Pub Awards and were shortlisted for “Best Newcomer” in the Top 50 Gastropub Awards 2015. It’s a great feeling being recognised.
What is a typical day in your role like?
The first thing I do is the logistics – checking kitchen staffing rotas, food ordering and delivery, updating food costings, menu planning etc. The kitchen is a well-oiled machine when run correctly. Then it’s action stations and my team and I start our food prep. After the lunchtime service, I try to have a break – although sometimes there will be meetings to attend. These range from everything, PR and marketing to training and budgets. Then in the late afternoon it is back into the kitchen to prepare for evening service. The day usually ends around 11.00pm
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your role?
I’m happiest when I’m cooking. Food is my passion and I love to be in the kitchen. However, I am also in the position where I get to see members of my kitchen team grow. They take on new challenges on a daily basis, getting creative with their ideas and pushing themselves to new heights. I get a lot of personal satisfaction in watching someone start at the bottom, grow in confidence and skill and becoming able to run a kitchen of their own. We want to give young people these opportunities at Chestnut Inns and there is a lot of scope for chefs to progress within the company.
What do you love about being a pub chef?
Pubs are a great environment for both staff and guests – a real leveler for society. In the same dining area at The Packhorse Inn we can have a multimillionaire racehorse trainer and a retired pensioner who comes in for his daily pint. It’s the same with the food – whether we are serving fillet steak and foie gras or our sell-out fish and chips, the same care and attention to detail goes into every dish.
I love that gastro pubs are so on trend. Pub food can be Michelin starred or 3 AA Rosette quality, but it is served in the warm and friendly atmosphere of a pub. It is an exciting time to be in this part of the hospitality sector.
If you could give one good reason why a young person should become a pub chef what would it be?
Pubs are being recognised as creators of great food – and pub chefs are at the centre of that, the Gastropub Awards is a perfect example. Peoples’ interpretation of eating out is changing and pubs are perfectly positioned to fill niche and accommodate customer demand. Now is a great time to be involved. The sky is the limit for today’s pub chef.
What do you think the pub sector has to offer young people?
I think the structure of a pub company can be hugely beneficial. Groups of pubs allow for movement around the business, training in one place, before taking on more responsibility in another. Our pubs at Chestnut Inns are different sizes, which means a new employee can start small and work there way up to a bigger kitchen, before coming back to a more prominent position in the smaller one, and so on. It allows huge scope for what we can teach our staff, as well as the support we can give them.
What are the most important skills that a young person needs to have to succeed as a pub chef?
Being able to work as part of a team and enjoy it. Pub kitchens are often small and the unexpected is always a possibility, but you can meet every challenge if everyone pulls together. It helps to have a passion for good produce and appreciate what other chefs are doing – and if you like food!
What are your career plans for the future?
Chestnut Inns is a growing business and has acquired 3 venues in less than 18 months. I’m really enjoying the challenge of growing a business and I’m excited to see what the project throws up next.