After a career as a chef on super yachts, cooking up luxurious fare for the uber wealthy, Chris wanted to start his own business. “I wasn’t sure where I wanted to be based, but my father lives up the road from The White Hart and when I saw it was vacant, I knew it was a big space and it felt like it would be a good opportunity,” he explains, adding that “it’s a playground for me to cook whatever I want”.
While Chris’ focus is very much on cooking, out of necessity he has been forced to venture out of the kitchen to work on the bedrooms, learning new skills along the way – as a plumber, electrician, tiler and interior decorator. “We cleaned up everything we could. We kept all the old tables, cleaning and polishing them to make the best of what we had,” he says. “We even fitted a brand new kitchen, but just two months in, we were hit by lockdown.”
As they come out the other side of the pandemic, Chris spoke to BII News in February, just as he was preparing to reopen in time for Valentine’s Day, after a quiet December and January. “We decided to limit opening hours and focus on improving the pub, whilst it was quiet. We’re putting new bathrooms into the upstairs bedrooms,” he says. With a heavy focus on the food, it comes as no surprise that The White Hart’s offer is 60% in favour of food, 20% rooms and 20% drinks.
And Chris’ Valentine’s Day menu showed that when it comes to the food, nothing is too much, with his ‘I've got my HART set on you’ starters, ‘My HART skips a beat’ main courses and ‘You’re my sweetHART’ desserts. At £40 per person, or £45 for the beef fillet, Chris consistently works to a GP of 70%, with guests usually spending between £50-60 per person – but with bills up to £300 for a special occasion, should guests choose Champagne to go with their lobster. “People who come to us tend to order starter, main, dessert and a bottle of wine but, of course, there are also customers who come in for fish and chips and a coffee. It varies, and we’re glad to be able to cater for a wide variety,” he explains.
As a destination pub, customers are happy to travel from Plymouth Totnes to celebrate an anniversary or birthday at The White Hart. “It feels great because we know we’re worth travelling for. Because we’re in a town that already has two other oldie local’s pubs, there’s no point in treading on their toes. The pub across the road has been doing pie and chips for the last 20 years and people love it. There's no point in me trying to compete.
“By doing the food that we do and offering the level of service we have, we’ve carved out our point-of-difference,” he says. Being careful to ensure the pub fits into its local surroundings, Chris has turned to a French farmhouse style inside. He adds: “There would be no point in us painting it bright, elaborate colours and having strobe lights everywhere. We try to complement the surrounding businesses, while still adding value to the town.”
Becoming a chef wasn’t always on Chris’ radar, in fact, he got his first job in a kitchen peeling potatoes and chopping onions aged 20. He was quickly recognised for his spark, and was given responsibility for looking after the desserts. This ignited a passion in him for patisserie, which was further fed when he went to the Ashburton Cookery School. “When I get a bee in my bonnet about learning how to do something, I just get on and do it as much as I can. In our kitchen, it’s just myself and my apprentice and so we do things like butchering our own meats, which is something I learned from butchers in France,” says Chris. “Doing our own butchery offers us more control with GP: it’s not just about portion sizes, but about how it looks on the plate. It also means we can use the trimmings from steaks to make pies, or cook the fatty trim into sauces. Nothing goes to waste. We basically get a free sauce or pie from doing it all ourselves.”
When creating a new menu, Chris says he looks back at his bestsellers from previous menus, noting down great flavour combinations that might have caused something to sell incredibly well. “We do begin with the classics, like fish and chips, but we make our own chips, tartare sauce and batter. With our burgers, we make the bun, the patty, the pulled pork, chutney, barbecue sauce and the potato hash that goes in the burger.”
Success is about building around the basics. He explains: “Every good pub should offer steak. I often use fillet because it’s low in fat and we can add flavour with butter, thyme, garlic and rosemary. We use the bones from the joints we butcher to make stocks and sauces too.” Chris’ love for good food becomes ever more obvious as he enthusiastically talks about how he structures his menus, starting with the meat, then adding texture with purees and seasonal vegetables. “Now We're heading into spring we’ll use things like the beautiful asparagus that’s available to us, and we'll just keep changing the dish to suit the seasons. If the produce is more abundant, it’ll be cheaper for us too.”
Achieving all this between himself and his apprentice, Chris outlines his approach to training. “My apprentice started off peeling potatoes and vacuum-packing meat and fish, to keep them in good condition, so that he learns to respect the products. Every time we make something new, he's learning and he has come on quite quickly. “I know I can trust him to make the bread rolls, sorbet and to get everything weighed out for me and the more technical dishes.”
When it comes to learning and support for his apprentice, Chris Couldn't be more engaged and excited: “The hospitality industry is used as a stepping stone far too much, so it's important to support staff who are passionate about becoming chefs and staying in our industry. We really want to preserve the hospitality industry in this country by making it better, which is all about finding great people who want to work in it.” These are sentiments the BII shares with Chris, as we work to promote how hospitality can enrich the lives of customers, community members, suppliers and those who share in our collective passion.