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Why the countryside beats London for new restaurant openings

Why the countryside beats London for new restaurant openings

by Hugh Thomas 19 February 2020

Hugh Thomas talks to the chefs leaving the bright lights of London behind to open restaurants in the more rural parts of the UK, discovering the reasons why they’re swapping the buzz of the city for the country life.

Despite what they may tell you, there is no true farm-to-table restaurant in London. Or in any city in Britain, Europe and perhaps beyond. For all things London offers, a restaurant reflecting the extent of the quality and variety of produce reaped from the British landscape is beyond its reach.

Even the owners of those most closely resembling such a place, like Simon Rogan of Roganic in Marylebone, which is supplied by its own twelve-acre farm in Cartmel, would call it a stretch. ‘The main challenge with opening Roganic was sourcing sustainable and local produce for the restaurant,’ he tells me, ‘and transporting the ingredients grown up at the farm to London while ensuring they’re at optimum quality and freshness.’ Maybe it’s no surprise Simon’s newest, Henrock at Linthwaite House, has opened in the Lake District, a twenty-minute drive from the farm.

More tellingly, there’s been something of a country-bound exodus of London chefs of late – Merlin Labron-Johnson, Luke Mackay, ex-Rogan protégé Dan Cox and Dan Fletcher are a few who have recently, or are primed to, leave London to set up a restaurant in the British outback. In January, Dan Fletcher and former Soho House director Ben Crofton opened 28 Market Place in Somerton. Despite business being notoriously difficult for hospitality in the first month of the year, it’s the locals who’ve had difficulty – in finding a seat. I’m speaking with Dan on a Friday, and they’re booked up for lunch. ‘There are some lovely pubs and small tea rooms around here, but I think this is giving [the locals] a new dynamic,’ he says. ‘It’s something they were looking for and didn’t have.’

28 Market Place is a restaurant, bakery, and wine shop. Here in deepest Somerset, Dan has already forged the types of connections he’d not experienced while cooking with Phil Howard and Gary Foulkes. ‘Chris Whitmore, who’s a farmer I’ve just met, used to be a chef for Jason Atherton. He’s just become a vegetable grower and it turned out he’s a mile-and-a-half from us. He came into the kitchen with a box of vegetables and said to me, ‘Dan, these were in the ground an hour and a half ago.’ So many chefs say that’s something they wish they had, so it makes me feel very privileged.’

Dan tells me his mission at 28 Market Place is to champion the food heritage and growers, like Chris, of the South West. Not simply because they are local, but because their produce is some of the best he’s got his hands on. ‘Local growers want to recommend other ones – that’s how I’ve managed to get in contact with so many,’ he says. Dan’s clearly proud to put them on the menu, his dishes appearing as Pitney Farm winter salad, Bengrove Market Garden leek, and Ivy House clotted cream. He’d be mad not to. Those involved in the South West’s food chain are among the most forward-thinking people in Britain, starting up initiatives like the South West Grain Network – a union of indie bakers, millers, breeders and farmers all looking to develop wheat varieties and techniques that benefit one another, leading to better-tasting, better-growing and better-for-the-environment wheat.

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28 Market Place is a restaurant, bakery and wine shop all in one – an operation which would be much trickier (and costly) to open in the capital
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Local growers and producers are at the heart of the menu, much like many of the countryside's other new openings

Perhaps more than for the accessibility of top-drawer ingredients, opening a restaurant in the country is a personal quest. During his Great British Menu appearance in 2019, Dan was head chef at the Sky Garden’s restaurant on the roof of 10 Fenchurch Street. But before climbing the ranks in the capital, he grew up working in restaurants among the moors and dales of his native Yorkshire. ‘I went to London because I wanted to work for Phil Howard at The Square, and for no other reason,’ he says. ‘When I was there I got to experience the whole environment around food and how special that is. But cooking here resonates with me. I feel very much at home. I’ve done my time in London and have got everything I need from it.’

It’s a similar story for other chefs. At the end of last year, Merlin Labron-Johnson established Osip – a pocket-sized farm-to-table restaurant in Bruton, down the road from 28 Market Place – and had been eying up a return to rurality. In February, former Borough Market demo chef Luke Mackay opened High Grange in rural Devon, writing, ‘Each day our two-metre-square patch of fake grass in South West London becomes a dim and distant memory.’

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Henrock at Linthwaite House is Simon Rogan's latest venture, in the middle of the Lake District
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Merlin Labron-Johnson, meanwhile, has returned to his South West roots to open Osip, which showcases the region's producers and suppliers

If you’re brought up in it, the country is difficult to escape forever. I should know. A rural native living in South London, I’m currently surrounded by newspaper-wrapped glassware and boxes of books, ready for my move to a Somerset cottage – coincidentally – a short drive from 28 Market Place and Osip. But the lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Lee Westcott, famous for his time directing the kitchen at Bethnal Green’s Typing Room, last year took a leading role at Pensons in Worcestershire on the 1,200-acre Netherwood Estate – his first foray into the country. Though he tells me he loved the idea of growing his own produce and sourcing locally – coming across some ‘really passionate’ local suppliers – it wasn’t to be.

‘I wasn’t that fond of being stuck behind tractors on my drive to work,’ Lee says. ‘Also, staffing is a very current issue for most restaurants, and being in the countryside only makes this problem harder. But ultimately, I missed London. I missed the culture and the food scene. [Pensons] wasn’t right for me but could be perfect for someone else. Look at Merlin – the move is something he’s always wanted to do and he’ll thrive out in the sticks.’

The wave of openings in the countryside amounts to a growing breed of restaurant with certain advantages over its city counterpart. With the right people in the kitchen, rural Britain can produce a restaurant as exciting as any new London one. The big ‘but’ is – like with anyone fond of urban life – a chef’s willingness to live there.

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