FOOD & DRINK / Haute cuisine down the boozer: Even before the recession, opening a restaurant was a sure way to clock up debt - or go bankrupt. Now, talented chefs are becoming publicans instead. Michael Bateman on the rise and rise of pub grub

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A CHEF from the Dorchester Hotel running a country pub in Surrey; a cook from John Tovey's elegant Miller Howe Hotel now the landlord of a boozer. What's going on?

Pub grub may never be the same again, and it seems we may have the recession to thank. The bad times in the restaurant and hotel business have presented chefs with new opportunities. A number of them, faced with the uncertain prospect of trying to buy and manage their own hotel or restaurant, have opted instead for buying or leasing pubs.

And since these landlord-cooks, this new breed of publican, have absolutely no experience of warming up catering packs of frozen food, they tend to astonish their customers with the sort of meal which would cost three or four times the price in a restaurant or hotel. Many of them are having tremendous success.

'It's the best news we could have had,' says Susan Nowak, editor of the new Camra Guide to Good Pub Food ( pounds 9.95) which is published this week. 'It represents the emergence of a new kind of publican.'

Two years ago, when Ms Nowak edited the last guide, she reported on the rise of the gifted amateur. But many of them rapidly went to the wall; she got news of one closure after another. 'I had a phone call from a pub landlady near Birmingham, a cook preserving many Black Country dishes of her area. She said she couldn't meet the demands of a new lease calling for thousands of pounds' worth of renovation. So she and her husband were taking early retirement.' Another of Nowak's favourite pubs, one in Northumberland run by a young couple who'd specialised in fresh food and had actually built their own smokery, was repossessed by the bank.

Then the new chef-publicans emerged. In the new edition of the guide, Nowak singles out three who show what can be done with a pub, with talent and determination. Here is a tale of three cooks, an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman.

THE CASTLE, CRONDALL

KEN TRACEY

KEN TRACEY is the Englishman, and a former chef at London's Dorchester Hotel. Now he is the landlord-cook of The Castle in Crondall, near Farnham on the Surrey/Hampshire border. It is a country hostelry opposite the church beside the village cricket pitch; here he serves up the most unexpected pub fare - such as Shanghai noodles, chicken in tarragon cream, grilled swordfish.

Ken, who is 37, has travelled the world with his pots and pans - on the basis that 'if you can boil and braise and steam and fry you can cook anywhere'. He's worked in hotels in Switzerland, Hong Kong and Dubai, eventually returning to his home county, Sussex, to work in in-flight catering at Gatwick Airport.

Four years ago he and his wife, Elizabeth, decided to strike out on their own and buy a hotel. They never got it, and in retrospect they thank their lucky stars. 'The recession was just starting,' says Ken, 'and fortunately we couldn't sell our house. We'd have had to borrow a lot of money from the bank, and immediately start to service that borrowing. Managing the financial side of a hotel, you put all your eggs in one basket - and if it doesn't work, you come out with absolutely nothing.'

By chance the couple heard that the London brewery Fuller's had a run-down pub nearby that it wanted to put back on its feet. 'It was a spit-and-sawdust place with virtually no food trade, but we were determined to do food.'

At first the regulars weren't so sure they wanted change. 'A pub is like a club,' says Ken. 'They don't like change, and we didn't go short of advice. 'That won't work,' some of them told us. But if you do something good, it's appreciated - and it gets around by word of mouth.'

Although he tailors the food to the clientele, the clientele in turn changes in response to the food, and people start coming to The Castle on hearsay. 'A couple told us the other day that they'd come up specially from Southampton.'

The modest prices are the big attraction: it's difficult to pay much more than pounds 7.50 a head for lunch with a drink, and the evening menu dramatically undercuts comparable restaurant fare. Daily specials include liver and bacon, lasagne, quiche, chicken and mushroom pie. But he offers exotic alternatives from time to time: Chinese spring rolls, Shanghai noodles, stir-fried beef with black bean sauce, which echo his Far Eastern experiences; also game in season, venison, pheasant, guinea-fowl, home-baked hams; and for an elegant whiff of the Dorchester, haute cuisine dishes of duck or chicken breast with Madeira or mango sauces. The only difference is the size of the portion. 'We wouldn't get away with serving nouvelle portions here,' he says. 'People are looking for a bargain. But we can manage this because we don't have restaurant overheads.'

BAY HORSE INN, ULVERSTON

BOBBIE LYONS

IRISHMAN Robert (Bobbie) Lyons, 40, was a a chef with John Tovey at Miller Howe, one of the grander hotels in Lakeland, for 17 years. Now he is Mine Host of the Bay Horse Inn in Ulverston, near Barrow. Though he's serving up pints of Mitchell's, the food has the unmistakable stamp of his former hotel - although it sells at about a quarter of the price.

You can only reach Bobbie Lyons' pub by negotiating an industrial estate. An unpromising site, and on its last legs when he came upon it. But his decision to take it on is justified by the spectacular view that greets you straight across the estuary to Flukeborough. Initially, Lyons had wanted to branch out on his own. With the encouragement of John Tovey, he started the Miller Howe Cafe, a teahouse, while continuing to work shifts at the Miller Howe hotel. When this became too demanding he had the idea of running a food-led pub with his girlfriend Lesley.

'I've always loved the atmosphere of old pubs, the beams, even the smell of the beer, and I told John Tovey I wanted to do a pub with food, as I'd want to be in the kitchen. I never fancied myself behind the bar. How do you handle trouble if people decide to take a load of glasses and start putting them in their car? You know, if you complain they're likely to break one and push it in your face.'

But happily it seems that a pub with good food doesn't attract blokes with bad manners. Over the last six years he's gone from strength to strength, building a conservatory dining area, and establishing six bedrooms in the pub which are used as a home from home for businessmen visiting Vickers and Glaxo, the major companies in the area.

And Americans. He had been complaining one day to an American woman about how difficult it was to generate business so far off the beaten track. She happened to be an editor on the American magazine Travel and Leisure and wrote an article about the pub in the magazine. Now its readers seem to have placed the Bay Horse Inn, Ulverston, on their itinerary along with Anne Hathaway's Cottage.

It's a bit odd to find Miller Howe comfort and care in a boozer in downtown Ulverston, but it's paying off now - and each month the returns are improving. 'Sometimes I'm so busy I don't know how I'm going to cope,' says Bobbie. 'Then we have a quiet week and I say, 'Oh God, the bubble has burst.' '

Bobbie Lyons has his own clear ideas of what constitutes a good pub. 'The first thing I did was get rid of the juke-box and the fruit machines and the pool table. Now it's just like a library, so you can literally sit down and have a quiet pint.'

Chips were out from the start. 'I've nothing against chips. I like them. But I don't serve them because no one wants the smell of fat frying.' He does serve a meat and potato pie, but most of the menu is pretty esoteric: cauliflower, Stilton and Guinness soup; savoury terrine with cranberry and ginger puree; Cumberland sausage with red pepper marmalade; pigeon breast with smoked quail's eggs; fillets of sole filled with scallops, prawns and water chestnuts. All the preserves, chutneys, pickled onions, beetroot and piccalillis are home-made - and so is the bread. Bobbie Lyons gets up at 6.30am every day to bake it.

The beer is important too; and the bigger his turnover the wider the range he can stock. The local Mitchell's is augmented by Moorhouse's of Burnley, Marston's Pedigree and Young's of London.

HOFFMAN'S, KIRCALDY

VINCE HOFFMAN

SCOTSMAN Vince Hoffman, 40, runs Hoffman's, on the harbour front at Kirkcaldy, in Fife. The stylish food he serves reflects a career as a chef in some of Scotland's superior hotels, in Edinburgh, St Andrews, and Aird, but these days his inventive cooking can be enjoyed at modest pub prices.

Vince and his wife, Jan, had an ambition to buy and run a hotel, but had to accept that it wasn't a realistic aim during a recession. 'Well frankly, we didn't have the money to buy a ruddy hotel,' he says.

When he fell out with his boss in the Kirkcaldy hotel where he was chef, Vince Hoffman started to look around for something else. 'I saw a pub which had a kitchen doing nothing. I put it to the landlord that I could do the grub and bring the customers in, and we could help each other. It worked out well enough. He took all the bar proceeds, and I took all the kitchen's'

Three years ago Hoffman went into partnership with his brother, Paul, a former surveyor. Paul looks after the bar, while Vince takes care of all the cooking. 'We share the business 50-50. I share his bar takings and he shares my kitchen takings. I have half of his overdraft, and he has half of mine.'

It's a successful formula. 'Since we've been doing this,' says Vince, 'we've started to hear of other people trying it. It's the food which brings people into the pub' - and not just any old food, but very good food. The Hoffmans have just won an Egon Ronay star.

The menu changes every day because everything is fresh. 'I don't have anything to do with frozen stuff. I have suppliers who try it on, but I just laugh at them. I can tell at once if they've brought something which has been defrosted. After that, they don't try it on again.'

You can have a good lunch here with something to drink for around pounds 7, and an evening meal for pounds 10- pounds 20. You can choose from a changing menu which may include Scottish oysters, Aberdeen Angus steak or haggis, or perhaps Chinese and Thai dishes, or even Hungarian and Polish specialities. Jan makes the desserts, sticky toffee puddings, meringues and ice-creams. All this - and children are welcome too.

Recipes: THREE COURSES FROM THE NEW PUBLICANS

HOFFMAN'S EAST FIFE SEAFOOD CREPES

Serves 12 as a first course

(reduce quantities by half or so, as you wish)

Pancake batter:

3 eggs

1 pint milk

1 1/2 oz melted butter

4-5oz plain flour

pinch of salt

The filling:

2-3lb fresh haddock, in one piece,

skinned and boned

1/2 lb shelled mussels

1lb raw king prawns, peeled, cut into chunks

1 pint fish stock

1 onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2oz butter

2oz flour

cornflour for thickening

1/4 pint double cream

salt and pepper

garnish of dill (or fresh herbs)

Mussels: Put about 2lb of scrubbed mussels in a lidded, heavy-bottomed pan and heat till shells open; remove mussels and add strained liquor to the fish stock.

Stock: Cover 2lb white-fish bones with water, add a chopped carrot, a chopped onion, a few black peppercorns and a bay leaf and simmer for 30 minutes, then strain.

The batter: Whisk the eggs, milk and melted butter, then the flour, beating to produce a runny consistency. Add a little water, but not milk, if it's too thick. Get a frying pan - preferably non-stick - very hot, and without using fat make the 12 pancakes one at a time. Stack to one side.

The filling: Fry the onion in a little butter till transparent but not brown. Add the garlic, reserving a few tiny pieces, and fry half a minute without browning. Stir in the flour, and cook gently for two or three minutes. Add the stock, and bring to simmering point. Add the whole piece of fish, and cook in the liquid gently till tender, about 10 minutes.

While it is cooking, using another pan, toss the prawns in the remaining butter, with the last pieces of chopped garlic, and a pinch of salt. Remove. Lightly break the fish into flakes, adding the mussels and prawns. Stir in the cream. If the sauce hasn't thickened properly, add a teaspoon or two of cornflour (thinned with a little cold water) until you achieve a good consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle a helping of seafood on to half of each pancake, fold over, and spoon more sauce on top. Finish under grill. Garnish with dill or fennel.

THE CASTLE'S CHICKEN BREASTS WITH TARRAGON

Serves 2

2 chicken breasts, skinned

1 glass white wine

1/4 pint chicken stock

2 tablespoons double cream

salt and pepper

four sprigs fresh tarragon

butter or oil for frying

In a frying pan lightly cook the chicken breasts in butter for about 10 minutes, removing them when they are slightly underdone. Cover them with a plate.

Deglaze the pan with the wine. Stir in the stock and tarragon, then beat in the cream, simmering till it thickens slightly. Adjust seasoning, return chicken breasts to the sauce and heat through. Serve with new potatoes and some fresh vegetables.

BAY HORSE INN WHITE AND BLACK CHOCOLATE CAKE

Serves 12

10oz chocolate biscuits

2oz melted butter

3fl oz liquid glucose (from a chemist)

2 1/2 fl oz water

3oz caster sugar

8oz best plain chocolate

8oz best white chocolate

3/4 pint double cream

1 egg white

cocoa powder for dusting

Line the bottom and sides of a loose-bottomed, 10-inch sponge tin with greaseproof paper. Break up the chocolate biscuits and whizz to a fine crumb in a food processor. Mix with the melted butter and turn out into the tin. Press down firmly and bake in a preheated oven at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for 30 minutes. Remove and cool completely.

Bring the water, glucose and caster sugar gently to the boil, stirring sugar to dissolve. Break up and melt the dark and white chocolate in separate bowls over pans of simmering water. Remove from heat and beat in the glucose mixture, divided equally between the bowls, mixing thoroughly.

Beat the double cream in another bowl until it forms peaks. Divide equally between the bowls and incorporate. Repeat procedure with the egg white, beating till stiff, and divide between the two bowls, folding it in.

Pour half the dark mixture over the biscuit base and chill in the fridge for a good 15 minutes. Take it out and pour over half the white chocolate mixture, and then chill again. Add the remaining dark chocolate, chill again. Finish off with the white mixture, and chill. When set, dust with sieved cocoa powder.

BEST OF THE REST

Susan Nowak recommends eight more pubs with good beer whose food makes them worth a detour: Trengilly Wartha Inn, Nancenoy, Cornwall (0326 40332). Chef: Mike MacGuire. Dolphin Inn, Gillingham, Dorset (0747 822758). Chef: Timothy Gould. Three Horseshoes, Warnham-all-Saints, Norfolk (0328 710547). Chef: Iain Salmon. King's Head, Orford, Suffolk (0394 17450271). Landlord-chef: Alistair Shaw. Three Crowns, Brinkworth, Wilts (0666 510366). Landlord-chef: Anthony Windle. George and Dragon, Rowde, Wilts (0380 723053). Chef: Tim Withers. Three Hares, Bilbrough, Yorks (0937 832128). Landlords: Peter and Sheila Whitehead. Mallyan Spout, Goathland, Yorks (0947 86486). Landlord-chef: Peter Heslop.

(Photographs omitted)

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