Lancashire chef Robert Owen Brown – famous for his crispy squirrel and Vimto Trifle – is the new tenant and head chef at the 1850 The Hinchliffe – country pub and restaurant in Cragg Vale, Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. My first impression is watching him tootling over the little bridge towards the pub in a white van with the words ‘Cheaper Van Hire’ plastered on the side, giving a cheery wave. It left me intrigued as to what I could expect from this Mancunian red-headed offal-loving chef dubbed the ‘champion of the north.’
THE Hinchliffe Arms, (JW Lees pub) is named after a fabulously rich mill owning family who lived up the valley at Cragg Hall. It is located just off the B6138 road, the longest continual ascent in England, made famous by Le Tour de France.
It was the managing director of JW Lees, William Lees Jones, who persuaded Robert to venture into Yorkshire. Robert had sworn blind he was never going to run another restaurant. He was more than happy running pop up events and cooking for private or corporate events. “I agreed to take a look,” says Robert. He drove down the lane and over the little bridge, a place where Postman Pat in his little red van would feel right at home, and fell in love with the place.
Robert insists, from a business perspective, the pub’s car park and proximity to the church was the deciding factor. “It’s going to make one of the best wedding venues in Yorkshire. We can put a marquee in the car park, we are creating a small woodland area and we will offer hog roasts. Perfect!” Just under six weeks into his tenancy, he already has a christening and a high profile wedding booked.
Born in 1969 in Stockport, Manchester, Robert insists this is where he plans to settle. He has a reputation of turning a place around, getting good reviews and then flitting off. “If I am brutally honest, this is my last hurrah,” he says. One suspects his little girl Alice, is the driving force here. “I love the fact it’s a little village pub. It’s got a great little community and has a good village school. It’s got everything I want for my family. I want this to become the posh pub in the area and I use the term posh loosely.”
And what about crossing the Lancashire – Yorkshire border?
“It didn’t even enter my head that I had gone into Yorkshire. I didn’t think ‘I’m leaving Lancashire, what am I going to do? My tag will go off,’” he says.
Classically trained Robert cut his cloth at The Midland Hotel (The French). Despite being mercilessly bullied (he calls it character building), he was privileged to work as part of an 86-strong brigade where everyone had their role – butcher, baker, classically trained specialist chefs and three florists upstairs.
“For a young working class lad from Manchester to be polishing silver pots and things, it was as good as getting on the telly,” he says.
But he is best known for turning The Mark Addy on the banks of Salford, Manchester, into an iconic pub. Robert, along with Keran Douglas-Clark, his right hand man at The Mark Addy and now general manager at The Hinchliffe, turned the tatty looking industrial building with odour coming from the toilets into a top place to dine out. It even made it into the Top 100 restaurants in the UK.
The fundamentally shy stocky chef, with his unbuttoned waist coat, ginger curls and beard who insists on calling men sir and women madam, describes himself as the northern disciple of Michelin starred chef Fergus Henderson (St John, London). The two are good friends. It was Fergus who initially gave Robert the confidence to revisit the offal’s of his childhood and turn them into tasty, appealing dishes.
Therefore, it is of no surprise that dishes such as pickled tripe, southern fried crispy squirrel and octopus stew with Yorkshire chorizo, put The Mark Addy on the map.
“Food should be honest,” says Robert. “A piece of salmon should look like a piece of salmon. I am not in the business of turning it into a circle and then piping smoke up its box and making it look like a dandelion. It’s not what I do.”
Robert’s father was a driver in the newspaper industry, his mother a legal secretary. The family lived in Moss Side for a while but then moved to Radcliffe, the hamlet in the Irwell Valley. As a young boy he did a paper round and on cold days, his mum used to put two boiled eggs in his pockets to keep his hands warm. Eggs he would then eat after he had finished his round. He wasn’t academic but showed promise in Domestic Science. A school exchange with Bury’s twin town of Angouleme in the Dordogne introduced him to the French devotion to the stomach and their natural use of seasonal ingredients and the no waste nose-to-tail philosophy.
“If you care about provenance this place is a chef’s dream” he says. “My producers are right here, standing at the bar.”
“I can see the Saddleback pigs we use from the back door of the kitchen, the guy that brings my eggs sits on the end stool near the bar and is having a pint, and I have an arrangement with the farmer there,” he says pointing up the hill. “He’s got a small herd of Aberdeen bulls for us ready to go. We have access to organic courgettes, big tomatoes, wild garlic that grows around the land in season, and nettles that we have used for the curd cheese.”
Robert has taken a soft approach since arriving at the pub just under six weeks ago. The menu has been very condensed, simple and pub classic. “I have to have a burger, a steak (albeit it being an absolutely fabulous piece of Aberdeen Angus beef), fish n chips and a pie on,” he says.
“I don’t want to scare people off. I know there is a client base here. I am always going to have to have those things on the menu but it’s just how we do it and add the cheffy bits.”
The folk at Cragg Vale have given him the green light, especially the gentleman who left freshly shot grey squirrels at his back door that Robert created his signature dish, southern fried crispy squirrel. It was a big hit.
“We developed a dish the other week with kidney, tongue, oxtail, sweet bread, a bit of liver, good beef stock reduction served with horseradish dumplings. I was really pleased with it but thought it wouldn’t sell. But all 18 portions flew out of the kitchen.”
Although the pub classics will remain, signature dishes such as Vimto Trifle or in-season delights such as razor clams, saddle of red dear (venison) both from outside Fort William and fresh scallops from Isle of Mull will appear on the menu giving diners every reason to keep returning. You may even have the chance to savour the Craggy Egg, (pickled egg, wrapped in 60% sausage meat, 40% Bury Black pudding, smoked paprika and English mustard).
So.. Is this going to be a gastro pub?
“Will somebody please come up with another word! Why have we got to use a French term for a blimming English pub that happens to serve good food; it drives me crackers!
“A pub should serve good food. It shouldn’t have to be special and given a title because it does what it is supposed to do.”
Gastro or not, last Sunday’s menu offered delights such as Macaroni with Whitby crab, chilli flakes and herbs, Sunday roasts of local aged beef sirloin with Yorkshire pudding, roast ½ poussin (baby chicken), and creamy fish stew with little peas and wild herbs.
Robert’s deliberate use of little peas and not petit pois on a menu, whilst at The Bridge pub in Manchester intrigued national food critic Jay Rayner, and formed the basis of their mutual respect.
Disturbing the chef during lunchtime service with the question: ‘Little peas, why not petit pois?’ sent Robert into a fury: “The peas aren’t French, I am not French, the pub is not in France why would I call the peas petit pois?”
“Peas in this country are a wonderful little product. Why do we have to put a French label on it just to make it more attractive?”
Robert is now one of four panellists on Jay Rayner’s BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet Saturday morning/Wednesday afternoon show – the food equivalent to BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. Robert does three shows out of a series of eight and travels the country with Jay discovering local produce. His last show – to be broadcast on July 29 at 10.30am – highlights local producers in Kingston upon Hull, the UK City of Culture 2017 – another jaunt into Yorkshire.
“When I first started banging on about local produce, people thought I was mental. Yet a French, Italian or Spanish chef will always cook regional because that is where the best produce is and it makes sense to them. Why should I be messing around with kiwi fruits or star fruits, I come from Lancashire?”
Robert recalls working at The Chester Grosvenor aged 16 cooking French pigeon squab, passion fruit and English peas. “I had to take the peas out of the pod cut them in half and pipe carrot puree back into the pod. It looked phenomenal, all those colours, but I remember thinking this can’t be right. It didn’t make sense. Is that all we do? Cook to make pretty pictures?”
He can think of nothing worse than achieving a Michelin star. “I wouldn’t want to go for one. It’s not my thing. If I was given one, I would give it back. I would explode with the stress of looking after it.”
So far, his foray into the Calderdale valley has been well received. “We have a long way to go with the food. I am building my team and I am looking for passionate chefs.
“I can teach skills but it is very difficult to instil a work ethic and passion especially for the raw ingredient.”
And what about working in the confines of a tenanted pub? “We can’t just stock any old alcohol, which, in all fairness isn’t that much of a problem as JW Lees own Willoughby’s an established wine merchants. The Pinot Noir and white Rioja is selling well so we know there is a market for good wines. We aim to serve five bottles of red and five whites by the glass and we are allowed a guest ale.”
Robert has a lot of plans to bring exciting pop up events, high profile guest chefs and food and drink dining experiences to the The Hinchliffe. It’s a case of…watch this space.
Robert’s home comforts:
Food brings up location and places. On a wet soggy horrible day I want sausage and mash or a pie but sat by the sea, it has to be fish n chips. I would happily get in the van and drive 400 miles to Oban in Scotland just to eat a crab sandwich. I love offal, game and fish. Offal is my really big thing and I have slowly been sneaking it in with the locals and they are eating it.