Kitchen gardens are back in style with restaurants throughout the UK going back to basics and letting doorstep seasonality lead the way. Produce Business UK talks to the owners of The Kitchen Farnborough about their transformation from gastropub to rustic kitchen and garden this year
Ex-Savoy and The Dorchester chef Anthony Robinson and food marketing business partner and wife Jo Robinson did something really brave at the beginning of this year – they changed a good thing.
Moving away from the experience of the last 15 years, which had seen them run their 300 year-old grade II-listed countryside inn on the main street of the village of Farnborough just outside Banbury on the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border, as gastropub The Farnborough Inn, they decided to follow their hearts and create something different – a restaurant and bar where they would like to eat. The couple wanted a seasonal, local and ethically responsible eatery, with no formality or stuffiness – they envisioned an edible garden, used everyday, and a menu full of British quirkiness and produce.
“The transformation was three years in the making – three years of different ideas for what we were going to do to inject a bit of life and interest for us,” says Jo, who worked for the former food regional marketing group, Taste South East, before she and Anthony sold their home and gave up their jobs to set up the gastropub and, latterly, the national fine dining catering business, Indulgence. “We wanted the kitchen to be a big part of our next step – we eat, sleep and breathe food,” she says.
The Kitchen is easy-going and informal
With no formal dining room or even any segregated eating areas from the bar, The Kitchen has been transformed into an easy-going place where you can eat good food from a well thought-out menu, whether it’s a three-course meal you’re after or a snack at the bar. “The change of scenery has really brought in new customers,” one of the staff tells me, as she resets tables with kooky mismatch cutlery, pale linen napkins and colourful tulips in an aluminum tin. “It used to be quite dark, and service was formulaic, but we’ve now opened up the colours, made it more accessible and filled it with personal finishing touches, we are attracting young people, as well as families and couples. There’s a new buzz to it.”
The surrounding gardens around the inn have been a large part of this new effect; The Kitchen has gone from using nothing homegrown to being 25% self-sufficient on vegetables, fruit and salad products in just three months. “Everything you see is edible,” says Anthony, as he takes me around the acre garden, which includes a mini-polytunnel full of micro-herbs, mini-vegetables and edible flowers and a collection of around 20 herb boxes, strategically placed outside the restaurant’s windows. “We have become veg-centric, without even realising it – it happened very gradually, but it does seem to be a trend. People are realising that vegetables, potatoes and fruit are just as important and sometimes more exciting that the meat or fish on a plate. Our dishes are usually led by the meat or protein still, but it’s the fresh produce that makes it shine.”
Lamb & Herbs in The Kitchen style
Clearly, there’s always going to be a need for good fruit and vegetable suppliers in this model, especially as the less abundant seasons come on. “We have been disappointed by fruit and veg suppliers in the past,” shares Anthony, who prizes freshness above everything. “But lately, because of changing the concept of the restaurant, our passion for fresh produce has been reignited and we are attracting lots of interesting suppliers. One grower-supplier just popped in the other day – we didn’t know him, but he has a five-acre farm, growing organic veg in the next village and supplies Angela Hartnett. That was by chance, but we now get a lot of what we don’t grow from him. And we use the companies around us; we have a Retro English Strawberry Tasting Plate dessert at the moment, which uses strawberries from a PYO farm, just down the road.
“We are not local for local’s sake though. If the produce isn’t good enough, we will either change it for something that is, or go further afield. We do try to stay within a 50-mile radius though.”
Big foragers, Jo and Anthony also use a lot of wild vegetables, flowers and mushrooms in their dishes. “Although we change the menu – sometimes daily – according to what’s available, we don’t allow it to restrict us when it comes to serving fresh produce. If we have been foraging and have found some flowers or mustard garlic, it goes in. We often just say ‘garden vegetables’ and people enjoy seeing what’s going to be on their plates next.”
Gardener Emma Stephenson tends the restaurants plots
The Robinson’s near full-time gardener, Emma Stephenson, is obviously a big part of the restaurant’s new look, tending to the multiple plots and communicating with the chefs as to what’s available to pick. “The relationship between the garden and the kitchen has grown organically – I know about the seasons and horticulture and Anthony tells me what he would like and we meet somewhere in the middle,” says Stephenson, whose new projects at the time of my visit where micro beetroots, snow balls (or tiny turnips), pineapple mint and dwarf garlic. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and we move onto the next crop, which keeps the menu really fast-paced,” she adds.
“It’s great for the chefs here to have that understanding of growing,” says Anthony, who is installing a mini mushroom-growing shed to produce the restaurants own shiitake for the next couple of weeks. “But, maybe more importantly, the kids who play in the beer garden [adjoining] are interested. They look in the polytunnel, ask what things are and hopefully connect the dots with the food chain. It’s a small audience, but it feels helpful for the future.”
And it’s not going to stop here; Anthony and Jo hope that The Kitchen will be 50% self-sufficient in homegrown stock by this time next year, especially if an arrangement with a nearby National Trust kitchen garden goes ahead.
“There’s a kitchen garden just over the road that belongs to a stately home, which is about an acre and is totally untouched,” explains Anthony. “A lady, who grew up there and is about 65, can remember pineapples being grown in the glasshouse as a child. It’s such an exciting prospect: who knows what we could grow next.”
It’s all about the food
Where: The Kitchen Farnborough, Main Street, Farnborough, Nr Banbury, OX17 1DZ, 01295 690 615 www.thekitchenfarnborough.co.uk
When: Friday and Monday 10.30am to 3pm/6pm to midnight; Thursday 6pm to midnight; Saturday 10.30am to midnight; Sunday 10.30am to 11pm; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays
Why: The Kitchen is a charmed experience: for kids, couples, family or friend groups, and even dogs (they are welcomed by doggie treats and water). From the aromas of the extensive to the experimental but traditionally inspired dishes (Crispy Hooky Duck Egg with summer peas, Worcestershire ham and mustard and Heritage Tomatoes & Whipped Westcombe Ricotta with samphire and lemon were highlights), the local ales and spirits, and the lively, comfortable atmosphere, it’s a real treat from start to finish. This is the team’s heart and soul, and it pays off.
How: Order small plates (£7.50-£8), large plates (£14-20), kitchen bites (£2-£6) or plates from the Robata Charcoal Grill (£14-£24) out in the garden, then move on to the puddings and cheese (£6-£10).