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The Star Inn's new Chef Patron talks to Cotswold Life Magazine

on Wed, 13/03/2013 - 6:50pm


An off-the-cuff message on Twitter just before Christmas has resulted in Raymond Blanc-trained chef Dave Watts securing the biggest challenge of his career so far.

At the end of 2012, Dave left his position as head chef at Cotswold House Hotel and Spa in Chipping Campden after only a year running the hotel’s Dining Room and Cotswold Grill restaurants.

In that short time, he had helped to get the hotel into the Good Food Guide and also gained himself the guide’s title of ‘chef to watch’.

For reasons he’s not prepared to go into, he decided to leave Cotswold House and was looking around for a new challenge when he sent out a tweet looking for work.

The message was retweeted, which is when it was brought to the attention of Caron Williams, the owner of The Star Inn at Sparsholt. Caron happened to be looking for a new chef, but also somebody to run the pub, which also has eight en- suite bedrooms.

“It came out of the blue really,” says Dave, who took over at The Star Inn at the end of February.

“I left Cotswold House and I was looking for a new challenge. Caron said she might have something for me in Oxfordshire and here I am running my first business.”

It marks a return to Oxfordshire for Dave, who worked for eight years at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Raymond Blanc’s two Michelin star restaurant at Great Milton.

During his time at Le Manoir, he worked his way up to senior sous chef, working closely with Blanc and his executive head chef, Gary Jones.

For Dave, taking over The Star Inn has given him the opportunity to run his own place, which is something he had been dreaming of for several years.

Owner Caron Williams lives in the village and bought the pub freehold last year, before reopening it in the summer. When her original chef left, she started to look for somebody who could also manage the place.

“I didn’t just want to be a cook, I wanted to take on a business,” says Dave, who also worked at Hurst House in West Wales before moving to Cotswold House.

“I live in Abingdon so when this opportunity came up, everything seemed to fit into place.”

The Star Inn is the only pub in the village so Dave is mindful that he needs to keep it very much a place for the locals, whilst at the same time make it attractive to people from further afield who want to eat.

“It’s going to be similar to what I was doing at Cotswold House, very relaxed, very rustic – basically, comfortable eating with ‘wow factor’ food and great ingredients that haven’t been messed about with.

“The pub has a good local crowd and the owners have lived in the village for quite a while so we’ll do traditional bar snacks for the drinkers - pork scratchings, milk buns with Cotswold gold rapeseed oil, scotch eggs and so on.

“We’ll do a beef menu in the bar with burgers and a range of steaks - from bavette to fillet – served with simple sauces, but if you want something a bit more formal, there’s the dining room in the extension where the menu will be short and change frequently.

“There are five starters, six main courses (including two veggie options) and six puddings.

“The menu is nice and simple and I’ll change it every three or four weeks. I change menus as things come into season – some dishes might only be on there for a couple of weeks – and the food itself tends to feature two or three main elements on the plate.

“I learned classical French techniques from Gary and Raymond, but I love the ethos and feel of Japanese food.

“I don’t want to emulate Japanese cooking and I’m not talking about fusion food here, it’s more about the freshness, the simplicity and the way they respect their ingredients and what they do with the food.”

Dave says that moving from restaurants to pubs is a natural progression for him as he identifies the continuing trend for diners to want a more informal eating experience. He says it’s also a good way for young chefs to start their own businesses.

“Pubs are easy way in for a chef. To get a restaurant premises and set it up is quite hard but if you have a fairly decent pub there’s already a kitchen in there and you can do the bare minimum to it to get by to start with.

“Like anything, whatever you put in to it, you’re going to get out providing you’re in the right location and you give people what they want at a fair price.

“I want two types of trade – the restaurant that draws people from further afield and the bar with the locals – but it has to be value for money first and foremost.”

© COTSWOLD LIFE, March 2013

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Reproduced with the kind permission of Cotswold Life Magazine.

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