In November 2022 Will Devlin made the difficult decision to close the doors of The Curlew, his modern British restaurant in Bodiam, East Sussex, after what can only be described as a tough couple of years.
Reopened under his direction three weeks before the first national lockdown and then enduring the subsequent roller coaster of successive reopening and closing as the virus continued to rear its ugly head, the writing was on the wall for the venture from the very start.
In a statement at the time Devlin had said: “Despite loyal guests and acclaim from national restaurant critics, the current climate and substantially increased energy bills have forced our hand to make this decision. Small businesses are struggling everywhere, as I know families are too. Please be kind, support your local pub, restaurant, farm shop, butcher, fishmonger whatever it may be. They need you and a little help from a lot of people goes a long way.”
Just over a year later and those comments are just as resonant, with independent restaurants across the country being forced to close because of escalating costs.
“Doing a big launch and then shutting down for months was a bit of a nightmare,” reflects Devlin on the closure. “We were losing quite a lot of time and money over there and it was causing a lot of stress and diverting out attention from [Devlin’s other restaurants] The Small Holding and Birchwood.
“We tried really hard, but you’ve got to know when you’re at risk of things being detrimental to your other businesses. We came out of our energy contract with the prices rising from £800 a month to £3,500 and there was also a rent increase. The head chef was also leaving so it felt like the time was right to knock it on the head.”
Building The Small Holding
The closure of The Curlew (which was launched in 2009 by Mark and Sara Colley and at one point held a Michelin star) is a slight blot on an otherwise unimpeachable restaurant career that has seen Devlin open and run two sustainably-minded venues, The Small Holding and Birchwood. Both based in Kent, The Small Holding is a tasting menu-only restaurant and farm in Kilndown on an acre plot of land, while Birchwood is a more casual breakfast and lunch venue around 15 minutes away set within a 46-acre mixed use sustainable development of woodland.
Devlin opened The Small Holding with his brother Matt, the pair taking over run down pub Globe & Rainbow having been attracted by the large plot of land on which it stands. Described by Devlin as “an absolute dump” with no hot water in the toilets, no extraction, and mould everywhere it was all the brothers could afford at the time. They paid a couple of months’ rent up front and secured a 20-year lease on the premises in the process.
With the additional space at his disposal, Devlin quickly set about the task of growing his own produce, building raised beds for vegetables such as carrots and radishes. This was followed by a couple of polytunnels and the purchase of some pigs and chickens. Today the farm also has some sheep and grows more than a hundred varieties of fruit and vegetables, employing three full-time gardeners.
The approach taken at The Small Holding is more than just home growing; Devlin practices regenerative farming with a focus on soil health. The farm works on the no dig principle that avoids breaking up, lifting or turning the soil and cares for it by removing the need for cultivation. Instead, vegetable beds are covered with organic matter such as compost, into which vegetables are grown. It also uses no intensive methods and no chemical fertilisers.
“It’s not about self-sufficiency, it’s about farming and the quality of produce,” says Devlin. “We took what we’d leant by talking to farmers and put that into practice.”
This doesn’t come without its challenges. “It’s much harder, I can’t just ring up a supplier and get a box of courgettes. We get as many as is grown, sometimes it’s too many so we’ve got to do something else with them, sometimes it’s not enough so we have to change the menu. I’ve done guest chef nights at other restaurants and realise what they are doing is a lot easier, but I wouldn’t change it. We do what we do because we want to.”
The Small Holding is not self-sufficient, and nor will it ever be. Its farm doesn’t grow potatoes anymore, with Devlin instead opting to support a local potato farmer. “We are bringing these types of farms to the forefront, so people hear about them,” he says. “A lot now sell directly to the consumer with things such as veg boxes, so it’s about us showing the reality that everything that is on the plate comes from a person.”
From a financial perspective, The Small Holding’s farming practices are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Devlin says that if he were to purchase the same quality that he produces it would cost a lot more, but if he were just buying standard produce it would be a lot cheaper –“but with less flavour and nutrient value”.
"I’ve done guest chef nights at other restaurants
and realise what they are doing is a lot
easier, but I wouldn’t change it"
It costs the pair just over £100,000 a year to run the farm, including staffing costs. “That’s a lot of money for a restaurant to have as a department, it’s an unnecessary cost but we do get free vegetables,” laughs Devlin. “Also, I’m under no illusions that it’s a good USP for us; it was never intended to be that, but it works. A lot of places say they have a kitchen garden but when you look into it it’s often just some herbs and a few token vegetables.”
Respected by its customers, Devlin’s sustainable focus has not gone unnoticed by others in the sector. In 2021 The Small Holding was one of the first restaurants in the country to be awarded a Michelin Green Star.
The farm has enabled the restaurant to remain competitive even in these straitened times. Its eight-course tasting menu (called the full acre) is priced at £85, with the five-course half acre menu costing £65. Dishes on the current ‘depths of winter’ January menu include kale, sea beet, and cheese; potato, girolle, and leek; trout, celeriac, and butter; and game sausage, quince, and chilli.
Falling into the industry
With such a dedication to his craft, to sustainability and farming methods, it’s hard to believe that cooking was a career that Devlin fell into rather than being a pursuit of a passion.
Devlin says that like many chefs he didn’t get on with school, and while he enjoyed cooking there was no option to do food tech. Instead, he signed up to a three-year mechanic apprenticeship because he “liked messing about with cars” but ultimately didn’t enjoy it. Following this he moved to Ibiza for a year where he worked at numerous jobs including a mechanic, and painter and decorator before returning to the UK and joining North Kent College for a catering course having been encouraged to do so by his mother.
He eventually got a job with hotel group Marriott having attended its career day, working there while still at college. It was there he got the bug for cooking that would eventually see him move first to Gordon Ramsay’s Petrus in Knightsbridge and later to work with Richard Phillips at Thackeray’s in Tunbridge Wells.
“Ultimately I didn’t enjoy London,” he recalls. “I was living in a basement near Oxford Circus [when at Petrus], and I wanted to get back to Kent. I would go back home on my days off and it felt better. I didn’t know then, but I was suffering a bit of anxiety and sleep deprivation, and I was happier when I was home.”
The job at Thackeray’s, as well as three other venues that Phillips ran at the time, eventually led to him being offered his first head chef role at The Windmill near Maidstone in 2012 when he was aged 24. He stayed there for five years, working for Phillips for seven years in total, until the time finally came to strike out on his own.
“I’m under no illusions that [having a farm] is a
good USP. It was never intended to be that"
“The way I started getting into food was I was always going down to the local shop to buy some vegetables or to the butcher for a steak, but when you’re in the industry it’s not like that, it all comes in on a lorry in plastic bags from all over the world,” he recalls of his epiphany moment. “It didn’t feel good for me.”
It was at this time that has brother, who also worked in hospitality in roles including barman and pub landlord, was getting equally frustrated that his customers were eschewing local craft beers for the international lagers. Both seeking something different, they decided to do something together, creating an itinerant restaurant business called No Fixed Abode.
For a year the pair travelled to different places, meeting with farmers in the early part of the week to learn about their practices and to buy produce, designing the menu and prepping it on a Thursday and cooking on Friday and Saturday nights to people who had bought a ticket online.
“The idea was to have fun and test the water but in reality, it got quite serious,” says Devlin. “People were asking if the end game was for us to get a restaurant and our plan became to grow our own stuff in a fixed place.” Having outgrown the set up, they looked for their own place and that’s when they stumbled across the dilapidated pub that would become The Small Holding.
The opening of Birchwood
Three years on from the launch of The Small Holding, in October 2021 Devlin opened what was at the time his third restaurant, before the closure of The Curlew. Unlike The Small Holding, Birchwood isn’t open for dinner and is described as “the complete opposite” of his debut venture.
The Small Holding is tasting menu only lunch and dinner while Birchwood is only open for breakfast and lunch and is somewhere where you can just grab a coffee – the area attracts a lot of dog walkers and ramblers. Breakfast dishes include a sausage patty and fried egg muffin; Hinxden Dairy yoghurt with strawberry jam and puffed rice granola; and pancakes with apple compote, bacon, and Horsmonden honey’.
Dishes on the current lunchtime menu include crispy chicken tacos; tempura cuttlefish with confit garlic mayo; slow cooked Creedy Carver duck leg with red cabbage, apples, and potato terrine; and baked Crown Prince pumpkin with kale, carlin peas, yoghurt and chilli.
"We’re not shying away from doing more projects.
If anything we get better as time goes by"
The restaurant is not open for dinner, partly because Devlin says he likes to use the space for events but also because of how tough it would be to attract evening custom. “It’s quite rural. To open another business and try and fill it would be hard.”
As well as being a different proposition, Birchwood has another function in that it uses lesser cuts from the whole animals that don’t make it onto the tasting menu at The Small Holding as well as ingredients grown on the farm that would otherwise have to be preserved.
“We don’t grow anything there, so we cross populate from The Small Holding. It’s nice to have a different outlet. We used to preserve a lot - and we still do (the restaurant has a shipping container filled with over 600 Kilner jars of preserved ingredients for the leaner months), but it has always been a bone of contention for the chefs that they had to prep a section and preserve the rest and now some of it can be used at Birchwood instead. It’s nice to be able to use the produce fresh rather than just preserve everything.”
Given the current restaurant trading environment, Devlin’s focus is likely to remain on the running of his two restaurants rather than further expansion, but his experience with The Curlew hasn’t dampened his appetite for growth.
“The truth is we learned so much from doing The Curlew and running three restaurants together, such as organisation, delegation, structure, and processes.” he says. “It is just me and Matt and no big corporate structure, but I wouldn’t change anything.
"Maybe we would have done a few things differently from the beginning, but the pandemic didn’t allow us to get established, but you live and learn. I have fond memories of it and am super happy we did it.”
Would he consider doing another project? “If the right opportunity came up, yes. We have a few ideas, but we need to bide our time. We’re not shying away from doing more projects.
"If anything, we get better as time goes by. Life’s too short to say no to things because it might be easier to.”