How does it feel for The Unruly Pig to be named the best gastropub in the UK?
It feels fantastic. We were very lucky and privileged to have had this honour before but this felt a bit more special. We topped the list in 2022 and had the honour of hosting the award at The Unruly Pig last year, and we had this fear that we would plummet down the list next year, but it wasn’t to be. We were absolutely delighted to come second on the list the year after, it was a form of validation for us.
Give us a potted history of The Unruly Pig
We are just about to celebrate our ninth birthday. It opened in early 2015 and was a bit of a learning curve. Brendan [Padfield, the owner] had never done anything in hospitality before other than sit at a table and scoff great food and drink great wine and he had this brainwave that he could enjoy doing that as a business. It was also my first head chef job. We got it off the ground and for three months we were finding out feet and then we had a massive fire and had to close for six months and do it all over again. It was an adventurous first year.
Did much change when you reopened?
Most of it was put back to its original state. We did have the opportunity to do a little bit of work in the pub; we knocked through a few walls and changed the layout. The building is like a rabbit warren with lots of little rooms, so we removed an original chimney stack and opened up the main bar area and the kitchen, which had a slightly unconventional layout.
How has The Unruly Pig changed and evolved over the years?
Evolution is the key word there. One of the key mantras we try to adopt is continuous improvement. We are fairly hard critics on ourselves and evaluate each day what we can do better. In the early days we had some very good advice from Brendan’s good friend, who was chief executive of Pret A Manger at the time, and he advised us to start off cheap and build our way up, which we did. For our first menus I wasn’t allowed a starter over £7 and a main over £15 on the menu, which was challenging because I’d come from a fine dining background. We adapted but we were guilty of trying to do a bit too much – the menu was sprawling, and we were asking too much of ourselves. If you set your stall out to try and do everything for everyone inevitably, you’re going to fail somewhere.
How would you describe the cooking?
One of the key things Brendan wanted was it to have an Italian influence and that was a learning curve because French cuisine was the core part of my training and it’s a different way of thinking. We didn’t want to do pizza and pasta but to adopt a policy of using great ingredients and not messing around with them too much, to keep things simple and seasonal. Over time we’ve really tried to refine that a lot more. We all love pies, but we questioned whether we should serve them if we’ve got an Italian influence. It was the same with our burger, so we removed that from the menu. We pick up old Italian cookbooks and take a simple rustic dish and put our own spin on it or elevate it slightly in our own way.
You have multiple menus, is it hard to manage them?
We do have a la carte and a tasting menu but ultimately the tasting menu is a compilation of our favourite a la carte dishes. We also have a lunch menu and that’s usually dishes from the a la carte, although if there was a particularly expensive ingredient used, we might substitute it for something that allows us to make the correct margin for lunch. It appears that we have a lot going on but it’s a lot less than on the surface of things.
How often does the menu change?
Fairly regularly, we are working on a dish at all times. We moved away from the whole ‘let’s change the menu in one go’ approach because it becomes untenable for the team to try and bring consistency into what they are doing. Instead, we change one or two dishes at a time and create a new dish every week on the a la carte. There are a couple of mainstays, which we call the pub classics - we always have a chicken liver parfait and steak on the menu. They are our cornerstone pub safety dishes and ensure we remain accessible.
What’s been your favourite dish?
My personal favourite was an osso buco raviolo that was inspired by a dish I had at The Ninth [Jun Tanaka’s Fitzrovia restaurant]. It had a great dish there and so I took that idea and did my own version. It’s a veal shin braised raviolo with roasted veal sweetbread, which is my favourite ingredient, and bone marrow sauce. [Tanaka’s] version was stonking, but I decided to take it up another level with bone marrow.
You talk about having a French background. Where have you worked?
Before The Unruly Pig I was at La Talbooth on the Essex/Suffolk border, which does very classic French fine dining. I was there for about four years as a senior sous chef. I also worked at the original Bibendum with Matthew Harris, which was real classic French brasserie food. It was instinctive cooking, with a lot of pan work, and the menu changed all the time, which was great. Before that I’d worked in the Ramsay stable at The Boxwood Café and Claridge’s. My first ever job was working in a country pub in Suffolk and the head chef there had come from The Waterside Inn and had also worked for Pierre Koffmann and had this real French heritage and so that style of cooking is all I really knew.
How hard was it to change your cooking style?
It was very hard to not be tempted to use loads of cream and butter and not focus so much on technique because part of the Italian philosophy is to keep things really simple with limited techniques to make the ingredient shine. It took me a good three or four years to shake off the shackles of French cuisine and start getting into that headspace.
You do a lot of different things mid week, including hospitality industry nights and a wine club. Is that because of where you are based?
The main driving force behind these is Brendan, who is always asking ‘what’s next?’. We’re nine years old, which is middle aged in restaurant terms, so you’ve got to continue to be relevant and make people want to come. If a guest has been to us six or seven times, they understandably might be looking for something fresh and new, so we try and give them a reason to keep coming back. We are lucky to have built up a very loyal following and Top 50 Gastropubs Awards and being in the National Restaurant Awards has really helped put us on the map as a food destination to travel to. You do need to drive to us because we don’t have the footfall. One of the biggest successes has been our Tasting Thursdays.
Tell us more about Tasting Thursdays
We offer a reduced-price tasting menu on Thursdays (currently priced at £49 compared with the usual price of £75). Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sunday lunches are our biggest trade days; Thursdays had their time, but they’ve also been pretty flat, so we decided to do something different. We started it after the summer of 2022, and it was originally only supposed to run until Christmas, but it just took off. The demand was so great that we thought we would stretch it out a bit longer. We regularly do 60 or 70 covers when we might have done 25 covers ordinarily. Even at the reduced price we make a good margin on it and the value aspect is what people are looking for more and more at the moment.
Does it cannibalise your weekend trade?
If anything, it has helped boost it by elevating the profile of our tasting menu. It keeps the tasting menu sales more consistent, and the menu is more profitable than a la carte covers so it lifts that spend straight away. There are always going to be some people who only want to come out at the weekend.
Do your team like it?
It’s more straightforward for the team to deliver and it makes the whole week busy for them, which keeps them engaged and interested, which is key. We have really good staff retention. Karl [Green, head chef] has been with us since we reopened after the fire, and another chap who started as a kitchen porter is now a pastry chef. Ninety per cent of the team have been with us for at least three years, which makes a huge difference for consistency and staffing levels because you don’t need as many of them on each service because they know what they are doing.