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Taste for the top

01 January 2000

The average digestive journey time for a piece of meat from mouth entry to re-emergence into the outside world is around 36 hours. Not so in the case of23-year-old chef Adam Longden - with him it takes all of five seconds.

This is not the result of a miraculous metabolic feat but rather because Longden, chef at the Rose & Crown pub, Tilton-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire, does not like meat, having been put off it six years ago after seeing beef in its raw, bloody state.

It is unusual, to say the least, for a chef to nurse an aversion to meat and Longden is well aware of the fact. "When I started to cook when I was about 18, I saw a piece of steak floating in a bag of blood and it really put me off eating it."

However, as a chef Longden knows the importance of tasting his food before giving it to guests, which is why he chews the morsels for a few seconds before spitting them out prior to plating a dish. But Longden is no strict vegetarian and sheepishly admits that he has been known to swallow the odd piece of meat.

He's reluctant to be known only as a vegetarian chef: "I don't really want to make a big deal out of not eating meat. I'm happy to work with raw meat and fish," he says, adding that he also eats the latter.

He is reluctant to continue this line of conversation because he is concerned about what other chefs will think of his eating habits. This is his first head chef position, and he is eager to make a good impression, not only with his customers, but also with his peers.

This respect and recognition from colleagues goes hand in hand, he feels, with his ambition to gain a Michelin star. However, he is not averse to the more popular appeal gained through writing cookery books and making TV appearances. And, since taking over the Rose & Crown's kitchen in October 1997, after girlfriend and front of house manager Gina Lapore's parents bought the pub's lease from Inn Business, he has been working toward these goals.

Recruiting difficulties

Longden has been working seven days a week in the kitchen, mostly on his own. His first chef lasted a month before leaving to go back to his home town but now he has a trainee replacement. Longden puts the difficulty of recruiting a brigade down to the fact that the pub is out in the country.

Yet despite staffing problems, he has nevertheless been producing classically simple dishes in his 12ft x 10ft kitchen - including a starter of confit of duck leg, and crème brûlée, which is one of his favourites.

Longden prides himself on being experimental and likes to add subtle twists to his dishes: this manifests itself in the brûlée as a "surprise" at the bottom, such as pistachio and chocolate mousse or a spiced rhubarb compôte.

As far as presentation is concerned, Longden likes to give his dishes physical height. "It makes them dramatic to look at, giving the impression of a tower," he says. "When Gina walks through the bar carrying the plates the customers stare at the food, which is great, but sometimes I worry whether the food is going to make it to the customer in one piece!" he adds.

One of Longden's heroes is Nico Ladenis and he talks with animation of the inspiration he has derived from Ladenis's book My Gastronomy, which he treats as a culinary bible.

Ladenis and his philosophy have played a substantial part in Longden's recipes, but other chefs have influenced his cooking too. In particular he cites Aaron Patterson, whom he worked under during a one-week stage at Michelin-starred Hambleton Hall in Oakham, Rutland, as making a lasting impression.

"When I was at Hambleton Hall I wrote a whole folder of recipes and diagrams of how the dishes were presented. It was the attention to detail that really blew me away," says Longden. And it was while he was at Hambleton Hall that he saw his ideal dish: a fillet of turbot shallow-poached in a light bouillon, typically made from white wine, fish stock and shallots, served on a Madeira and truffle sabayon. The dish was developed in what Longden calls "typical Patterson style" with contrasting colour and textures.

Rustic food

Fish was a popular ingredient at Langar Hall in Nottinghamshire where Longden moved to after a stint as a sous chef at the Swans Hotel, Nottingham (which he joined in 1996). At Langar Hall he worked under Toby Garratt who favoured dishes such as roast monkfish in polenta, squid-ink noodles, tomato and olive dressing. "At Langar Hall I got down to real, rustic food. There was no ponce and the emphasis was on taste and what can be done with good, fresh produce."

It is from this background of mixed influences that Longden has put together his menu of six starters (priced at around £3), nine main courses (around £10), and seven desserts (around £2.50). All are chalked on the pub's blackboard propped against the large stone fireplace that greets customers as they enter the Rose & Crown. The menu is influenced by seasonal changes, with one new dish nearly every night.

Given the fact Longden has only one member of staff, it is to his advantage that the restaurant seats just 26. However, extra seats can be reserved in the bar and there is a function room that holds up to 40 people - he closes the restaurant on function nights.

The restaurant has a weekday average of 15 covers per night, going up to 30 per night at the weekend. Average spend is £20 per head without wine at the moment. The menu always features both meat and vegetarian risottos - risotto being a particular favourite with Longden because it is flexible enough to incorporate a number of different ingredients without losing its identity.

One Longden risotto particularly popular with the pub's diners is served with ratatouille made with diced red peppers, shallots, aubergines and plum tomatoes. The rice is cooked in a large heavy-bottomed pan in olive oil until it shines, before having a stock of tomato sauce and provençale herbs added to it, a ladle at a time until the rice absorbs all the liquid. The ratatouille is cooked separately to prevent it from stewing before being added to the risotto just prior to serving.

Restaurant favourites

Other restaurant favourites include roast breast of duck on a bed of puy lentils served with a blackcurrant sauce with cassis (£11.95) and baked hake with butter beans, garlic, parsley, mashed potatoes and crusty bacon. The hake is pan-fried for one minute on either side before being baked for another five minutes, while the accompanying butter beans are pre-soaked overnight with a bouquet garni of celery, carrots and onions before being cooked off before serving.

A traditional bar menu catering for customers looking for cheaper and more snack-type foods is also available at the pub. Prices range from £3.95 to £5.95 with steak and kidney pie being a typical offering.

Longden uses only fresh ingredients on both his à la carte and traditional pub menu and that policy is so far paying off, with the Rose & Crown taking about £2,000 a week on food and Longden working to a60% profit margin. Part of the secret of staying within a tightly defined budget, he says, is to use good, reliable suppliers.

However, finding these has been a process of trial and error and before settling on the companies he now uses, Longden tried out five meat and four fish suppliers before he was satisfied with the quality of produce being delivered. Problems arose mainly because of the rural location of the pub - some suppliers were unwilling to deliver so far off their regular routes. However, Longden got round the vegetable supply problem by growing carrots, broad beans, spinach, lettuce and courgettes in his own vegetable garden.

Longden's culinary efforts seem to be paying off, with the Rose & Crown gradually building up a reputation for the quality of its food and drawing favourable comparisons among local diners with nearby Hambleton Hall. It's a reaction that pleases him, aiming as he is to gain a Michelin star by the age of 30.

But he knows any further stars would need enormous dedication in the kitchen, and he is not prepared to be a slave to the stove for the rest of his life. Instead, he is giving himself achievable, more immediate, goals - including expanding the Rose & Crown's cover capacity. To this end he has plans to convert one of the pub's function rooms into another dining area seating 40. Longden would also like to see the kitchen extended, but as a listed building this may not be possible.

Once he has achieved all he can do at the pub, Longden says he wants to immerse himself in sharing his passion of food with the general public. "I want to get across the beauty of food rather than slave away in the kitchen to get three Michelin stars," he asserts. n

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