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The making of Marcus

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It’s a bone-meltingly hot day in early August. Arriving clutching a precious bottle of water at Marcus and Kate Ashenford’s small restaurant at 5 North Street in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, is a blessed relief (the dining room seems blissfully shady and cool).

And, even better, when we settle down for a chat it’s at a table with an adjacent fan blowing a welcome breeze over everything in its path. The table is in a corner by a window in the cosy, low-beamed dining room, directly under a framed Matthew Fort review. The review has pride of place because the Guardian‘s food critic gave the restaurant a glowing write-up soon after it opened (see below).

“I reckon that’s brought around 1,000 people through the door,” says a grateful Ashenford, who’s rarely had a quiet moment since he and Kate (who was expecting their second child at the time) took the plunge and became restaurateurs at the end of January.

To date, Fort is the only national critic to have checked Ashenford out, which seems strange because he’s a Michelin-blessed chef. I’ve no doubt others will follow Fort’s lead, though, and as for the guides, Michelin and the AA have already visited.

But don’t get Ashenford started on Michelin, or rather chefs who trumpet their ambitions in that direction. “I’m sick of reading every week about one-star boys who are ‘going to get two’ or no-star chefs who are ‘going to get one’,” he says. “They should just get on and cook.” OK, so that means you don’t want one then? “Ahh – I didn’t say that,” he counters with a broad grin, “but I’d sacrifice a Michelin star for a full restaurant.”

He obviously has ambitions to continue cooking to the one-Michelin-star level that he’s achieved in the past and maybe even surpass that benchmark (of course, he won’t say so), but recent experience has taught him to get his priorities right.

That experience came at Chavignol in Chipping Norton, where Ashenford worked as head chef two years ago and earned the restaurant a Michelin star, before the restaurant’s owner, Mark Maguire, secured further financial backing and decided to move the operation to the Old Mill in nearby Shipston-on-Stour. From the outset Ashenford wasn’t convinced that it was a good decision.

“It was right on the banks of the Stour and there were old black-and-white photos on the wall, with the car park under water and plug sockets at shoulder height, so it looked like it was prone to flooding. But over £1m was spent on doing it up – with only £10,000 on the kitchen and nothing kept back for working capital,” he claims. “And it never pulled in enough people right from the start.”

A falling-out with Maguire led to Ashenford’s resignation last July, and after agonising whether, with an expanding family, it was the right time to set up shop on his own, he and Kate began to hunt for a suitable premises. The Old Mill, incidentally, has been up for sale for six months.

With the help of businessman Ray Shortland, who’d also lent a hand to Ashenford’s old mentor Ramon Farthing when he’d launched his 36 on the Quay in Emsworth, the couple soon found themselves ensconced at 5 North Street in Winchcombe. The premises had operated as a restaurant for many years and they were determined not to waste money on unnecessary refurbs. “It was just a case of coming in and opening as quickly as possible to get the money rolling.” They greeted their first customers two weeks after being handed the keys.

It didn’t take long for Fort to find Ashenford, and former customers from Chipping Norton days were soon turning up at the door (he is, after all, still in the Cotswolds). Most had heard through the grapevine that he was cooking again. Fellow chefs, such as David Everitt-Matthias, whose Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham belongs in the rare two-Michelin-starred category, have been particularly good about spreading the word in interviews and to their own customers.

Those who knew Ashenford’s cooking might spot a few differences. He was never a signed-up member of the tricksy-cooking brigade, but with age has come the confidence (not that it was ever lacking) to pare dishes down to their bare essentials. Nothing that doesn’t need to be there is ever put on the plate.

Or course, the limitations of his set-up in Winchcombe are partly responsible for this. The kitchen, like the 28-seat dining room, is tiny and already bursting at the seams housing two chefs: Ashenford and his 22-year-old sous chef, Marcus McGuiness, who was with him at Chavignol for four years. But Ashenford has also been inspired by Shaun Hill’s famously simple-yet-refined cooking at the Merchant House in Ludlow, which he and Kate visited shortly before opening 5 North Street.

“That was a real revelation,” he enthuses. “It just highlighted for me that you didn’t need to complicate things. Why not do three or four flavours perfectly rather than have eight different things going on on a plate? You have to ask yourself, ‘Who are you cooking for, your customers or yourself?'”

“The other thing about going to Shaun’s,” says Ashenford, in full-flow mode, “was that it confirmed my feeling about how we wanted things out front. Until then I thought I needed to have tablecloths and black-waistcoated waiters, but that just wouldn’t have given a relaxed, family atmosphere. And” – there’s no stopping him now – “his kitchen’s only a tad bigger than ours, which made me think, ‘Bloody hell – I don’t need to spend thousands doing it up before we open.'”

Enough of the theory; how does it translate on to the menu? Well, in dishes like roasted scallop with saut‚d foie gras, cauliflower pur‚e and beetroot syrup – a great combination of poor and rich man’s ingredients with a satisfying contrast of clean, fresh flavours and textures. Beetroot is rather in vogue at the moment, and it can easily be overplayed, but Ashenford uses its earthy sweetness sparingly, putting just enough on the plate to cut through the creamy texture of cauliflower purée and the decadent richness of foie gras.

Sometimes he matches beetroot with pigeon, and he’s also been experimenting with using it in a dessert. The inspirations were a delicious, intensely fruity strawberry soup with crŠme fraŒche sorbet that was already on the menu, and a classic Polish borsch soup. Ashenford’s inventive take? – a cold beetroot soup with sour cream sorbet. Perfect for a hot summer’s day and evocative of a Victorian kitchen garden, despite its Eastern European roots.

Beetroot appeals to Ashenford because of its versatility. Nothing else delivers quite the same sweet earthiness or stunning visuals in one hit; and that means you can play around with it in both savoury dishes and desserts. But it does mess up the nice green veg chopping boards – “and the baby ones are a bitch to prep, so I give them to Marcus to do,” confides Ashenford with a wicked smile.

He also has a fondness for rhubarb, which he often makes into chutneys and compotes, serving them with game, for instance, or using them to give a sophisticated twist to that old childhood favourite, Welsh rarebit. His version – the only canap‚ he sends out – also uses his trademark brown and white dual-loaf bread as a base. Why only one canap‚, though? “People think that guides like Michelin judge you by the amount of canap‚s you do. But I’ve been to places were there are lots and lots of canapés and then the food’s crap. What’s the point of that? Better to do one and get it right.”

You may have gathered by now that Ashenford is a man with pithy opinions on several subjects. His views are delivered with engaging humour, but if casually overheard by sensitive souls they can sometimes have repercussions. Take the other week: he and McGuiness were having a frank and ribald discussion, as chefs do, about certain sexual practices. It was hot, the kitchen door was open and the neighbours overheard (this being an old Cotswold town, all the gardens and houses are in close proximity). The neighbours were shocked and made it known.

A little smoothing of waters – after a bit of truculent posturing – cleared the air. But a complaint about overpowering food smells to the local health officer is hanging over 5 North Street; this despite the fact that a restaurant has been on the site for several years and that Ashenford was inspected when he took over the premises. It’s the first time he’s had to deal with this type of situation and it’s rather an unpleasant learning curve. So, take note, any wannabe chef-proprietors out there: it comes with the package of owning your own place.

Yet Ashenford has no regrets about his transition to chef-restaurateur; or about staying in his home county of Gloucestershire. He’s got job satisfaction and, because he and Kate live in a flat above the restaurant, he has the lifestyle he wants. “I’m not a city boy. Never have been. And how else could I see so much of my family with the hours I work?” he asks, jiggling his four-month old daughter, Liberty, on his knee.


5 North Street – the lowdown


Owners: Marcus and Kate Ashenford
Opened: 28 January 2003
Kitchen brigade: Marcus Ashenford and Marcus McGuiness
Front of house: Kate Ashenford and Natalie Hadley
Lease bought for: £56,000
Refurbishment spend: £10,000 set aside
Where the money went: £3,000 on kitchen equipment such as ice-cream makers and mixers, £1,500 on stripping tables and reupholstering chairs
Next spend? “Those curtains are going. I hate them.” (Muted golds, oranges, purples; lozenge patterned; very 1990s)
Seats: 28
Building quirks: The wine cellar’s through a trap door in the ladies’ loo
Pricing: three courses £19.50 or £29.50, 10-course tasting menu £42.50
Eminence grise: Ray Shortland. “He’s a top, top bloke. He found the site, helped us write business plans, brokered the deal – and didn’t want anything for it. I was blown away.”


Beetroot and rhubarb flavour matches


Beetroot: allspice, anchovies, apples, bacon, cheese, chives, cloves, cream, crŠme fraŒche, cucumber, curry, dill, hard-boiled eggs, fennel, ginger, game birds, horseradish, lemon, mustard, nutmeg, onions, oranges, paprika, parsley, pigeon, potato, prosciutto, quail, salt pork, smoked fish, sour cream, swordfish, tarragon, tuna, vinegar, walnuts, watercress

Rhubarb: apples, berries (especially strawberries), brandy, butter, cinnamon, cream, citrus fruit, ginger, oranges, pepper, pigeon, plums, sour cream

Main source: Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page


The critic’s verdict


Matthew Fort wrote: “The cooking attempts to bring together some of the earthier elements of traditional British cooking – Welsh rarebit, bubble and squeak, mushy peas, oxtail, braised cabbage, mashed swede – with the more sophisticated ingredients and techniques of French haute cuisine: chicken ballotine, brill braised in red wine, nougatine parfait. Attempts and succeeds, I should add.

“Let’s take the pigeon dish by way of an example. The breast of a wild pigeon can be a fairly intractable chunk of protein, especially if you try to cook it beyond a pretty basic sanguineous state. Ashenford got around these problems by slicing the breast into thinnish sections and popping a generous slice of hot foie gras on top, the rich juices of which provided slick lubrication. The musky flavour of pigeon melded perfectly with the vegetable bubble and squeak, but the really smart idea was to put a spoonful of sweet onion confit on top of the whole business.

“The combination of belly pork and mushy peas [with caramelised apples, crisp sage leaves and sauce of apple and hazelnut] is little short of paradisiacal for those who love comfort in the tum; the salt butter caramel is another old idea resurrected with relish, polished and potent as a pudding; an unsweet, uncloying nougatine parfait paired with a delicate fennel sorbet was cunning and clever. These are the dishes of a chef who thinks, who has a point of view and who knows how to give pleasure.”

The Guardian, 15 March 2003


Marcus Ashenford’s career


Fort those who haven’t followed his career trajectory, 33-year-old Ashenford has an impressive CV. Early training was with Ramon Farthing at Calcot Manor in Tetbury, and this was cemented by three years at Michel Roux’s legendary Waterside Inn at Bray. His first head chef tenure, at Lovells of Windrush Farm (in the Cotswold village of Minster Lovell), brought him a Michelin star in 1996 when he was just 25, and when he moved on to Chavignol in Chipping Norton in 1998 that feat was repeated within a year. Two years ago Chavignol moved to the Old Mill at Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire, but after a year overseeing the transition, Ashenford parted company with the restaurant and moved on. He and his wife, Kate, opened 5 North Street in January 2003.

Roasted scallop with sautéd foie gras, cauliflower purée and beetroot syrup

Sour cream sorbet with beetroot soup and beetroot confit


 

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