Opening a pub always has its difficulties, especially when the local clientele are not on side. But Daniel Smith, Natasha Norton-Smith and Guy Palmer-Brown have put their brains together at the Fordwich Arms in the Kent village of Fordwich to win over the Michelin inspectors and the neighbours, too. Emma Lake reports
The reception was somewhat frosty when Daniel Smith, his then fiancée Natasha Norton-Smith and their friend Guy Palmer-Brown arrived in Kent little more than a year ago.
Taking over the Fordwich Arms, a beautiful arts and crafts pub in Britain’s smallest village, the three were labelled DFLs [down from Londons]. Some would go on to accuse them of ripping the soul – not to mention some stubborn 40-year-old floral wallpaper – out of the pub as they replaced lunchtime sandwiches with “poncy rip-off food for stuck-up people”, to quote one of the more impassioned readers of the Kent Online website.
But a “whirlwind” year has seen them win round the locals as well as The Guardian columnist Grace Dent, whose 10 out of 10 review saw Londoners flocking to the countryside, and most recently the Michelin inspectors, who bestowed a star just 10 months after the reopening, commenting: “The provenance of ingredients is key and they butcher beasts, cure meats, churn butter and bake bread on-site. Pared-down dishes are perfectly balanced.”
The three – head chef Smith, pastry chef Norton-Smith and sommelier Palmer-Brown – received their invitation from Michelin just two days before the ceremony in October.
Smith, who was named The Observer’s Food Monthly Young Chef of the Year 2016, says: “It was unbelievable. We did not expect it or see it coming. We were having a meeting with a company about the kitchen refit when we got the invitation and I just had to walk away, I couldn’t speak, it was crazy.”
Norton-Smith describes the ensuing anxiety that the invitation might not signal the bestowing of a star, but another accolade such as “best newcomer”, before her husband adds: “I’m glad it was only two days before. We didn’t sleep – we probably would have collapsed if it was any longer.”
The journey to becoming the youngest restaurateurs to be awarded a star in the 2019 guide – Smith and Norton-Smith are 26 while Palmer-Brown is 31 – had taken far longer than the 10 months the restaurant had been open.
Smith met his wife at Westminster Kingsway College when they were both 17 and
would go on to work with Palmer-Brown at the one-Michelin-starred Clove Club in London’s Hackney, where they held the positions of sous chef and head sommelier respectively.
The three shared a desire to open a pub outside of the capital and bringing together their skills made sense. Smith explains: “All three of us know what we’re doing in our own certain area. One person alone might not have that much experience in front of house or pastry or wine and all those things need to go and in hand. With three of you it just gives you that little bit more knowledge.”
A search ensued that would see hours spent scrolling through property details online and, after one sale fell through, Smith stumbled across the details for a 1930s, ivy-covered redbrick building on the bank of the River Stour.
He explains: “I came across it online, just flicking through, and as soon as I saw the front I thought ‘oh my god, is that a pub?’. It doesn’t actually look like a pub from the outside. We came straight down, looked at it and loved it. We had to sort of look behind the façade of it because it was in a completely different state.”
Norton-Smith adds: “The previous owners had been here for 25 years, so it was very much their style. Old-school pub carpets, pictures all over the walls and wallpaper that had been up for 40 years and no one dared touch.”
The three scraped together the cash to secure the pub’s leasehold from Enterprise
Inns without relying on an outside investor, before calling on family, friends and their scanty workforce to set about transforming it into a dining destination.
Their work saw carpets lifted to reveal original parquet flooring, three fireplaces returned to their former glory and a wood-panelled dining room created. In the bar area, green banquette seating helped retain the feel of a traditional pub, where a merry Sunday afternoon could be spent in front of the fireplace.
On 1 December 2017, the revamped Fordwich Arms opened its doors and the “whirlwind” began gathering pace, not least because Smith and Norton-Smith ran the kitchen single-handedly for the first few months as they strived to keep costs down. It was during this time that Dent visited and her ensuing review, published in January 2018, set foodies from across the country on course for Fordwich, but closer to home, others proved more difficult to win round.
Smith explains: “We couldn’t have asked for a better first year, but we didn’t have the best of starts with the locals, because we completely changed the whole concept from what it was before to what it is now. It wasn’t the best reception,
but we knew we just had to keep doing what we were doing. We had considered changing it slightly and doing a different menu, but we stuck to our guns and thank god we did.”
The three wanted the Fordwich Arms to continue to be a pub where anyone could pop in for a pint. The large wooden bar remains and consultations with bar staff who stayed through the changes ensured that local favourites still flowed through the pumps.
Smith says: “We would never remove the bar. The bar will always be there with bar stools for people to come and have a pint. There’s no point having a pub if you can’t do that. We are landlords of a pub and we have to make sure people have a special experience just drinking at the bar as well as in the restaurant.”
Palmer-Brown adds: “We have a strong drinking trade between 3pm and 6pm, which is perfect for us because it’s between services. It’s people who come in every day who help create an atmosphere at the end of lunch or for those coming for an early dinner.”
A work in flux
While the bar remained constant, the past 12 months have been an evolution in terms of both the food offering and the service, something that many other locals have enjoyed watching, commenting on the changes as they return month after month.
Smith says: “It’s been a steady process of opening, finding our feet, judging the local area and clientele and then saying we can probably stretch this and get away with that. Each week we would try something new; when we first started we would put the bottle of the wine on the table and people would serve themselves.
Now we do table service and pour wine for guests, so in that sense we’ve refined it. “In the kitchen there was only so much we could do when it was just the two of us, but now we do snacks, canapés, petits fours, we bake two types of bread, we cure our own meat and make our own butter, but we had to ease ourselves in.”
While the offering has evolved in complexity, Smith and Palmer-Brown explain that their time at Clove Club taught them to ensure that from the outset that high standards were met.
Smith explains: “Even in the beginning when it was simple, we still made sure the standard was high and that we created that guest experience. It’s nice to take that ethos to a pub because it’s more relaxed and it’s great to surprise people when they come to what they consider to be a pub.”
The Fordwich Arms now offers full, short and vegetarian tasting menus, as well as à la carte and set menu options. Dishes from the à la carte menu include local Chart Farm fallow venison served with celeriac, damson and smoked bone marrow as well as haybaked Stour Valley mallard with parsnip, gingerbread and red endive.
During their first year the kitchen and front of house teams have grown steadily to 27, and Smith, Norton-Smith and Palmer-Brown are keen to provide their employees with opportunities to develop their careers exploring stages for front and back of house and encouraging them to pursue their interests.
The approach appears to be reaping rewards: turnover is low – just one front of
house staff member left in the last year – and a team has been created that the three felt confident enough to leave to run the pub solo for the first time when Smith and Norton-Smith married in August this year.
Smith says: “It was a massive step for us [leaving the pub] and we were very anxious. It wasn’t that we didn’t trust the guys. When you’ve built something up from day one and been there morning until night every day, it’s hard. But it was important to give them the opportunity to take the reins and show themselves
and us that they could do it – which they did.”
Less than two months later, the trio were in London celebrating winning their first Michelin star.
Smith says: “With something like that, the thing is not to let it get to you and not to let it completely change what you’re doing. We try to tweak things and make them better, but you can’t change the ethos, freak out and double your prices. The reason they gave us a star is because they like what we do.”
No sudden changes are afoot but the constant innovation that has marked their first year shows no sign of slowing, with the three of them excitedly discussing ideas to better utilise their riverside location next summer, add a dessert tasting menu special, as well as organising an event to celebrate Kent produce.
Smith says: “With three of us, we can bounce off each other. I think you could
become a bit stale if it was just one of you trying to push all the ideas, but with the three of us we can try something and share ideas.”
The next step will see them start to grow their own produce for the restaurant, while in the longer term Palmer-Brown has plans for a micro-brewery, and all would like to see rooms added so guests can extend their visits. Palmer-Brown says: “I feel like we’re in our own little bubble in Fordwich when you come
over the bridge. It’s like coming into a different world, like going back in time. I love that, and I love to bring people into that and there’s no reason why in a few years’ time we can’t be growing our own stuff and brewing our own beer.”
Smith adds: “We’re not even a year old yet, we still need to keep that in our minds. We can’t let getting a Michelin star or getting into the [National Restaurant Award’s] top 100 restaurants in England get to us, we’re a year old
and we’ve got years left. We’re nowhere near where we want to be and it’s going to take a long time to get there.”
Keep it local
Getting to know local suppliers has been key for the three landlords, be it farmers, fisherman, brewers or vintners. Smith says: “The biggest thing for us was finding good suppliers. We knew good suppliers from London, but we
did want to use local produce – there are so many amazing things grown in Kent and we’re nine miles from the coast, so there are amazing things you can have delivered from the sea to your door.
“It’s almost easier to write a menu when you’re working with the seasons, because you know in December this is what we have and you just work with that.”
It’s not just the food that is showcasing the best of the Garden of England; the three have also been working with local vineyards and breweries.
The team want to instil their passion for the produce they use in their staff,
whether front or back of house, and once a month the whole team travels to visit a food or drink supplier.
Smith explains: “When you see the guy who spends his whole life rearing the animals that are brought to the restaurant, it brings that level of respect
From the tasting menu
• Tartare of Orkney scallop, apple, hazelnut, and brown butter
• Duck liver terrine, red currant, Sauternes and warm doughnuts
• Scottish langoustine, butternut squash, pumpkin seed and orange
• Hay-smoked Stour Valley mallard, parsnip, gingerbread and pickled quince
• Day-boat turbot, chestnut, golden raisin and fino sherry
• Lemon meringue pie macaroon
• Dark chocolate mint aero
Short tasting menu, £65/wine pairing, £65
Full tasting menu, £85/wine pairing, £85