Denis Watkins's enthusiasm is infectious. After a break of 18 months outside the kitchen, he has gone back to the stove and is enjoying every minute. "I love it, I just love it," he says, with the excitement of someone less than half his age.
At a time when many a chef-proprietor would be eagerly ticking off the days towards their retirement, Watkins declares that he in fact retired 16 years ago on buying the Angel Inn in Hetton, North Yorkshire - an establishment that has since become a benchmark for quality food in pub-restaurants all over the country.
There is no suggestion that Watkins treats what he does as a mere hobby. It's simply that, despite the on-going hard slog of working in a kitchen - that at its busiest turns out 250 covers during an evening service - he continues to revel in it.
At the time of his "retirement", Watkins was a mere 45 years old and was enjoying a successful career in hotel management, latterly as general manager at the Grand hotel, Bristol. But his independent mind got the better of him. "I think I'd reached the end of my sell-by date as a company man," he says.
With a longing to get back to cooking - which he'd studied at college up to commis level - and with the words from his former boss Robert Peel, then at Mount Charlotte Hotels, ringing in his ears that the 1980s would be the decade of the themed restaurant, Watkins set out on his own.
"Undoubtedly, I thought that the greatest theme we had in England at the time was the English country pub. If we could put quality food into something that was part of our national heritage, then I was certain the public would love it."
Watkins's vision paid off. As well as winning a host of awards in the intervening years, including the 1998 Caterer & Hotelkeeper Pub Operator of the Year, Watkins has been an inspiration to many young chefs who have been keen to make their mark in the world of pub restaurants.
"Although I'd like to think we've helped lead the way in the rise of quality food in pubs, we weren't the first," says Watkins, who believes it is Franco Taruschio who holds that honour. Soon after arriving at the Angel, Watkins visited Taruschio's pub-restaurant, the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny, Gwent.
Realising what could be achieved, Watkins headed back north, inspired to produce great, but not pricey, food in an informal setting - the very essence of what he regards as a good pub meal.
Although initially the Angel was a liquor-dominated operation, Watkins turned it into a food-led pub within two years. As well as increasing the quantity of food sold, he evolved the quality. From initially serving the likes of plaice and chips - but, of course, only the very best plaice and chips - he was gradually able to introduce ingredients that, back in the mid-1980s, were rarely found in the Yorkshire Dales. "It seems almost unthinkable now that garlic and herbs such as tarragon were virtually unknown here then," he laughs.
"I think we've succeeded because we've always retained the loyalty of our customers by providing them with quality. They've come to trust us and be willing to try new dishes and combinations of flavours as and when we've introduced them."
Dishes such as roasted topside of English lamb, grilled Tuscan vegetables, romano gnocchi with home-dried tomato and melting blue Yorkshire cheese (£9.50) will now be eagerly tried by customers, who would have once turned their noses up at such a dish.
Watkins developed the dish after he asked his butcher, John Penny of Clayton-le-Moors, Lancashire, to come up with an alternative roasting joint of lamb to a rack or a loin. The result was a cut, involving the topside and silverside muscles from a leg of lamb. It is portioned into three joints which are studded with garlic and rosemary before being wrapped in caul fat and roasted individually.
Then to eschew the Northern habit of providing a big portion of potatoes with every dish, Watkins serves the topside with romano gnocchi (made from semolina) topped with Yorkshire blue cheese. "I once ate gnocchi in Italy with melting Gorgonzola, which has similar qualities to the Yorkshire blue," he says.
Ideas picked up on Watkins's travels frequently turn up in dishes at the Angel. Two trips to New York at the end of last year were particularly inspirational. "We had some excellent meals involving simply cooked meats with some very exciting salads," he enthuses. One such dish at the city's Union Square Cafe provided the impetus for a newly popular dish at the Angel - a chargrilled cured loin of English pork with panzanella salad (£8.50 on the bar menu).
In order to avoid the perennial problem of a dry pork loin, the butcher cures the boned cut of meat in brine for around seven days (see below). The pork is cut into individual steaks and will sometimes be marinated in olive oil, garlic, chilli and fresh herbs before being grilled for no more than four minutes on each side to ensure maximum juiciness.
The Italian-American inspired salad that accompanies the dish combines good stale bread with grilled peppers, tomatoes, olives, pine nuts, basil and a dressing of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Watkins has no reservations about serving dishes inspired by far-flung places in an English country pub in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. "It is what our customers want and like. If we analysed our market we would find that many of our customers are sophisticated people who eat out for business in Leeds, London and New York during the week and at the weekends are excited to come into the Dales and find a foodie place like the Angel."
Listening to the customer is a major priority for Watkins. When he purchased a second pub-restaurant - this time one with 14 bedrooms - in 1996, he and John Topham, the former sous chef who has since become a partner of the business, had intended to offer a different style of menu. Six months after taking over the General Tarleton Inn, Ferrensby, near Knaresborough, they realised that customer pressure would not let them do anything other than a second Angel.
Now Topham, who is director of kitchen operations at both pubs, spends the majority of his time at the General Tarleton, returning one day a week to the Angel. The menus in both venues are similar, with some identical dishes.
Watkins continues to concentrate his efforts at the Angel, working four or five services in the kitchen per week, usually as commis to one of the seven chefs on duty at any one time. "I wanted to get back into the kitchen to ensure that the brigade understood my vision of food," he says. "I work away in a corner, watching keenly what is going on in the rest of the kitchen in order to be absolutely happy with the quality control."
A massive Bonnet range, which has helped increase the capacity of meals served by 25% since it was installed five years ago, forms the centrepiece of the kitchen. Head chef Richard Smith heads the section, preparing dishes for the bar down one side of the range, while sous chef Bruce Elsworth looks after food for the restaurant on the other side.
Two beats one
Running two menus - one for the bar and one for the pub - is useful in more ways than one. Dishes that haven't sold in the restaurant during an evening service can be put on to the blackboard, which is an addition to the standard bar menu, the following lunchtime.
Average spend in the bar is £15 at lunch and £25 at dinner, while dinner in the restaurant costs £38.50. All prices include drinks.
Despite a health scare with prostate cancer, Watkins is now looking extremely fit and well and has no intention of slowing down. "One of the reasons I did the General Tarleton was that I was determined not to just lie down and let this thing worry me."
Watkins's fans have no concerns - his jovial character is going to be around for some time yet, continuing to inspire and encourage those who have so much to learn from him.
Recipes by Denis Watkins