Respect to colleges and all that, but self-taught chefs are great. The businesses they run have that unteachable thing called character; they cook the food because they love it; and, sorry, they've never been near an NVQ.
Charlie Digney is one such chef. Last October he and his wife, Amanda, opened the King William pub just off Bath's London Road after moving out from the capital. There he had managed a pub called the Raven in Stamford Brook, but wanted to have his own business and do the cooking himself.
So what inspired him? "I got into food through my family," he says. "It's a social thing, and it's that cooking and eating with friends and family that I love."
Certainly the King William is an extension of this cosy, sociable approach. It features a tiny, 22-seat dining room upstairs to cater for dinner (Wednesday through to Saturday) and a ground floor that can stretch to about 30 for lunch, or evening bar snacks such as devilled kidneys on toast (£5.50) or bowls of Cornish mussels (£5.50) - served throughout the week. The couple refurbished the place themselves, and they've created comfortable and intimate surroundings - with very British food to match.
"I like dishes that don't have too much done to them," Digney says.
"I don't mess around with the food." Starters range from a terrine of venison livers and kidneys to crab cakes with organic leaves and tartare sauce, while the formula for mains is often meat with just two other elements - as in venison with runner beans and bacon or lamb racks with turnips and carrots.
Digney takes turns to run service alone with one other chef, so simple methods are crucial. "Also I only have a hob and an oven," he says, "so often I just sear the meat in goose fat then finish it in the oven. I then might serve the lamb with a green sauce or mint sauce and red wine gravy."
This honest, fuss-free approach extends to the way the menu is written: "I don't like descriptions with stuff people don't understand. In fact it annoys me," he says.
So "amuse-bouche" becomes an "amuser" (recently home-smoked venison) and the only foreign words given an airing are confit and gremolata. "We are not here to make people feel stupid. And if they do feel stupid they won't order the dish," Digney says.
Banner-waving British classics such as brawn or oxtail served with faggots are slightly more challenging - though not for the food-savvy Bath crowd who have taken the cooking to their hearts. For the oxtail, Digney braises the meat for six hours the day before service in red wine, carrots, celery and herbs and garlic, then puts the liquor in the fridge to separate off the fat. He'll warm up the remaining sauce the next day and reduce it to coat the oxtails.
Meanwhile he uses trimmed ox hearts and liver together with belly pork for the faggots, all minced up with spices and some reduced gravy as well as cassis - "I didn't have any port but it will be equally delicious". The mix is wrapped in cabbage leaves and then sheep's caul.
With food like this on the menu it's no surprise that his favourite cookbooks include Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson, Gary Rhodes's New British Classics and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Meat and River Cottage books. "In the kitchen I tend to be slow and laborious," Digney says. "But if that means doing things the long way, and making it taste better, then that's fine by me."
Efficiency's loss is the food's gain. Some chefs wouldn't pick up salad leaves from their grower if (for whatever reason) they couldn't be delivered, but Digney is always happy to meet his suppliers halfway - if it means he gets the freshest produce. And two-way relationships pay dividends: his fish supplier has now agreed to cold-smoke (over three days) whole legs of venison for Digney to serve in the restaurant.
Digney says that he has priced his food slightly higher to attract a smarter crowd than the one that used to drink in the old King William - that and the fact his straightforward cooking style demands paying for the best ingredients in the first place. From a business angle, because the premises are small, he also needs to make slightly higher margins to up turnover. That said, the £24 set price for three courses upstairs is still very good value.
The King William is more than an enthusiastic foodie having a go. Digney's passion is backed up by proper skills and a month ago Matthew Fort made a rare appearance back as the Guardian's restaurant reviewer to give the King William a take-me-seriously 16.5 out of 20.
What's on the menu
- Mussels, samphire and gremolata
- Pigeon breast and walnut salad
- Crab cake with scallop and hollandaise
- Roast wild rabbit with carrots
- Whole mackerel, roast fennel and smoked prawns
- Poached peach with basil and pear and brandy ice-cream
- Cherry cheesecake
- English cheeses
The King William
36 Thomas Street, Bath
Tel: 01225 428096 www.kingwilliampub.com