Chef John Campbell is back in the saddle having launched the Woodspeen, a restaurant and cookery school created in collaboration with BaxterStorey's parent company WSH. He talks to Amanda Afiya about coming home to Berkshire and why he's embracing simple food with a focus on service
As a visitor to Berkshire, the drive leading to the Woodspeen may appear to be a fairly unremarkable stretch of road. Peppered with residential properties, Lambourn Road passes under the A34 before it starts to embrace its rural setting, meandering slightly until you happen upon the Woodspeen, a quaint public house built in 1827.
But first impressions can be deceptive. What appears to be an olde-worlde, 19th century pub actually boasts a stylishly modern dining room at the back with dramatic bi-folding doors
opening out to views of the fields beyond.
Modestly styled by designer Softroom, with natural materials throughout, there is a polished yet understated concrete floor in the restaurant and grey-painted tongue and groove walls framing the room beyond the bar. Carl Hansen chairs, draped in faux fur throws, tables from Comren, lights from Tom Dixon and a wonderful wood-slat ceiling lead to a large skylight, creating a Nordic feel in the room, which looks onto an open-plan kitchen. With the building and barn across the road (which now hosts the cookery school) originally on the market for just under £400,000, the project's transformation shows all the hallmarks of a £2m investment.
"It feels like home," says John Campbell, smiling. "I spent eight-and-a-half years at the Vineyard at Stockcross [a literal stone's throw from the Woodspeen] and I'm still great friends with the Vineyard's Andrew McKenzie. It feels incredible to be here."
"Here" is the culmination of nearly two years' work. It's been three years since Campbell left his role as director of cuisine and food and beverage at Coworth Park in Ascot and persuaded WSH chairman and chief executive Alastair Storey to go into business with him in what BaxterStorey chief executive Noel Mahony calls the company's heartland.
The cookery school is housed in a former farm building dating back to 1811. It opened last month (two months after the restaurant) and includes 10 workstations, a demonstration area and a chef's table for up to 12 guests. It's the ideal setting for a chef who is known as much for his training as for his culinary brilliance. Campbell is the co-author of Practical Cookery and Advanced Practical Cookery (with Professor David Foskett and Victor Ceserani) as well as his own recipe book, Formulas for Flavours, and he also won the Education and Training Catey Award in the same year as the Chef Catey trophy, in 2008.
And for more than a decade, alongside his roles at the Vineyard, where he achieved two Michelin stars, Coworth Park and now the Woodspeen, he has worked as a 'signature chef' consultant to BaxterStorey, training chefs through its Chef Academy.
"The cookery school is a dream," says Campbell. "I love developing and motivating people and it's the perfect outlet - not only to develop the BaxterStorey team, but to develop the team in the restaurant, both in the kitchen and front of house. It's just great to have a training facility on-site."
The cookery school business, which overlooks a half-acre fruit and vegetable plot, is segregated into three core areas. First, there is a calendar of events, fixed each quarter and running at approximately two events a week. Second are bespoke requests, constructed to suit an individual or a group ("last night we had one that was a little bit of bread baking, a little bit of 'steak night', and some team-building as well") and third, there is the BaxterStorey Academy, which takes at least a third of the usage.
Motivation and inspiration
"I am often asked what inspires me; it's simple - people. Motivating young talent and watching them develop is exciting, it has a knock-on effect on the team's development and brings the best out of everyone. Working more closely with the BaxterStorey Academy and its chefs over the past two years has given me a deeper understanding of their energy, creativity and focus. I'm looking forward to the next stage, building on the successes the academy has already achieved over the past 10 years.
"This site is super-diverse," he adds. "We've got the chef's table for private dining and we've got 'seasonal corner masterclasses', focusing on ingredients that are bang in season that you can cook at home, quite simply and quite quickly, and they start in February."
Back across the road at the 66-seat restaurant, and Campbell's attention turns to the style of service and food. Led by general manager Alessandro Fasoli and head chef Peter Eaton, the Woodspeen reunites the three former Acorn Award-winners. Fasoli, who joined the Woodspeen from Skylon, has known Campbell for more than seven years, having worked with him at the Vineyard and Coworth Park. Eaton, who joined Campbell at the Vineyard from Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in 2005, has worked with him on and off for over nine years. Together, they have worked to create a restaurant - in service style and food - that is open to all demographics. "I'm at a time in my career now where I want to enjoy the food
I cook. I'd like it to be accessible, it needs to be business-driven and it needs to reflect the current market," says Campbell.
"One of the key aspects over the past three years is that the industry has gone through a bit of a shake-up in terms of investment. What the market wants is food that has not been messed around with too much. People want simple food, cooked well, and I think the service at the Woodspeen plays a huge part in our offer of getting back to basics and treating
people nicely - everybody is welcome here. It's accessible, the price point is good, and it's a fair price point. We want to make people feel relaxed. There's no dress code - well, no
flip-flops or Speedos -and it's just somewhere to eat with great food."
He's clearly pleased to be back in front-line service, but how has his three-year interlude prepared him for today's restaurant scene?
"I think it has given me a good perspective on my life personally, as well as a perspective on where the industry is at and what appetite there is for dining out. I know that a lot of high-profile, Michelin-starred chefs have said fine dining is over, but you've really got to clarify what fine dining is. Everyone wants to pigeon-hole things - is it a pub, is it a restaurant? But you don't need to. One thing I have learned over the past 10-15 years is that service is as important as food, if not in some cases more important, depending on the occasion."
Campbell says that while the Woodspeen is a simpler offering than the two-Michelin-starred food he was once known for, the skills he's learned in the past still apply. "It's how to create a great and consistent product that works with the business element of what we do, but also works with the price point expected from the client - that's what's important.
Less is more
"One of the most crucial ingredients in the kitchen is restraint. So we're making a beautiful parfait of duck liver. It's not foie gras, it's duck liver, and we've got the beetroots
from the plot, and we're making a little beetroot ketchup and a little duck cake - confit duck, shallots, local wild mushrooms. And that's it, just that, because it's beautiful and simple and it's tasty.
"But because our food is simple - for example, pumpkin soup with rabbit tortellini, or a terrine of black pudding and ham hock - it needs to be absolutely pin-sharp, it needs to
be tasty, it needs to look good and it needs to be made well. So some of the old cooking techniques and the flavours are being respected."
The menu includes starters such as wild mushroom risotto with aged Parmesan (£9) and Cornish mackerel, horseradish and beetroot tartare (£9), and mains of local venison loin and faggot, bacon, cabbage and creamed potato (£22) and Red Sussex rib-eye, mushroom ketchup, chips and béarnaise (£25).
Alongside this are two new ales developed with the Two Cocks Brewery in nearby Enborne. The Curly Rascal is a golden ale named after Henry 'Curly' Coburn, a loveable rogue known locally by his nickname (Curly Rascal) who used to be the pub's landlord in the 1920s. Formerly a butcher, he used the front half of the pub as his shop.
The Woodspeen's bitter, the Lord Rivett, is named after Ray Rivett, the restaurant's construction site manager. "We were delighted when Ray came out of retirement to manage the Woodspeen site. He finds solutions to the most challenging of problems, and with his cool head and dry banter, he made every site visit an absolute pleasure," says Campbell.
"It's an Indian Pale Ale, an IPA, but we call it a Berkshire Pale Ale for a bit of fun. We're using a lager malt in there, which you wouldn't traditionally use, and you've got a dry hopping technique at the end, which again you wouldn't use for a bitter. So we're challenging the way beer is being made because we're building the beer profile like you would a dish with food.
"It's the same for the golden ale. It's made traditionally, but we've got various hops going in at different stages, so there's lots of fruit with big tropical notes and smells such as
passionfruit. It's an exceptional ale and it's selling incredibly. We're thinking of bottling it and selling it.
"What it all boils down to," Campbell concludes, "is that I just want to enjoy what I do. The Woodspeen is not stuffy. If you want to come in and have a drink, have a drink. If you want to come in and have one course for supper, you can. It's somewhere where you can have good food, friendly service and a pint of our own ale."
A view from the top
As chief executive of BaxterStorey, Noel Mahony has worked closely with John Campbell for many years on the content for the BaxterStorey Academy. The Woodspeen cements their relationship further as the restaurant will serve as a shop window for the business, while the cookery school will enhance the academy offering and provide a location for corporate days for clients too.
"We're really proud of the Woodspeen," Mahony says. "It's been a couple of years in the planning and I think the final result - the quality of the restaurant, the kitchen, the food and the ambience - is genuinely first class. For something that's been open for only a few weeks, we're really happy and proud of what's been achieved in a short space of time."
BaxterStorey has had an association with Campbell for about 12 years and Mahony says the chef always wanted to be part of something a little bit different.
"Having worked with John for many years, the opportunity came up to showcase what he was capable of achieving while also mentoring and developing all BaxterStorey chefs through the restaurant and, more importantly, through the cookery school. John is exceptional in that regard, and the chefs within our business have always held him in high regard."
Being in the heartland of the business, it's easy for BaxterStorey chefs to get to, and not far from its support hub in Reading. But Mahony is at pains to point out that it needs to be a success in its own right. "There's no point in it being a vanity project for John Campbell and BaxterStorey - the location is important for its ultimate success," he says.
"We already have 56 days booked in at the cookery school with John this year for between 10 and 12 chefs a day, so that's 800 chefs going through the school with support from us, John teaching those guys and girls, imparting his knowledge and running masterclasses in a fantastic learning environment. We are also going to be offering it to corporate customers. It's a great facility and it will be a real testament to everything John stands for - it genuinely looks like an investment for us that we think will really pay off."
Campbell is one of four 'signature chefs' who BaxterStorey works with.
"We've always worked on the basis of trying to attract individuals who not only share our vision, value and ethics around seasonal produce and training, but we are particularly focused on places where we know our chefs would gain, working and learning in their environment," Mahony adds.
"Tom Kitchin is fantastic at mentoring our chefs and allowing them into his restaurant; Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft, but Nigel in particular, has been with us for nine or 10 years; and Mark Hix in London represents everything about the best of seasonal British produce. Our guys are now doing masterclasses with Mark and go and work in the Hixter-branded restaurants and Mark comes into the business and supports us.
"Our view is that having one chef for the whole of the UK would not be practical because of the scale of business, but having really strong chefs in the regions works for us."
Front of house the business will continue its focus working alongside people like Fred Sirieix, through his Art of Service, and Edward Griffiths is joining from the Royal Household to ensure there is a genuine career path for employees. Mahony says: "For years we have focused on chefs and culinary and we want to show that, while that's fantastic, working as a waiter in a fine-dining restaurant or serving tables in a local restaurant is equally exciting.
"We're really proud of our association with John and delighted that he's back behind the stove, so to speak, where he is at his best and where our chefs appreciate him the most."
A selection from the menu
Home-smoked salmon, cucumber, watercress and violet artichokes £11
Pork and black pudding terrine, pickled onions and apple £8
Confit duck, liver parfait, cherry and fig chutney £10
Local venison loin and faggot, bacon, cabbage and creamed potato £22
Cod loin, caper and raisin purée, parsnip and chervil root £20
Berkshire partridge, lentil and mushroom pie, bread sauce £19
Egg custard tart, clementine sorbet £8
Chocolate and Guinness sponge, malt ice-cream, yogurt £8
Pear tatin, blue cheese, muscatel ice-cream £8
Truffle and potato terrine, pickled mushrooms and ketchup, ricotta beignets
For the terrine
20ml white truffle oil
10 large potatoes, washed and peeled
40g fresh Berkshire truffle
For the pickled mushrooms (makes 10 servings)
75ml vegetable oil
50g white wine vinegar
For the mushroom ketchup (makes about 20 servings)
200g onion, finely sliced
25g dried cep
1 bay leaf
1 clove of garlic
300g white wine
350g button mushrooms, finely sliced
250g field mushrooms, finely sliced
100ml balsamic vinegar reduction
For the ricotta beignets
(makes 10 servings)
350g ricotta cheese
1 beaten egg
200g panko breadcrumbs
To garnish Seasonal greens and heritage carrots
First, make the terrine. Clarify the butter and add the truffle oil. Thinly slice the potatoes (think pommes boulangere), place in a bowl, season with salt and leave for 10 minutes. Line a terrine mould with baking paper.
After 10 minutes, mix the butter into the potatoes and start to layer them in the terrine mould. For every four layers of potato, grate fresh truffle across the whole layer. Cover the top with foil and bake at 160Â°C for 45 to 60 minutes. Once cooked, press in the fridge until cold, then turn out and wrap in clingfilm so the potatoes keep their shape. Slice 3cm thick and store in a container and chill or cook as below.
To prepare the pickled mushrooms, sweat the mushrooms in oil in a hot pan and season. Deglaze with the vinegar. Chill the mushrooms and store in a container.
To prepare the ketchup, colour the onions and dried cep in the butter with the aromats, add the white wine and reduce completely. Add the mushrooms and cook out. Add the water and reduce by two-thirds. Add the cream, reduce and blitz. Pass through a chinois and then season with salt and balsamic vinegar.
To make the ricotta beignets, hang the ricotta in a cloth overnight to remove excess liquid. Fold in the salt, roll into balls of 10g and freeze on a tray for two hours. Roll the balls in flour, egg and panko breadcrumbs and return to the freezer. Cook, from frozen, in the fryer for 2 minutes at 180Â°C.
To finish the terrine, add a small amount of oil and clarified butter to a frying pan on a moderate heat. Place the sliced terrine in the pan and cook carefully on both sides until golden.
Serve a slice of truffled terrine with ketchup, pickled mushrooms, ricotta beignets, heritage carrots and seasonal greens.