After starting his career in Michelin-starred restaurants, chef Steven Smith took his fine-dining skills to a pub setting in 2009. He talks to Neil Gerrard about life at the Freemasons
Need to know Blackburn-born Steven Smith spent the early part of his career working in Michelin-starred restaurants, including the Box Tree in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, before moving on to the Stanley House hotel near Preston and Blackburn.
Having built up a reputation at Stanley House, he was approached by a regular customer who offered to back him in the takeover of the local pub in the upmarket village of Wiswell in the Ribble Valley, doing a similar kind of fine-dining food in a pub setting. It didn't take Smith long to decide, and the business where he is chef-patron - aided by his silent partner - started trading in August 2009. Since then it has won several industry awards, including its first Michelin Bib Gourmand in January.
Target market The freehold pub, an old set of three freemasons' cottages, has always appealed to affluent locals, although Smith says it has "had its ups and downs as a business". Since taking it on, he has begun to win back customers, not only from the local area, but from as far afield as Lytham, Blackburn and Rochdale.
The age of customers ranges from those in their 20s right up to pensioners in their 80s. Perhaps surprisingly, given the fact it is located in a popular tourist area, Smith reckons the pub is slightly busier in the winter than the summer, thanks to its rural feel and connections to shooting and game. "We do a game week in October and this year it was our record week," he says. "It's not a seasonal business as such - we are doing the same figures now [February] as we were doing in November."
Why customers choose it Smith believes customers come for the fine-dining food but enjoy the unpretentious pub surroundings. "I was cooking a lot of the same kind of dishes in the last place I worked, but it was a place for special occasions," he says. "This isn't a special-occasion place. It is a lot more accessible to a lot more people."
There are the "die-hard local drinkers", too, who sit by the bar and have a pint each evening. "We want to keep that because it breaks down the barriers when people walk in," he says. "But it is a serious balancing act between being a restaurant and trying to keep the pub side to it as well."
Marketing Despite the rustic look and feel of the pub, it uses the latest technology for its marketing. The pub's website (www.freemasonswiswell.co.uk), aside from offering the usual information about menus and location, offers an online booking service and a section for Smith himself with links to his Twitter account and Facebook page.
He also produces a blog called "Food for Thought" in which he shares his latest culinary experiences. Local press reports and reviews also help, he says. On top of that, the pub gives away a small information pack to customers as they pay their bill to let them know what else is going on.
Favourite suppliers For the most part, the Freemasons uses Wellock's of Lancashire for its produce. "They go to Rungis market in Paris every week and source the best of the best," Smith explains. "They are pretty much our sole supplier other than for meat and fish - we really rely on them. We haven't got time to be ringing people trying to source this, or source that. So they do that part of the job for us, and do it very successfully."
The meat all comes from across the county border in Yorkshire, with pigs coming from a company called Happy Trotters. "We can get a good product but not one that costs so much money that we have to pay stupid prices. We are trying to be quite price-sensitive on certain items," he adds.
Business Advice For Smith, the most important thing is to lead the team by example, particularly as he is in the pub most days of the week. "If you are the one making sure everything is done, then I think everyone else steps in line and does what they need to do," he says. "I really would say, never have anyone doing anything that you wouldn't do yourself."
Future plans Since the business was only established in 2009, Smith wants to work to consolidate the Freemasons as "one of the premier dining pubs". "We have had a great start," he says.
"In the longer term we would like to get another pub with rooms. We would do a simpler style of food and perhaps interlink it with the Freemasons. If we have a different food offering we can do a deal where guests can come to the Freemasons and have a gourmet-type meal."
Steven Smith's revelations
Favourite restaurant Texture
Book that has inspired The French Laundry, Thomas Keller
Motto There's no such thing as perfect
If you hadn't been a chef, what would you have been? Rocky Balboa
Who do you most admire? My dad
Describe your business in five words Unpretentious, relaxed, comfortable, country-refinement, modern
Spotlight on the kitchen
Until February, Smith and his team had to cope with an old pub kitchen but that changed after he spent more than £100,000 having it refurbished. "The old kitchen would only allow us to do certain styles of cooking if we wanted to keep to the standards that we wanted to keep. It was very cluttered because we had brought things in. For example we would never do a piece of roasted sea bass because we only had four gas burners so we would do a butter-poached piece of sea bass." The new kitchen has seen the introduction of a Pacojet, sous-vide machines, electric tops and an electric grill, all of which is built into the kitchen. "This gives us a lot of cooking techniques so that we can progress the menu," he explains. And because the new kitchen is much easier to keep clean, Smith is using it for a monthly cookery masterclass, for which he charges £100 a head including lunch. "It really works - it gets people talking and they can learn the other side of what we do."
Facts and stats
Chef-patron Steven Smith
Head chef Richard Dixon
Covers 140 (60 for lunch, 80 for dinner)
Average spend per head £32 (food only)
Capacity 80 (including two private dining rooms