Despite Mike North's accreditation from the Michelin guide, he is adamant that the Nut Tree Inn will remain a locals' country pub, with all traditional trimmings, including a village fete in the back garden. Tom Vaughan reports
One less desirable aspect of the gastropub movement has been the gentrification of once-quaint boozers into country restaurants thirsty, welly-booted locals sniffed at in favour of the destination diner. It is, of course, just a minority of supposed landlords who eschew the bread and butter of their business in such fashion, but a category that Mike North and Imogen Young have no intention of falling into since taking over the Nut Tree Inn in Murcott, Oxfordshire.
North achieved a Michelin star at the couple's former business, the Goose, at Britwell Salome, but the couple were determined to dispel the archaic view of Michelin establishments as stuffy and formal. "Imogen and I love working and drinking in pubs," says North. "And we definitely wanted to run our own. While it might be our food that pays the bills it's the locals who create the informal, relaxed atmosphere we want."
In January North was named as a rising star by the Michelin guide, tipped to add to the star he gained at the Goose with one at the Nut Tree in the near future. This apparent dichotomy between Michelin-starred food and local pub is more down to people's misunderstanding of the guide, says North, as it has always stated that stars are awarded for food alone.
And there's no reason why expensive British food should be out of place in a local pub. "Pubs are about the atmosphere and the opportunity to just drink," says North. "It's about going out, having a pint and deciding whether you want to eat. They're not about how costly the food is."
The couple admit that when they took the pub over in late 2006 the locals were sceptical of their intentions at first. "They saw us putting tablecloths on all the tables and were worried that they'd no longer be welcome," says North. "But once they saw what we were doing and that we were keen to get locals in they felt reassured."
Networking with locals is a big part of village pub life and North and Young are the perfect couple to endear themselves to the neighbours. Discovering that there was once a traditional Boxing Day tug of war at the front of the pub, they hastily assembled some local people for the event last year, and four teams of 12 competed in front of a crowd of 60.
The couple also kept on the Aunt Sally team that has been associated with the pub for decades. In this traditional Oxfordshire game, teams have to knock a wooden bowl from a stand by hurling wooden batons. The pub competes in a local Greene King league and holds regular home fixtures throughout the summer.
North and Young have also taken it upon themselves to maintain the village pond and green to the front of the pub, as former landlords have always done, and are allowed to place pub tables and benches on the green there for their trouble.
Aside from the gregarious nature of the local landlord, there's business savvy in networking locals. The wet:dry split at the pub is 40:60, with as much as half of the alcohol sales coming over the bar.
For Sunday nights the couple initiated a dinner and a pint scheme for locals, which keeps them in the pub and allows North to get out of the kitchen and talk to them.
"We don't do à la carte on Sunday night but we do great Sunday lunch trade and, in the summer, have 50 or so drinkers from mid-afternoon on," he says. "So rather than them wander off, come supper we decided to offer a cheap meal deal. We don't make any money on the food but we keep the locals in and make £20 extra a head on drink as a result."
Previously, North cooked curries on Sunday evenings, but since the award of a rising star, he has decided to maintain consistency and cook only traditional British dishes such as steak and kidney pudding or sausage and mash for the local drinkers.
At present the Nut Tree's format comprises a small bar area at one end of the pub, where the locals crowd, and a white-tableclothed dining area incorporating the conservatory. However, if the couple's plans are approved this will change to be a more drinker-friendly set-up. The bar will move to a central location and new tables - the present ones sport tablecloths only because they've seen better days - will be available for drinkers to sit at if they aren't booked for food.
"We don't for one minute think it will increase turnover," North says of the plans. "The covers will stay at 60 but it will make the place feel more like a pub and please locals and drinkers."
One thing likely to endear the couple permanently to the neighbourhood is the plan for a village fete in the pub's back garden. North and Young have put the idea to the parish council and are awaiting approval before any dates are set. But if a temporary events licence is approved, the plan would be to have a band during the day, with a hog roast, raffles and other competitions to raise money for local institutions. In the evening North would put on a more formal gala dinner for locals.
The fete would certainly affirm the pub as the very centre of village life and prove, if proof were needed, that Michelin-starred food isn't always found in stuffy settings.
The story so far…
After being awarded a surprise Michelin star in 2005 at the nearby Goose in Britwell Salome, Mike North and Imogen Young went it alone in November 2006, buying their dream pub the Nut Tree Inn in Murcott.
Able to impose themselves properly on the business after Christmas, the couple have managed to grow its reputation among Oxfordshire diners while keeping the pub at the heart of village life.
Their hard work and North's ability in the kitchen led to the pub being named one of only five rising stars in the 2008 Michelin guide, an award given to businesses expected to gain a Michelin star in the near future.
The Nut Tree Inn
- Address: Main Street, Murcott, Oxfordshire OX5 2RE
- Tel: 01865 331253
- Purchase cost: £700,000
- Set-up costs: £80,000
- Covers: 50
- Covers per week: 400
- Wet:dry split: 40:60
- Turnover last year: £370,000