Tuddenham Mill is proof that the wheels of progress keep turning, with the 250-year-old Suffolk hotel having refined its offer during the pandemic. Chef-patron Lee Bye tells Tessa Allingham how he's had the confidence to ring the changes.
Towards the end of July, a new hashtag popped up on the Tuddenham Mill Instagram feed – #newangles. Instead of the familiar picture of this watermill-turned-hotel in rural Suffolk, taken through a voluminous weeping willow towards the mill's sky-scraping chimney and weather-boarded walls, the photograph was taken from the other side of the reed-edged millpond, from a house with a scarlet front door and elegant Georgian proportions.
Agellus Hotels, Tuddenham Mill's parent company and owner of the Lifeboat Inn and the Chequers Inn, both in Thornham, North Norfolk, bought the Mill House mid-pandemic for an undisclosed sum. The owners of 45 years wanted to see it reconnected with the rest of the 250-year-old mill; back in the day, it would have been home to the miller.
The purchase is the latest step in what chef-patron Lee Bye calls "Tuddenham 2.0". He admits that the 21-bedroom hotel, in its 12 meadowed acres near Newmarket, had "only simmered" pre-pandemic, despite having a 55-cover, three-AA-rosette restaurant, and rooms smart enough to have held four silver AA stars in 2015. It needed something – a new angle – to ignite its potential.
The Mill House will, after a complete refurbishment, provide a fresh layer of business opportunities. It's a rambling, blank-canvas space with seven bedrooms, original fireplaces, sashes and shutters, large dining and lounge areas and a domestic Aga kitchen, which Bye plans to transform into what he calls a "social eating area".
His ideas spill out: a place to learn and be inspired, tea in the waterside garden with its greenhouses and veg garden ("we'll tidy it up, but I don't want it over-tidy – this is rural Suffolk!") and magnificent cherry tree. "I can see the whole building being let for family gatherings, private parties – we could host wine tastings in the Dairy [a cool, arch-roofed, semi-cellar space]. Guests could self-cater or we could send over a chef. Pick ‘n' mix!"
The hotel's gardeners have cut overgrown roadside shrubs to reveal elegant metal railings and the red door with its classic fanlight. Planning permitting, a bridge will connect the Mill House to the main hotel. Innovation through crisis
The purchase has been possible largely because of how Tuddenham Mill forged a path through the pandemic. Like many rural hotels over summer, occupancy is at a record high. Bye has just one bedroom to sell before hitting a 100% occupancy rate for September – which is making him fidgety during our interview – it's at 90% for October and 72% for November. These are unheard-of levels, says Bye. "We traded for seven months out of 12 in 2020, but we've had a record year."
The pandemic allowed the team to be brave with new revenue streams, which have ultimately tipped the hotel and its restaurant from simmer into rolling boil. "That Noma burger inspired me! I remember thinking that day, ‘If René Redzepi can do a burger, than we as an industry certainly can'.
"But it's not easy. A lot of chefs I find are insecure. They have their identity and they're shit-scared of moving away from it. They're worried about losing accolades, or putting off regulars. But the pandemic forced us all to rethink."
The Secret Garden stretch tent offered simple boxed meals through summer 2020 – burgers, salads, arancini and lobster rolls. "Getting the food there from the hotel kitchen was difficult, but the team adapted superbly. The golf buggy never worked so hard!"
Autumn and winter 2020 saw the stretch tent replaced by a tipi in the carpark and a robust ‘mussels-meats-wheat' menu. "The mood-board was ‘lumberjack, Mumford & Sons, fire, lumps of wood'," says Bye. "It worked. It was easier to manage. Two starters, four buns – with a lobster one for a Tuddenham touch – and hot doughnuts."
Come summer 2021 that same tipi migrated to a spot under the willow, and there it will stay as the permanent Tipi by the Stream. "It looks awesome where it is. Like it was meant to be," he says. Its 2021 iteration is a tweaked rerun of last year's menu, a lunchtime offer including the likes of a mangalitza pork bun with crispy guanciale, salsa verde and pickles (£16.50), Brancaster mussels with Grain Culture bread (£18), and a malted vanilla affogato (£6), and six hot doughnuts (£6).
I used to see collaboration as giving over control, diluting, compromising, but now I see it as a mutual benefit
The tipis with their straightforward menus and average spend of £20 opened the hotel to new customers. So too did lockdown collaborations with Steak & Honour, the Cambridge-based burger van that occasionally parked up at Tuddenham Mill for click and collect orders. "It worked for both our businesses. [The founder of Steak & Honour] Leo Riethoff had a new venue to shout about, and we could thread a quality burger brand into a place that wasn't associated with burgers.
"Suddenly, all these different people were in our car park – a new crowd. I used to see collaboration as giving over control, diluting, compromising, but now I see it as a mutual benefit."
Bye built on the realisation and decided to work harder at supplier relationships. "When we came out of the third lockdown, I said to the team ‘less time on the chopping boards, more time sourcing ingredients'. I asked everyone to come back with a new supplier.
"Will [Reyner, restaurant manager] came back with Thorne Wines [Cambridge] and that led us to Essex winery, Saffron Grange, and we now sell their sparkling wine. I found Malloy's butchers in Cambridge, and produce supplier Smith & Brock. Harvey [Thompson, junior sous] suggested Courtyard Dairy for cheese, Abi [De'Ats, senior sous] argued for Mike Warner at A Passion for Seafood." The relationship with Ely-based Grain Culture strengthened, with the family-run bakery supplying milk buns for the tipi.
Eat, drink and be merry
It's impossible to say how many of those who drove up to Tuddenham Mill to collect their Steak & Honour fix have since eaten Upstairs at the Mill. But the hotel's dining room, renamed and now open only for dinner, is regularly full of people coming for its tasting menu-led offer. "We have two very strong audiences engaged in our business now. The magic moment was not turning the outdoor tap off, but keeping it fully cranked alongside the main restaurant. Full flow!"
Key to keeping customers coming, of course, is delivering what they want, consistently, at a price they're happy to pay. The plan to offer tasting menu-only (five or seven courses) has softened in the light of feedback, and to shore up hotel revenue. "We've added a short à la carte to drive room bookings, not restaurant bookings. We can't afford to lose the room bookings – especially Sunday evenings – because a guest doesn't like the look of the menu, so we offer Orford lobster, chips and aïoli (£38), or retired dairy ribeye steak with sauce Diane (£33). It's about knowing what market is locked into the property and catering for it. We need to fill 21 bedrooms every night. When we do that we're onto a winner."
We traded for seven months out of 12 in 2020, but we've had a record year
Still, the daily tweaked tasting menu is less complex than before. Multiple elements are out, in favour of just three or four components such as Holkham Estate venison, trompette mushrooms, fregola and red mustard leaf, or Tunworth cheese, Discovery apple and fig leaf.
"I need the menu to work with the situation we're in right now with staff shortages and unpredictable supplies and uncertainty. We've got a great team, full of enthusiasm, but I have to be realistic about what's achievable."
Creating the pared-back menu was enjoyable. "Before Covid, I was so edgy about losing money running the business, yet I was in treacle from a creativity point of view. We've enjoyed doing less prep but really focusing on the individual components on the plate. It's been refreshing. The Gigha halibut finished with seaweed salt with runner bean chutney from our gardens is my favourite at the moment – the ultimate in seasonal cooking."
Tuddenham Mill has its foundations in the Domesday Book, its industrial and architectural heritage in the 18th century, its heart in rural west Suffolk. New angles keep all that intact, but the hotel and its restaurant are being directed firmly forward.
Contact and details
Tuddenham Mill, High Street, Tuddenham St Mary, Suffolk IP28 6SQ
Chef-patron Lee Bye
Restaurant manager Guillermo ‘Will' Reyner
Covers Upstairs at the Mill: 55; Tipi by the Stream: 40
Rate From £165 B&B
Agellus Hotels is owned by Mark Harrod, owner also of Fenmarc Produce, the retail-focused veg prep and packing business based in Elm, Lincolnshire, and Pembrokeshire-based Puffin Produce. Agellus bought Tuddenham Mill in 2007, the Lifeboat Inn and the Chequers Inn in 2015 and the Mill House in summer 2021.
Lee Bye has spent most of his working life – half his 35 years in fact – at the stove at Tuddenham Mill, working as a young chef under Gordon McNeil, through the glittery Paul Foster years as sous, then returning as head chef, on Foster's departure in 2014, after a brief stint elsewhere.
"Gordon really instilled discipline in me and Paul developed my palate as a chef. Working with them were two key moments for me," he explains.
Bye was promoted to chef-patron in 2019, with responsibility for all aspects of the Suffolk hotel, and two pubs – the Lifeboat and the Chequers – 60 miles away in North Norfolk. That's 48 bedrooms, 2,400 covers a week on average, 114 people in total.
Bye's potential beyond the kitchen was spotted by the Acorn Scholarship awarding panel in 2016, the same year that he won an Acorn Award. It spurred him to embark on a process of personal professional development beyond the stove, and to steer a culture change at Tuddenham Mill.
"When I first became chef-patron I sat at that second desk in reception for two days, in laptop-mode. The phone didn't stop, there were people everywhere and I watched the reception team interact with everyone. Stepping out of the kitchen for me was critical in understanding how important it is for a business to be in the right place culturally in order to be successful. Culture always comes first.
"Before, it was all about brawn and long hours. Now, I ask myself what a person wants from their role, what their strengths are, and I build a team from that. It's a balance, especially with young people. You don't want to lose them, but you have to keep creating opportunities for them; inspiring them."
From the Upstairs at the Mill tasting menu
- Wild oyster mushrooms, salsify, truffle
- Yorkshire Wold beef short rib, tarragon, broad beans
- Gigha halibut, runner bean chutney, seaweed salt
- Holkham Estate venison, trompettes, fregola, red mustard leaf
- ‘The Enigma' – chocolate, sea buckthorn, cobnuts
Five courses: £49 (£89 with five paired wines). Seven courses: £60 (£120 with wine)
Wine pairings are devised by Cambridge-based Thorne Wines with restaurant manager Guillermo ‘Will' Reyner. They include a crisp 2019 Albariño from the Bodegas Laureatus winery in Rias Baixas, northern Spain, with the halibut, and a full-bodied 2017 Barovo from the Macedonian Tikveš winery with the venison.