In the world of celebrity cheffery, stars rise and fall just as in other areas of show business. There are the up-and-coming young Turks, fresh from a profile in Observer Food Monthly, a first book deal, a reality show win, or a slot as a competitor on Great British Menu. There are those hitting the top of their game, with multiple restaurant openings, ubiquitous tv appearances, and mentor or judging roles on Great British Menu or Professional Masterchef. Then there are those on the wane, the overexposed, the reality winner of 5 years ago, or those simply deemed past their use-by-date by the fickle world of TV.
One man whose star is surely about to hit its zenith is Tom Kerridge. With 2 Michelin Stars under his belt at The Hand and Flowers, a couple of best selling books to accompany his TV series, and now a presenting role on BBC2's Food & Drink, his popularity is so great that you can't get a table at The Hand and Flowers for nearly 9 months. To satisfy demand for his food, the slimmed-down Tom has now opened another restaurant down the road in Marlow, and it has a no reservation policy which means anyone can turn up to see what all the fuss is about.
I'm often asked which celebrity chef I like the most, and I have to say Tom would be up there. I've never met him, although I did hire him before megafame came calling (to him, not me) to cook for an event at Divertimenti where I used to work. Unfortunately the event itself happened after I had left so I never got to work with him, but I hear he was a top bloke. Whenever you see him on TV, he is always smiling and having a laugh, and seems to lack that sadistic bullying side that other Michelin-starred chefs seem to cultivate. Of course that opinion is purely formed by the gogglebox - he could be a tyrant for all I know.
Three or so years ago, we managed to snag a table at the then one star Hand and Flowers at a day's notice and we had a cracking lunch outside in the sunshine. I've recommended the place to numerous people since who have all raved about the food. Last week we returned to Marlow to try out Tom's new place, The Coach, a small plate restaurant in the also small surroundings of a former Chinese takeaway. Tom seemed to be following the successful formula for brand extensions practised by other Michelin Starred chefs, namely a more casual bistro or pub offering which makes their food more accessible to the hoi polloi - think Brasserie Blanc for Raymond, or The Hinds Head for Heston, Purnell's Bistro for Glynn Purnell, The Narrow for Ramsay, or Rogan & Co for Simon Rogan in Cartmel. The thing is The Hand & Flowers is already a pretty casual place, albeit with top notch food, so would the difference between the two restaurants be that noticeable?
We took our mini food critic with us and during the course of the meal we realised that this style of restaurant is perfect for introducing small people with curious palettes to high end restaurant food. Although I know now that our 6 year old would be unfazed by the food at any fine dining establishment, I'm not sure she would have the patience to sit through 7 courses of a tasting menu in the formal whispery environment of the dining rooms of Hibiscus or Le Gavroche. Here though, in a buzzy, relaxed venue sitting on a banquette in a little window nook, she could dip into small plates of proper lusciousness, trying new flavours and deciding what she liked (pretty much everything).
The menu at The Coach is fairly extensive, featuring dishes divided into meat, non-meat, and desserts. All are starter or snack portions ranging from £4 for chips with bearnaise to £16 for rotisserie rib of beef. There are some classics from the Hand and Flowers menu, such as Moules Marinieres with Stout Foam and Crispy Pigs Head, as well as new dishes developed for The Coach. We ordered a few dishes to share, something I normally hate doing, but not knowing the portion size we under-ordered and had to go back for a second round. The food came as and when it was ready, in no particular order, and with no ceremony or pretentiousness. Yet the relaxed nature of the service belied the seriousness of the cooking. The food is of the same standard as The Hand and Flowers, perhaps with slightly simpler garnishes.
Honor, drawn by those magical words , Yorkshire Pudding, went straight for the most expensive item on the menu and was reluctant to share the rotisserie beef when it arrived.
"Daddy this is the best Yorkshire Pudding ever!", she declared, until I gave her THE LOOK, at which point she retracted her statement, or rather added, "...apart from yours, of course."
We made our way through a simple Cauliflower Soup with Ox, a sublime Potted Crab with Cucumber Chutney, Crispy Pigs Head with Sweet Celery and Apple, Confit Chicken , Apricot and Girolle Terrine, Pork Loin with Pickled Cabbage, Mussels with Stout Foam, shatteringly crispy Chips with Béarnaise, and the desserts of Banana Custard with Dates and Pistachios, and Fruit Crumble with Custard Ice Cream.
I thought every dish with the exception of the terrine was memorable, but for me the stand out dish was the Mussels with Warm Stout. It was unforgettable, almost like the first time I ate mussels done traditionally, but this time deeper in flavour, with that unmistakable flavour of truffle and a slight bitterness from the stout. Definitely a grown up dish but loved by everyone including Honor.
The bill came to about £80 for 2 and a half people, not including service (and we are doing dry January so no wine either). The restaurant was busy for the whole time we were there (12pm-1.30pm on a Sunday lunchtime) but turnover is fairly quick so those waiting were seated without too much of a wait. Arrive just before 12pm to be sure of a lunch table.