The White Hart at Fyfield was the overall winner of the Best Restaurant award at the Oxfordshire Restaurant Awards 2015. After their fabulous win, owner and Head Chef Mark Chandler was more than happy to share some sustainability tips with Good Food Oxford’s Hannah Fenton.
What do you love about local sourcing?
The freshness of the ingredients and the seasonality of our dishes and menu. I will go and have a look around our kitchen garden or the local woods and see what can be harvested or foraged and then plan my menu around this. Nothing can beat the taste and quality of freshly picked produce.
I also love being a part of a community and supporting that community. We get our eggs from the farmer up the road; we get our meat from local estates/shoots; local villagers swap their excess produce for a meal; one local even brings us fish from the local Farmoor reservoir.
What does seasonality add to your offer?
It is a fundamental part of our ethos and brings freshness and quality to our offering. Oxfordshire is full of amazing produce and we make the very most of it. Centuries ago people had to be seasonal and local but now with the advancement of transport links, anything can be available at any time but it is the quality that often suffers – if produce has been picked before it is ripe and then shipped around the world, the flavour will never be as good as something which is picked and on the plate in a few hours.
Every month I send out a seasonal recipe to all the customers on our database and the feedback is always fantastic. Last month we sent out a recipe for pumpkin so anyone carving pumpkins for Halloween could make pumpkin ravioli with the inside!
How do you know that provenance is becoming more and more important to customers?
People are more discerning now, it’s about food metres not food miles! People want to know where their food has come from and the feedback from listing our suppliers on our menu has been great. In the summer, our tempura courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta, mint and toasted pinenuts, went from garden to plate in ten minutes. A customer ordered the dish one day, brought a friend to try it a few days later and then brought her whole family the week after that! That’s when I know I’ve got it right.
How popular are your meat free options?
Very popular – perhaps because people know that they mainly come from our garden and we always try and do something a bit different, especially with the vegetarian dishes – like the tempura courgette flower in summer or the pumpkin and cep lasagne with pumpkin chips and mushroom ketchup we have on at the moment. We have got to know a lot of our customers very well over the years and have a good relationship with them which means they are always happy to give feedback – and it is very positive!
How do you make sure your staff are on board?
Tastings is the key. I guess I’m a feeder at heart! Every time a new dish comes on the menu, we will all taste it, which gives me feedback but also gives the front of house team the enthusiasm and knowledge to talk to customers about the dish and remember the ingredients. Staff also get involved in the garden, weeding and planting.
Food waste is a difficult problem, how do you approach it?
What food waste? There’s a huge cost to run this beautiful building, so very little is ever wasted. Margins are too tight – if I have made 14 portions of pate, the profit is the last one. The key is to be organised and order fresh every day and if we sell out we sell out, no apologies! We also try and use the whole of the animal. I can’t remember the last time I threw away a bone without making stock from it!
Any tips to restaurants to help them source better?
Make the most of local suppliers. Not only is there is so much fabulous produce available but it is also about building relationships with local people and businesses. We have built some great relationships and friendships over the years – those suppliers recommend us to people and we recommend them – it is a win win situation. Forage – we pick wild garlic from Appleton woods, fish for crayfish, collect mushrooms – it is all fresh and free! Design a kitchen garden – after the initial work and design, it is time to plant and maintain but the flavour of home grown produce is more than worth it. Put out the word that you are happy to swap locals surplus produce for a bite to eat – we get walnuts, damsons, gooseberries, parsnips, trout and more from our neighbours! Shout about the local produce to your customers – it is something to be proud of.
Any words of encouragement to other restaurants wanting to improve their sustainability credentials?
It just makes sense. It’s about doing the right thing. True, it’s not the cheapest way to run a business but we are proud to serve the food we do and our whole concept is about quality, fresh local produce. We fell in love with the White Hart and built our business around this concept. If you’re going to work that hard at something, you should do the best you can. Grow your own veg, it’ll change your life. If you’re in touch with nature, if you care about this planet and want the food to taste better, give it a go!