Despite its reputation as one of Yorkshire’s leading pubs and restaurants, The Hinchliffe at Hebden Bridge, pulled off a coup when it convinced larger than life Manchester chef, Robert Owen Brown, to cross the Pennines and look to bring his classic, British dishes to a new Yorkshire audience. Shirley Kumar caught up with him in between increasingly busy services.
The Hinchliffe Arms is named after a fabulously rich mill owning family who lived up the valley at Cragg Hall. For cycling fans it was famous for being just off the B6138, the longest continual ascent in England, and part of Le Tour de France when it visited the UK in 2014. It hopes to now become just as well known for its food and drink offer.
It was thanks to William Lees Jones, managing director of JW Lees, the sixth generation family brewer and pub group, that Robert Owen Brown has put his chef’s whites back on at The Hinchliffe. For he had sworn blind he was never going to run another restaurant. He was more than happy running pop up events and cooking for private or corporate events after a career that had seen him do more than most to put Manchester on the fine dining scene.
But once he had “agreed to take a look” at The Hinchliffe he was quickly smitten, not just by the potential of the restaurant, but its location.
In fact it was the pub’s rather inauspicious car park that won him over. Or more the fact it was so close to the local church. “It’s going to make one of the best wedding venues in Yorkshire. We can put a marquee in the car park, we are creating a small woodland area and we will offer hog roasts. Perfect!”
Just a couple of months in to his tenancy, he has a high profile wedding booked with the promise of plenty more to follow.
It’s still very much early days but Owen Brown has said he is keen to settle down himself at The Hinchcliffe rather than move from project to the next.
“If I am brutally honest, this is my last hurrah,” he says. One suspects his little girl Alice, is the driving force here. “I love the fact it’s a little village pub. It’s got a great little community and has a good village school. It’s got everything I want for my family. I want this to become the ‘posh’ pub in the area and I use the term ‘posh’ loosely.”
Classically trained Owen Brown cut his cloth at The Midland Hotel (The French) in Manchester. Despite being mercilessly bullied (he calls it character building), he was privileged to work as part of an 86-strong brigade where everyone had their role – butcher, baker, classically trained specialist chefs and three florists upstairs.
“For a young working class lad from Manchester to be polishing silver pots and things, it was as good as getting on the telly,” he says.
But he is best known for turning The Mark Addy on the banks of Salford, Manchester, into an iconic pub. Noticeably Owen Brown has set up home at The Hinchliffe with Keran Douglas-Clark, his right hand man at The Mark Addy as general manager. The Lees’ will be hoping they can do what they did with The Mark Addy and get the Hinchliffe in to the Top 100 restaurants in the UK.
Thanks to Fergus Henderson
Owen Brown might be a proud Mancunian, but he is quite happy describing himself as a northern disciple of Michelin starred chef Fergus Henderson (St John, London). The two are good friends. It was Henderson who was certainly the inspiration behind Owen Brown looking to make his name by recreating offal dishes of his childhood and turning them in to award winning fine dining.
There was certainly nobody outside St John creating dishes like pickled tripe, southern fried crispy squirrel and octopus stew with Yorkshire chorizo, that he had on the menu at the Mark Addy.
“Food should be honest,” he says. “A piece of salmon should look like a piece of salmon. I am not in the business of turning it into a circle and then piping smoke up its box and making it look like a dandelion. It’s not what I do.”
It was also the kind of food he was used to eating at home, growing up. Owen Brown’s father was a driver in the newspaper industry, his mother a legal secretary. The family lived in Moss Side, Manchester, for a while but then moved to Radcliffe, the hamlet in the Irwell Valley. As a young boy he did a paper round and on cold days, his mum used to put two boiled eggs in his pockets to keep his hands warm. Eggs he would then eat after he had finished his round.
He might be famous for his left field dishes, but for him it’s a matter of making the most of the ingredients he has.
“I can see the Saddleback pigs we use from the back door of the kitchen, the guy that brings my eggs sits on the end stool near the bar and is having a pint, and I have an arrangement with the farmer there,” he says pointing up the hill. “He’s got a small herd of Aberdeen bulls for us ready to go. We have access to organic courgettes, big tomatoes, wild garlic that grows around the land in season, and nettles that we have used for the curd cheese.”
Owen Brown has taken a soft approach since arriving at the pub in June. The menu has been very condensed, simple and pub classic. “I have to have a burger, a steak (albeit it being an absolutely fabulous piece of Aberdeen Angus beef), fish n chips and a pie on,” he says.
“I don’t want to scare people off. I know there is a client base here. I am always going to have to have those things on the menu but it’s just how we do it and add the cheffy bits.”
The folk at Cragg Vale have given him the green light, especially the gentleman who left freshly shot grey squirrels at his back door that Owen Brown created his signature dish, southern fried crispy squirrel. It was a big hit.
“We developed a dish the other week with kidney, tongue, oxtail, sweet bread, a bit of liver, good beef stock reduction served with horseradish dumplings. I was really pleased with it but thought it wouldn’t sell. But all 18 portions flew out of the kitchen.”
Although the pub classics will remain, signature dishes such as Vimto Trifle or in-season delights such as razor clams, saddle of red dear (venison) both from outside Fort William and fresh scallops from Isle of Mull. You may even have the chance to savour the Craggy Egg, (pickled egg, wrapped in 60% sausage meat, 40% Bury Black pudding, smoked paprika and English mustard).
Scotch egg with a difference – a Craggy Egg. Picture courtesy of Joby Catto
Not so gastro pub
“Will somebody please come up with another word!” says Owen Brown. “Why have we got to use a French term for a blimming English pub that happens to serve good food; it drives me crackers! A pub should serve good food. It shouldn’t have to be special and given a title because it does what it is supposed to do.”
Gastro or not, an average Sunday menu can offer delights such as macaroni with Whitby crab, chilli flakes and herbs, Sunday roasts of local aged beef sirloin with Yorkshire pudding, roast half poussin, and creamy fish stew with little peas and wild herbs.
“Food brings up location and places,” says Owen Brown. “On a wet soggy horrible day I want sausage and mash or a pie but sat by the sea, it has to be fish n chips. I would happily get in the van and drive 400 miles to Oban in Scotland just to eat a crab sandwich. I love offal, game and fish. Offal is my really big thing and I have slowly been sneaking it in with the locals and they are eating it.
It was his deliberate use of ‘little peas’ and not ‘petit pois’ on a menu, whilst at The Bridge pub in Manchester that first intrigued national food critic Jay Rayner, and formed the basis of their mutual respect.
“The peas aren’t French, I am not French, the pub is not in France why would I call the peas petit pois?” he claims.
Owen Brown is now one of four panellists on Jay Rayner’s BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet, the food equivalent to BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. He does three shows out of a series of eight and travels the country with Rayner discovering local produce.
Rayner clearly likes Owen Brown’s no nonsense approach. He once described him as: “Robert Owen Brown is the real thing…a chef who combines oceans of technique with an instinct to feed and a deep understanding of gutsy cooking.”
For example he recalls working at The Chester Grosvenor aged 16 and cooking French pigeon squab, passion fruit and English peas. “I had to take the peas out of the pod cut them in half and pipe carrot puree back into the pod. It looked phenomenal, all those colours, but I remember thinking this can’t be right. It didn’t make sense. Is that all we do? Cook to make pretty pictures?”
He can think of nothing worse than achieving a Michelin star. “I wouldn’t want to go for one. It’s not my thing. If I was given one, I would give it back. I would explode with the stress of looking after it.”
So far, his foray into the Calderdale valley has been well received. “We have a long way to go with the food. I am building my team and I am looking for passionate chefs.
“I can teach skills but it is very difficult to instil a work ethic and passion especially for the raw ingredient.”
Being part of the JW Lees group means he is slightly governed by what drinks he can offer by being part of a tenanted pub. But part of the appeal of working for such a group was their long standing commitment to driving quality both front of house and in the kitchens. You don’t become a sixth generation brewer without knowing your way around a drinks list.
“We can’t just stock any old alcohol, which, in all fairness isn’t that much of a problem as JW Lees own Willoughby’s an established wine merchants,” says Owen Brown. He is able to work with them to choose the right wines not only for the pub, but to go with the dishes and the customers he is keen to attract.
So far, so food. “The Pinot Noir and white Rioja is selling well so we know there is a market for good wines. We aim to serve five bottles of red and five whites by the glass and we are allowed a guest ale.”
Again Owen Brown wants to keep the offer simple, classic, but also with enough interest to keep returning customers happy, but also with a wine offer that is as re-assuring as the steak and kidney pies and classic fish and chips on the menu.
But Owen Brown is hoping to build the profile of the Hinchliffe up so that he can host exciting pop up events, and bring in high profile guest chefs and food and drink dining experiences.
- This is an edited version of an article that was first published on Eatnorth.co.uk, the new dedicated website aimed at covering the food and drink scene in the north of the UK produced by Shirley Kumar.