PAUL CLEREHUGH says he is looking forward to getting back in the kitchen at this year’s
PAUL CLEREHUGH says he is looking forward to getting back in the kitchen at this year’s Henley Festival.
And the chef proprietor of the Crooked Billet in Stoke Row promises that he will be cooking every meal in his riverside pop-up restaurant.
It will be the third year running that he replicates his popular eaterie at the five-day festival, which begins on Wednesday.
Paul, 51, says: “The intensity of cooking for so many people each night will be such a rush and it is so exciting being part of this crazy event with names such as Elton John, Elvis Costello and Shirley Bassey.
“I don’t get to cook a lot anymore as I have two teams of chefs and so much of my time is organising and paperwork. I support the chefs rather than shaking the pans and chopping the shallots.
“But at the festival I will cook every meal from the beginning of the night to the end. It will be really, really great being with my gang of chefs.”
He added: “We’re lucky because we are by the dressing room so the stars will hang out with us. It will be exciting.”
Paul says he loves rubbing shoulders with other chefs at the festival and admits there is some teasing that goes on.
“It’s always fun having a posh chef with a bag of Michelin stars,” he says. “I hope there will be some gentle teasing going on.
“There will be a few egos to tease when we have 1,000 people in our restaurant and they have none.”
Last year, Paul had the last laugh over celebrity chef Jason Artherton who tried his best to get some extra publicity.
Paul recalls: “James was one of the posh chefs last year and he had a very beautiful restaurant.
“The hairdresser Nicky Clarke was asked to have a photograph taken in his restaurant, I think it was for Hello! magazine.
“Jason is an excellent chef but Nicky had been drinking with us and he wasn’t fussed with Jason’s menu so he asked if he could have Crooked Billet food.
“Jason was furious but Nicky stuck to his guns and said he wanted Crooked Billet crispy duck with an oriental salad.
“So it was organised and Crooked Billet chefs cooked his food and it was served to him by Crooked Billet staff, wearing Crooked Billet aprons, in Jason’s restaurant.
“In this ego-centric chef world I am living in, it was infuriating for Jason. Chefs are even worse than the artists when it comes to egos.”
Last year, Paul’s restaurant served 5,000 people and is hoping to do about 20 per cent more covers this year if it doesn’t rain.
“We are a relaxed and informal, which we like, rather than some of the more posh restaurants,” Paul says. I would like to see maybe 1,200 people but we need it not to rain to do that as some of our tables and chairs are outside. I would still be pleased with 1,000 a night if it rains and we have a beautiful menu this year which I am confident will be flying out of the kitchen.”
Main dishes on offer this year include Cornish day boat sea bass served with asparagus, green beans, samphire and tarragon, free range herb and lemon chicken, broad bean, feta, pea, fennel and mint, slow roast crispy duck, crunchy Asian slaw with toasted peanut and sesame dressing.
Paul adds: “We are using as much local produce as we possibly can and last year’s big seller is back â€“ slow cooked Longhorn salt beef and its big greedy portions.
“New for this year is braised rabbit with chilli and coriander with quinoa, we have been working on that recipe over the last couple of weeks and it is beautiful.”
For dessert, Paul has bought a Mr Whippy ice cream machine and has a Belgian chocolate mousse recipe. “We are using really good local whipping cream,” Paul says. “It is a bit dirty but it is delicious.” Other desserts include Oreo cheesecake with salted caramel and a cheeseboard which has samples from Nettlebed Creamery.
But for Paul, apart from the food, it is the restaurant itself that sets him apart from the other eateries on offer.
He says: “One of the crazy things about the Henley Festival, and we are involved in a few festivals, is the time we get to set up the restaurant. At Glastonbury you have eight weeks to set up but at the Henley Festival everyone has two days.
“The turnaround at the back of the Henley Royal Regatta is incredible as you only have a limited time to pop an entire restaurant up there. We are allowed on-site at 9am on Tuesday morning to build a restaurant.
“We then quite literally build a restaurant and you have to bear in mind health and safety — there are no corners you can cut. You have to install restaurant-type extractor fans — you quite literally build a restaurant.
“What bugs me about festivals is that when you are doing it, it kind of looks like a festival — white tents. What we try and do with the Crooked Billet is we use old tables, furniture and a mish-mash of chairs and we are quite known for bringing to the festival wheelbarrows which are full of summer flowers. The restaurant looks like it has been built up with love and passion, which of course it has.”
Paul was invited to join the festival’s catering in 2014, alongside the Spice Merchant restaurant in Henley. He says: “Previously, all the catering was farmed out to a huge catering conglomerate but there had been a moan from the public that they wanted some local restaurants in there and then, my goodness, what a beautiful thing — we were approached and it was an honour to accept.”
Paul has run the Crooked Billet since 1989 and lives on a smallholding nearby, rearing beef and sheep and growing produce for the menu.
He is married to Sian and they have four daughters — Laura, in her 20s, Matilda, 14, Delilah, 11, and Florence, nine.
Hailing from Yorkshire and having been brought up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Paul’s first foray into fame was not through cooking but through playing the bass guitar in several punk bands.
He recalls: “When I was at school my weekend job was washing up in a pub. One day the chef in charge of the starters had called in sick and I did the starters and the day the chef who did the mains couldn’t come in due to a hangover I did the main courses.
“When I was 17 I was looking after the main courses in a pub in Northumberland but I moved down south before I got into cheffing in a big way.”
He played bass for punk outfits The Condemned, The Toy Dolls and with Ottway and Barrett — with whom he scored a number nine hit in 2002 with Bunsen Burner, which knocked the Pussycat Dolls out of the top 10.
Paul says: “I moved south with the band but I could cook and I enjoyed cooking. There is a similarity between playing bass and cooking as they are both creative and we’re doing something that hopefully people like.
“As I got older I wasn’t making much money with music so I ended up going back into cheffing and I cooked at Sloane Square in London for a year, as by then I wanted my own restaurant.”
Paul then approached a bank to get a loan to buy the lease of the Crooked Billet. But with only a background in music he was refused.
He then went to another bank and asked for a loan to buy a car — a Porsche — which he used to get the pub.
Paul recalls: “I wanted to find the cheapest pub I could get. I got a £20,000 loan for a Porsche, knowing they couldn’t come and reposess a non-existent Porsche.
Paul opened the Crooked Billet on December 11, 1989. He says: “I was 25 and still pretty green and I was just cooking the food I could cook, which was tasty. For the first year I would work every shift, every lunchtime and dinner service. I cooked and washed up.”
The restaurant quickly established a reputation and was named Time Out’s “Best Out of London” for two consecutive years and garnered entries in all the food guides. The Daily Mail referred to Paul’s restaurant as a gastropub — the first in Britain to receive the title.
The pub then did a little bit of television and appeared in Midsomer Murders and Jeeves and Wooster, among others.
But it wasn’t until 1997 that Paul really hit the headlines when feeding bangers and mash to Kate Winslet’s wedding guests.
Paul recalls: “She didn’t tell anyone — it was completely under the radar. But the press found out they were getting married and followed her to the Crooked Billet and that’s how they found out about us.
“There were no photos but once Kate had a few drinks she changed her mind and had one photograph with her husband Jim and her press team sent it out.
“We then got on the front page of every newspaper with them posing underneath the Crooked Billet sign and that had a massive lift for the business and our takings then doubled. So I am very grateful to Kate.”
He added: “Unfortunately the marriage didn’t last but I met Sam, her next husband, and got on with them well and I offered them a 20 per cent discount for the second time around but she graciously declined.”
Other famous faces can often be spotted at the Crooked Billet with the likes of Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White, Kylie Minogue, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Joanna Lumley regular visitors.
Paul says: “I am very much in love with the Crooked Billet — it really is my passion. I have thought about the reasons for our success lots and I think it’s down to the people that I am privileged to work with — they love doing what we do. This rubs off from the chefs and the front of house to the guests, as people see that we are genuine. We do things with passion and love.
“The food also has something to do with it. We cook the food that people want to eat rather than what chefs want to cook, and I think that can be the downfall for restaurants.”
Paul says he can’t wait for festival opening night, adding: “Watching the rest of Henley in their dinner jackets dancing is beautiful and I am delighted to be part of it.”
• The Henley Festival runs from July 6 to 10. For more information, visit www.henley-festival.co.uk