It’s the culinary world’s most sought-after award, but just how do you keep hold of a Michelin star? Dave Lee goes behind the scenes of the Pipe and Glass.
The tiny East Yorkshire village of South Dalton seems to have little to boast about. It’s not that it’s not lovely – it has a beautiful Victorian church, a charming duck pond and some very desirable estate cottages – but really it’s just like any other pretty little Yorkshire village. The village pub, though, is very much something to boast about. The Pipe & Glass has retained a Michelin star for four years now and has just ended its year-long tenure as the Michelin Pub Of The Year. In other words, South Dalton has the best pub in the country.
To commemorate the end of this celebratory and extraordinary year, owner and head chef James MacKenzie invited the Yorkshire Post to spend a day in his kitchen to see exactly how you run a boozer better than anyone else.
The Pipe & Glass was originally a 15th-century gatehouse to the Hotham estate, which spreads out grandly behind what is now the pub’s garden. It was re-built as a pub in the 1700s but by the time James and his wife Kate (who runs front of house) bought it in 2006 the pub was very much in the doldrums. Within a few months they had re-decorated, re-arranged and re-opened to immediate acclaim. Word very quickly spread and soon it was recognised as the best place in the Riding to head for a pint, a bite and a warm in front of the fire.
Despite the awards and the acclaim, the Pipe & Glass hasn’t changed a huge amount in the intervening years. They’ve updated the tables, bought new cutlery and tweaked along the way but it’s still fundamentally a classic British pub serving classic British cuisine, albeit of the highest quality, with very little fuss. It’s still, first and foremost, a people’s pub.
People, though, are in short supply at a very chilly, pre-dawn 7.30am, when a lone figure arrives to turn on the lights and fire up the ovens. First in today is pastry chef Andy Pittaway, James’s brother-in-law and one of the pub’s longest-serving members of staff. He’s still flicking switches and filling the pub with life when James himself arrives. He is used to early starts.
“I get woken by our two kids every day, very early in the morning. You don’t really need an alarm clock when you’ve got toddlers,” he says as he takes off his coat. Underneath, he’s already in his chef’s whites.
James and Kate used to live upstairs in the pub but took one of the neighbouring cottages when it became available a couple of years ago and they now live a garden path’s length away. Their old living room has been turned into a private dining room, holding parties of up to 10 in luxurious solitude above the always-bustling bar.
“Chefs begin to appear around 8am and straight away deliveries start arriving – milk, cream, veg,” he explains. “Those all have to be checked and stored away. The rest of the chefs will be in by 9.30am and they spend the entire morning prepping.”
James now employs 12 chefs and by 10am the kitchen is a blur of peeling and chopping, mixing and beating. Pans start bubbling on the stoves and everywhere begins to smell very welcoming. It quickly becomes noticeable how little waste there is in the kitchen. Parts of vegetables or offcuts of meat which most of us would chuck in the bin are here thrown in a pot to make stocks and sauces. As the morning progresses, the stove top fills up with a seemingly random and ramshackle collection of bubbling pots into which bits are thrown all day long.
Amazingly, everyone knows exactly what’s going on all the time. James doesn’t shout or lambast, Ramsay-style, and no-one ever seems to stand around not knowing their job. It’s a fast, slick, efficient operation.
“I do lose my rag occasionally,” James gamely admits. “But generally everyone is great. We have a fantastic, tight team and I like to think I keep a happy crew.”
More than once James disappears, either through the back door to check on the constant stream of deliveries – today’s fish specials include some huge lobsters and the meat man brings boxes of partridge and sausages made to James’s own recipe – or to take calls or liaise with staff. “I try to stick in the kitchen but inevitably I get called away,” he says while signing for the veg delivery. “I can’t just be a chef, I have to run the business as well.”
One job he takes personal control of every morning is baking the bread for the day. Today it’s beer bread made with Two Chefs Ale, a brew he created with his old mentor, Andrew Pern, of the Star Inn at Harome. He’s only just got the loaves in the oven when Kate arrives with their kids, Toby and Molly, who Kate is taking to nursery.
“People often ask ,’how do you manage with the kids?’ but you just do,” James explains after the children have gone. “We’ve got a good network of friends and family and you make it work somehow. It’s not easy but it means our kids get to grow up in a lovely atmosphere, they’re confident because they interact with a lot of different people everyday.”
Front of house staff start appearing around 10am. They are just as cheerily efficient as the kitchen staff and by 11 in the morning the entire pub is swarming with life. By half past there are even punters waiting outside. The pub doesn’t actually open until midday.
Then, at around 11.40am the oddest thing happens. The whole kitchen falls quite silent. It’s simply that everything is done. Everything that needed chopping is chopped; all sauces, stocks and soups are simmering away and desserts are in the fridge awaiting consumption. This little army of chefs has nothing left to do but wait for the first orders to come in. Occasionally one of them may run a cloth over a surface out of habit but they mostly just stand around and enjoy this moment of quiet before the storm.
Just after the doors open at 12pm, slips of paper with orders scribbled on start arriving at the pass. James reads out what is required in a quiet voice (again, none of the histrionics we are used to seeing from TV chefs) and platefuls of food begin appearing for him to dress and send out.
“Typical,” James jokes. “The day we have the Yorkshire Post in to see how a fancy pants Michelin-starred pub works, the first order is for a sandwich.’
Food keeps leaving the kitchen in a steady stream for the next two hours, then the kitchen cleans down and prep starts for the evening service, which starts at 6pm and goes on till half past nine. The kitchen basically has two long sessions in one day. On a busy night, the Pipe & Glass does around 120 covers but for Sunday lunch they can do anything up to 180. They only have Monday off and, if today if anything to go by, the other six days must be relentless.
“I try to sneak out mid-afternoon to go see the kids and make their tea,” says James, not even noticing the irony in spending his daily break cooking.
“Then it’s back at it. My day ends by waiting for everyone to go, I clean the kitchen, lock up, usually around midnight, and go back home to bed.
“Then the whole day starts over again as soon as the kids wake me up the next morning.”
It’s a lifestyle that takes dedication and the stars and awards that continue to appear on the walls of the Pipe & Glass are as hard earned as they are well deserved.
“The awards aren’t our main focus, we just concentrate on serving good food with good Yorkshire hospitality and carry on that philosophy in everything that we do.
“When people come in through the front door it feels like they’re coming into your home and you want to look after them. It’s personal. You genuinely care and want people to leave happy.”