When Michael Ibbotson took the plunge by investing his savings and his soul into the Durham Ox, unless you were looking for fish and chips, Yorkshire wasn’t exactly known as a foodie destination.
MICHAEL Ibbotson and his wife Sasha moved to a new house a few months ago, and he’s grumbling about the need to relearn how to cook using the Aga already that was already in the kitchen.
“I spend a lot of time swearing at it - there’s a lot of trial and error, which I’m not used to at all,” he says. Despite this whinge he seems to be one of those blokes who easily sees reasons to be cheerful.
Well, on this occasion trial and error has produced a fantastic homemade pepper, onion, ginger and tomato chutney, served hot with fine Yorkshire cheese toasted on delicious sourdough. A clever zing that elevates the dish is a concealed slick of Dijon mustard.
Evidently at home he follows the philosophy that has attracted awards for the small chain of North Yorkshire village inns that he and his partner named Provenance Inns a few years ago. A fresh Italian coffee is in your hand before you get your coat off; there’s homemade rich fruit cake and a little machine in the corner adds sparkle to your glass of water.
When talking about hospitality in relation to the their portfolio of six gastropubs and a boutique hotel in Harrogate, Ibbotson mentions warmth, decor, a friendly welcome and of course food made from fresh, high quality ingredients that are not over-fussy.
Ibbotson and his ‘crew’ as he calls them have just had a shindig for 250 to celebrate 15 years since, as a 28-year-old, he bought the Durham Ox at Crayke out of receivership and breathed new life into it.
It was an iconic Yorkshire Inn that had lost its way. When he reopened it after a spruce up and rethink of menus in 1999, it was turning over £6 -10,000 a week. Today, with 1,000 plus diners a week, he’d be unhappy if the place took less than £25,000. “I remember that, while the sale was still being completed, my brother and I went over to do an inventory. Not knowing who we were when we went in, we heard a member of staff answering a customer’s query with ‘Some posh kid with a rich dad…’ She still works there and we have a laugh about it now.”
He says it wasn’t the first and won’t be the last time he’s had to fend-off criticism for having been educated at Ampleforth, the son of a well-to-do forestry expert whose work meant some of Michael’s early years were spent in Malaysia.
“Yes, my father helped by investing in the business,” says Ibbotson. “But he’s a Yorkshire man and if he hadn’t felt it was a sound thing there were plenty of other places he could had put the money.”
Ibbotson maintains that, even with a public school education and some family cash to call on, his business’s success has been all about “hard work, long hours and determination”.
There have been many exciting times since 1999, when he took ownership of the Durham Ox, but the bedrock was the 10 years before that, spent learning the hospitality industry inside out.
“My Italian mum and Yorkshire farmer’s son dad met at Aberdeen University. She was a very resourceful and clever woman, as well as a brilliant home cook,” says Michael, who as a schoolboy he loved going back to Malaysia, where menus were infused with many influences including Indian. In his late teens he pot-washed at a pub and moved on to prepping food.
“I then did a year of business studies but wasn’t too happy and changed to Westminster Kingsway Catering College, which was an old school, high-class training ground - all white table cloths and tall hats. I loved it.”
A six-month placement at the five-star Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge followed. “I experienced bullying for being a boy from a posh school,” remembers Michael. “I didn’t let it bother me, although perhaps it meant I worked harder to prove myself.”
A hectic seven years also took him to El Vino in Fleet Street, the smart Chez Max in Chelsea and a sports bar in Lanzarote run by English bon viveur Peter Grubb (corr), whose words of wisdom included: “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it better than anyone else.” After a spell at Graham Thompson’s Chez Max, Ibbotson headed back to his native Yorkshire and worked as a chef at Hazlewood Castle before moving to Wood Hall near Wetherby. He remembers 1999 as a year of incredible highs and lows. Deciding to put his savings into a country pub, months of work went into a project that fell through, with the loss of £12,000 in fees.
“I was in my local one evening when someone said that the Durham Ox at Crayke was in receivership. I couldn’t believe that had happened to such an iconic Yorkshire pub. It was the right time for me. I was ready to be in charge of my own fortunes.”
He bought it that October, but there was a lot more to learn. Just before the end of his first year, an accidental fire forced a temporary closure.
“It was a real wake-up call, and only then did I fully realise that other people’s lives and livelihoods were in my hands,” he says. “I continued to work around the clock, didn’t have a holiday for three years and ploughed everything back into the business.”
He gradually made alterations to the garden, luxury guest rooms were added and Ibbotson continued to pursue his ambition that the pub should have something for all age groups.
“At the 15th anniversary party recently there were members of one family who had celebrated a christening, an 18th, a 21st, an engagement, a wedding and a 40th wedding anniversary at the pub.”
A few years ago Ibbotson went into partnership with farmer Chris Blundell, and they have refurbished and relaunched five other historic North Yorkshire Inns - The Black Bull at Moulton, The Crown and Cushion at Welburn, The Punchbowl Inn, Marton-cum-Grafton, The Carpenters Arms, Felixkirk and The Oak Tree Inn, Helperby.
More recently they opened the West Park Hotel in Harrogate. Blundell’s Mount St John estate near Thirsk provides much of the fresh seasonal produce for the business’s kitchens. They encourage passion and individuality in their chefs, and menus are not replicated across the group.
The 2015 Good Pub Guide lists Provenance Inns as Pub Group of the Year, which clearly delights Michael Ibbotson. But he says he won’t ever take his foot off the gas.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a glass of Dom Perignon or a pint of beer - it still has to be served at the right temperature in a clean glass. These might sound like small or obvious things, but they matter hugely. Just as importantly, I don’t allow swearing or bullying in the kitchen or anywhere in the business.
“That kind of thing gave the business a bad name years ago, and there is much less of it now. It certainly has no part in what we do.”
So are the knights on white chargers set to rescue more of Yorkshire’s country inns? “Finding the right sites is difficult…but yes, we are always on the look-out.”