In early 2012 chef Ellie Richmond and partner Jack Bowles returned to the UK after an epic two year trip around Asia and Oceania.
Their travels had taken them to Australia where the couple had both landed jobs at The Station Hotel in Footscray, Melbourne, where acclaimed chef Shane Donovan holds court and on to New Zealand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, India and Nepal.
There was much sightseeing and as you would imagine of two people who have chosen different but at the same time complementary careers in the catering sector (Jack has held numerous management roles), eating and drinking too.
It would be fair to say the pair ate their way around that part of the world and in Australia and New Zealand at least, spent many enjoyable hours touring the two countries plethora of top class vineyards.
For Ellie and drink specialist Jack, their marathon trip wasn’t just a chance to explore new cultures and new places, but offered a possibly never to be repeated opportunity to get a real taste for some of the world’s richest and most diverse cuisines.
When they finally returned to Britain they knew exactly where they wanted their combined futures to lay and came up with a three point game plan.
“In no particular order, it was to start our own business, have a baby and get married,” Ellie, 39, says with a laugh.
Son Ralph duly arrived nearly a year ago. And 12 months on from that momentous event, Ellie and Jack, 33, will come September 19 have their names above the door of their own place with the opening of The Fox Hole pub in Piercebridge near Darlington.
That only leaves marriage to cross off their list. But that is a distinct possibility in the next 12 months.
First though Ellie and Jack need to get their feet under the table at what is the region’s newest gastro pub specialising in traditional and contemporary British-inspired favourites.
These will undoubtedly include the addition of spices and even cooking techniques garnered on hers and Jack’s travels. Not that Ellie is planning on launching a full Asian menu.
“I will be adding a few key ingredients as a nod to our travels rather than doing a Vietnamese or Thai menu,” she explains. “For me, a good village pub means serving great food and drinks that aren’t intimidating, but will also add something that tempts people to try something different.
“Diners should expect traditional and contemporary British favourites on their plates which I’ll be adding my own special touches to.”
She admits she had little real understanding of Asian cooking before jetting out to that part of the world. “Now I appreciate it more and I now like to use the odd key ingredient in a dish.
“Where it’s really come into play though is at home. Jack loves Asian food.”
What Ellie did bring home with her was many ideas culled from working at The Station Hotel on how to get the best out of meat. Australians love their meat, especially beef.
“I worked with some amazing meat at the hotel and it gave me a lot of ideas on how to make the most of it and a renewed appreciation of local produce,” she says.
Shane Donovan – who trained here in the UK under legendary French chef Pierre Koffmann – has an epic menu of dried-aged steaks and a giant cow is even featured on one wall at the hotel, its parts outlined and numbered.
A recent review of the hotel in Time Out Melbourne commented that the waiter guides diners through the choices on the menu “pointing out the bavette from the rib eye, explaining that a happy cow is a tasty cow and that the one you’re about to enjoy frolicked freely in a Gippsland field.”
The Fox Hole’s menu will feature more than just beef, though. Other choice cuts and seafood from Hodgson Fish of Hartlepool will be in abundance and the bar will serve local brews from the likes of Coxhoe’s Sonnet 43 and Mithril Ales from the nearby village of Aldbrough St John.
Ellie has her own smoker. Smoked pigeon with fennel, honey and ginger is one of the dishes on the menu along with a selection of other cured meats and fish.
As far as possible Ellie is using local produce and says she has discovered a small scale producer “whose pig is next to none. He breeds Tamworth’s and I will be getting as much meat as I can from him. If possible, I’d like to use his beef as well.”
The pub also happens to overlook Piercebridge Organic Farm. From the flat above the pub that Ellie and Jack share with Ralph, she can look out over the fields where sheep and English Longhorns graze.
Piercebridge Organic Farm also rears chickens for meat and eggs, turkeys and pigs as well as Aberdeen Angus cattle.
Ellie hopes to be able to make use of The Fox Hole’s close proximity to the farm on the pub’s daily specials board.
The opening of The Fox Hole has been made possible thanks to a partnership with Tim Wilks and his wife Gill. Tim is the owner of the North East’s first boutique bowling venue, Lane7 in Newcastle, and his desire to undertake another leisure project coincided with Ellie’s wish to head back to her native North.
One of five children, she grew up in Stokesley and Darlington before departing for pastures new.
As it happened, Ellie and Gill were classmates at Barnard Castle School and had remained friends. Tim says: “Ellie and Jack are two people I have known privately for some time. Their knowledge, skills and unnerving commitment to great service impress me greatly.
“Their plans to run their own pub and dining operation matched our eagerness to expand our own leisure operations.”
They acquired what was the Carlbury Arms earlier this year and since then it’s had a £250,000 facelift. A contemporary open kitchen has been installed while the ‘wellie’ bar offers a more relaxed space.
Further drinking and dining areas, including an expansive new pub garden, have also been created along with 15 new full and part-time jobs.
Ellie describes the partnership with Tim and Gill as “perfect in all senses. I feel very much back at home now.”
She and Jack are keen that despite the name change (during its 200 year life as a pub it’s also been known as The Wheatsheaf), The Fox Hole should continue to be a focal point in the small and picturesque village of Piercebridge, which stands on the site of a Roman Fort built at the point where Dere Street crossed the River Tees.
“We very much hope The Fox Hole is a facility that those living in and around Piercebridge will find attractive,” Ellie says. “It’s with these people in mind that we’ve created this.”
Ellie’s kitchen skills have largely been learnt ‘on the job.’ From the age of 14 she waitressed at hotels and pubs near her home and had planned to go to catering college.
But in the late 1990s she met Frances Atkins – one of only six female Michelin recognised chefs in the UK who has held one star continuously since 2003. She spent five years working under Frances’ tutelage at the Yorke Arms at Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire.
“I learnt on the job doing whatever needed to be done, from vegetable preparation to helping out in the larder section. My training was quite high end. I knew her kitchen inside out and I worked solely with her.
“But in my mid-20s I realised I needed to experience other kitchens. I always knew she was going to get a Michelin star at some point, but I needed to further my own career.
“But working with Frances was amazing.”
Ellie moved to Essex and from there became head chef at The White Lion in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where she stayed for another five years. “I think that was my proudest moment. It took me about a year to turn the kitchen around and I learnt so much. We really celebrated Suffolk produce there.”
She then went to London where she decided to step back from the world of food and instead looked after her sister’s children. Eventually she ended up working for celebrity chef John Torode at his Smiths of Smithfield restaurant where she met Jack – their last jobs before heading off on their travels.
It was, she says, “a really fun and social place to work. But when the chance to go travelling came along it was a now or never moment. So we grabbed the chance.”
It was travelling that perhaps helped Ellie recognise that her heart has always been in the North. “I’m a country girl at heart and I had said to Jack that at some point in my life I wanted to come back up here whether now or when we retired.
“But it just happened that everything came together now. We saw the pub and knew we couldn’t turn down the chance to get it.”
While it’s a partnership between the Wilks’ and Ellie and Jack, the latter two will be left to run The Fox Hole. At the moment Ellie’s aspirations don’t extend beyond turning The Fox Hole into a well-liked local venue.
“We just want to be popular, be busy and celebrate local produce, the seasons and do good food. If the accolades should happen to come our way, then fantastic.”
And how does she think she and Jack will cope working and living together?
“We met at work, travelled for two years together and we haven’t killed each other yet! I’d say that’s a pretty good start.”
- The Fox Hole, Piercebridge, County Durham, DL2 3SJ, www.the-foxhole.co.uk