Getting to see a great chef at work is a rewarding experience.
Diane and I have lunched before at The Old Vicarage in the little village of Ridgeway, just a stone’s throw south of Sheffield, Yorkshire, perhaps 18 months ago. It was a long, lazy and ultimately unbelievably satisfying gourmet experience. Extraordinary food enjoyed with a glass or two of champagne. Owner chef Tessa Bramley stopped by to chat as we enjoyed post-prandial coffee in the lovely sitting room overlooking the gardens. As much as we enjoyed the food, we took an immediate liking to her and promised to return on a future visit to England.
It’s been far too long, but early in November we made it back, again for lunch, as I fear driving on Yorkshire’s tiny, winding country roads after dark, which comes early at this time of year. Tessa was at her desk just off the dining room when we arrived. We persuaded her to sit with us as we enjoyed another glass of champagne in the sitting room before the attentive Walter presented the menus. I dared not ask her what was good. I’m sure she would have been offended that I thought anything was better than anything else on the menu. You can check my reviews on Trip Advisor if you want to see what we had and what I thought about it, but that’s not the point of this story.
We continued our conversation after lunch over several cups of coffee, back in the sitting room. Once I had mentioned to Tessa that I was researching interesting food for my new TV series coming soon to the Canadian airwaves, she revealed that she had hosted many of her own shows and appeared on many more. I felt like a newbie, though not because of her, but because I quailed at the depth of her knowledge of food. I mention my cookbook and food blog and she trumps me with four of her own. I reveal I have her Traditional Puddings in my library. Always the inquisitive one, I ask how she got started.
She tells me her early years were spent in London, studying teacher training in home economics (as it was then known). She became a teacher but it didn’t suit her, so switched to selling for a high-end Scandinavian frozen food company. She went into stores such as Harrods doing cooking demonstrations in the early 60s, years before it was a common supermarket practice. Back in the north, she joined another food company as part of a team that crossed the country selling their pastes and spreads. This was a terrific opportunity for a young woman, provided with a white company car, dressed in Mary Quant mini-skirted style, selling to mostly male store buyers, who probably didn’t know what had hit them. On one of these selling trips she met her future husband Peter, who rather romantically chased her across the land with bouquets of flowers. After she married she returned to Sheffield, had a baby and went back to teaching home economics part-time.
When her husband was made redundant, he surprisingly suggested they open a restaurant. Tessa leased space vacated by an Indian restaurant in Sheffield City Centre in 1980. In spite of a betting shop to one side, a slot machine dive on the other, a night club upstairs and a car park opposite, she succeeded with a lunch time spot. If the folks coming up the road were dressed nicely, they were probably coming to Toffs, as the restaurant was named. To bring the punters in Tessa cooked in the windows and stuck an tuxedoed manikin in the door. After a four-year run Tessa wanted to do more exciting things and opened on Friday and Saturday evenings as well.
With the success of Toffs they bought The Old Vicarage in Ridgeway in 1986, just 12 minutes from Sheffield, and opened in its present form in 1987. Their first year they won Newcomer of the Year in the Good Food Guide, and later two stars in Egon Ronay’s Restaurant Guide. In 1998 they were awarded one star in the Michelin Guide. Other awards followed: County Restaurant of the Year, Northern Restaurant of the Year and many more. Famed Sunday Times reviewer A.A. Gill gave her five stars. But while the accolades and the awards were nice, they weren’t the whole story.
Taking inspiration from what occurs in nature, this inquisitive cook asks what goes naturally with what and what succeeds. As a young child she was taught to forage, living near the countryside, and these youthful enthusiasms still inform her food today. Her kitchen revolves around the garden. She prepares country cooking, properly grounded in nature and the seasons. All of the fresh produce used at The Old Vicarage is grown in the kitchen garden or comes from the nearby farms.
By now its mid-afternoon and the buzz of our lunchtime champagne is wearing off. I think Tessa has enjoyed our chat as much as I have, as she invites me into the kitchen to meet her culinary team.
Chef Nathan has been with her for years. He’s now fully engaged prepping for a busy dinner session, but allows me to watch him cook. A big man, the dance as he moves from sauce pot to flaming pan and over to the prep table is one of grace and elegance. He arranges the food and dabs of sauce on the plates with something approaching a lover’s touch.
There’s youth in the kitchen too. Sous-chef Alex is making tiny tortellini stuffed with balls of mushroom, which will grace the roast saddle of hare appetiser. Commis chef Lewis is so tall, he makes me feel as though I’m standing in a hole in the floor, and he has armfuls of tats to keep him company as he works away on pastry offerings in the back of the kitchen. He’s learning his art in a top kitchen from the ground up. When I ask if I can take a picture of the team, Louis hides his tats at the back of the group.
Have a look at the photos I took of three of the dishes and you’ll see why you really should drop by if you’re ever in the area. Heck, it’s not far from the M1 and London is less than three hours away. Perhaps city dwellers can be dragged out of their self-satisfied stupor to have a really, really top notch country culinary experience. One can live in hope. Tell Tessa Nigel sent you. Perhaps she’ll ask Walter to pour you a glass of good champagne.