Just over eleven years ago the restaurateur Catherine Butler and her husband, the furniture designer Ahmed Sidki, were living happily in London’s Notting Hill. Coming to stay with friends in the Somerset town of Bruton, they were told that an old, run down chapel was for sale in the high street. They went to take a look, and the rest is history.
After a decade of builders, joiners, plumbers, painters and electricians, they are embarking on a new and exciting chapter of their career: they are setting up a cookery school.
That same chapel that became their weekend retreat was turned, three years ago, into one of the south west of England’s most acclaimed restaurants and bakeries. They could not find anywhere really good to eat in the locality, so, in the ultimate example of a restaurant-in-your-home, they created At the Chapel.
“This used to be our living room” said Ahmed as we sit drinking coffee with Catherine right in the middle of the restaurant. “When we first opened as a restaurant the dogs would run and bark at the door, because they did not understand that the entrance was now open to the public” Ahmed laughed.
Ensconced in grass green upholstered chairs, surrounded by bustling waiters carrying plates, young mothers with push chairs ordering tea, children eating cake and restaurant customers ordering pizza, it seems truly unbelievable that in the middle of such an ancient high street, in this sleepy Somerset town, such a wonderful eaterie exists.
Ahmed has his computer at hand to show me the before and after photographs. The horrors scroll before my eyes: scaffolding erected everywhere; floors levels that had to be dropped; windows that had to be lengthened; walls that had to be knocked through; workmen going down basement wells to drain water; rubble, dust and dirt by the sackful. This is the before and after pixel story of a couple who, quite literally, have not had a day off in years.
Ahmed studied architecture at University College London, and was a teacher when he met Catherine. She had become disillusioned with her London career in the restaurant trade and wanted to set up a new kind of business. She told me earlier:
”We wanted to be part of a community. We dreamed of a restaurant where everything is sourced from as near the kitchen door as possible, where customers can come in and feel relaxed, at home, looked after. It’s not just about the bottom line. It’s about enjoying what you do and liking the team you work with. Our employment strategy is built on three little words: pick nice people. We only hire someone if we feel we could go out to dinner with them.”
I had met her earlier at a raw food course at Common Farm near Wincanton. She showed me round her “bar garden” on the Hadspen estate. Here Niall Hobhouse has handed over a huge organic kitchen garden to a community of allotment gardeners, who all collaborate on growing a sustainable fruit, herb and vegetable plot.
Catherine had noticed that the celery she served in the Bloody Mary Cocktails of her restaurant was really stringy and tasteless, and she thought that growing her own was the best solution. She and Ahmed live in a flat above the restaurant, and as a result did not have access to very much land.
“This kitchen garden is a God send” Catherine told me as we walked through rows and rows of huge, bright green, leafy celery plants, velvet blue borage (how great in a Pimms!), horseradish and fresh mint as well as lots of fruit and vegetables. ”Sometimes, when we’ve finished work we come down here with a picnic and we just potter away on our little bit of earth, and one gardener may bring a bottle of wine, another gardener has a few glasses, so we all chat and compare notes. It’s just like an extended family. We love it.”
Back At the Chapel Ahmed takes me for a tour all around the building. It only takes a few minutes for me to realise I am in the company of a perfectionist. From the tactile feel of every wrought iron door handle, to the furry coverings of the dining room chairs, the construction of the stair bannisters, the grain of the wood panels that line the customer loos, the curved stone construction of the wood fired bread oven, the font of the signage and the blue lias floors, you can rest assured that Ahmed Sidki has left no stone unturned. A master of the elegant and understated, he has a holistic eye for organic, restrained, simple forms, natural colours and soft materials.
The materials used in the restaurant all age with time, wear, tear and the human touch. In his view nothing must be too precious or untouchable. Children are given crayons to draw and if a table gets chipped or marked then that is part of the natural process.
We are now in the basement of the property and in the attached cottage next door the builders are well underway to constructing the new cookery school. “Here we are going to have bread classes, so the work benches are going to be here, then this is going to be the storage area where the doughs are going to be proving…” Ahmed is telling me, his hands pointing here and there. There is going to be an outide patio area as well as a herb garden and the sheer scale and proportions of the space will enable the couple to branch off in all sorts of business directions.
Back in the main restaurant, Ahmed shows me two of the contemporary art works he commissioned. One is the “Faith” sculpture by Lucy Glendinning and the other is the glass sphere fibre optic lights by Bruce Monro, that hang like twinkling, cascading bubbles overhead.
“Some people were shocked when we initially opened” Ahmed tells me. ”The residents who lived in Bruton all their lives thought it so irreverent we were selling alcoholic drinks in the house of God, with a naked statue on the wall. They would rather have seen the chapel demolished or rot away, perhaps. What they do not see, however, is that Cath and I have created a new type of community space. People can come together, eat together. We have art displays here, literary events, recitals and even the Royal Ballet has danced here.”
Ahmed’s jewel in the sparkly crown of At the Chapel is the bakery. We are going to try out a pizza and as we sit together on bar stools facing the roaring wood fired oven he tells me “Cath had me making pizzas every day for two years, because we could not find anyone good enough to do it. We went to Milan to learn how to make pizzas properly, the authentic way, nice and crisp and even.”
The baker rolls out the pizza dough to millimetre thinness. He then spreads tomato paste over its surface, covers it with hand cut pieces of buffalo mozzarella and sprinkles dried oregano on top. With his wooden palette he flicks the pizza on the hot stone floor of the oven. The take-away orders are coming thick and fast and he works like a machine, no sooner has he made two pizzas, two are ready to be boxed. He is working in sweltering temperatures and the smell is earth, wind, flour and fire all rolled into one. Ahmed points out how the colouring needs to be for the perfect pizza: “It needs to be golden brown here, then slightly darker here, then the cheese needs to melt here…” He has written the Pizza PhD course already, no doubt, with files of research and exam results to prove it.
Behind us are fresh loaves of every type, cakes, pastries and muffins. “You must try our croissants” Ahmed insists, and who am I to stop him.
Most of the staff that started working At the Chapel are still with the team, or if they have left they have introduced their own replacement. There is a system of familial word of mouth here in Bruton that transcends the norms of the recruitment industry. Steve Horrell, the Head Chef is married to Jules, who is the restaurant manager. Catherine advertised for a Head Baker in the online website of Dan Lepard, in the knowledge that this would be the first port of call for any experienced and skilled bakers. She was not wrong, as Paul Burton applied, and as well as running the bakery he is also a charcuterie enthusiast and makes his own bresaola.
There are now 25 local people on the At the Chapel pay roll, many tradesmen and many more suppliers. I ask Catherine how she feels about this weight of responsibility on her shoulders.
“We opened in the middle of the recession. We already knew the road was going to be long and tough. But we are nearly always full, people need to eat and customers come from near and far. We created the Menu with ingredients and prices that are reasonable for everyone. We do not do posh food, no drizzles, gels and foams. We just do really good, honest, peasant food. I am Irish, Ahmed is Turkish, that’s our culinary background, and it’s all about rustic, seasonal, local, great food for all the family.”
Yet despite their beguiling humour and calmness the couple take their obligations within the community very seriously. “There are suppliers that have geared up to a higher production level on the back of our orders, so, yes, we have lots of responsibilities. That’s part of our business. Everything is going well, we have had some really good reviews and some awards and accolades have come our way. Now with the new cookery school opening up we are really excited about a whole new range of customers coming in.”
Ahmed wants to make absolutely sure I know exactly where I am going, as I have a two hour drive home and he wants me to understand the one way system around Bruton. He repeats the directions twice, really slowly and carefully, he hands me my take away pizza and my croissant and opens the door. “Are you sure you know where you are going?” he asks me. “Yes, thank-you. I will be fine” I reply. You can take the teacher out of the class room, but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher. I can’t wait for this cookery school. With such rigorous attention to detail, I am the first on the bookings list.
At the Chapel
Somerset BA10 OAE
Telephone: 01749 814070
Follow Catherine Butler and Ahmed Sidki and their team on Twitter: @catatthechapel.