While training to become a professional chef, Emily Watkins, now Executive Chef and co-owner of The Kingham Plough in Gloucestershire, went to cookery school in Tuscany and then spent two years at Ristorante Beccofino in Florence. The owner there was a friend of Heston Blumenthal’s, and that was how she found her next job at The Fat Duck in Bray. In 2007 she, her father Christopher Watkins, and her landscape designer husband Miles Lampson, opened the doors of their newly refurbished Kingham Plough, where they have since been picking up awards to the left and to the right.
Although she tells me that she is now about to celebrate her 33rdbirthday, Emily looks all of about 18: her face is gamine and her frame willowy. She has two very small children, aged just 22 months and 7 months, and therefore has to juggle the vicissitudes of motherhood with a job whose hours are long, stressful and intensive. She tells me how she has three days a week when she writes menus and recipes, trains the brigade of six chefs, including Head Chef Gareth Fulford, to create the new season’s ideas and then arrives in the afternoons to cook the evening shift. She also works from home on her days off, taking her computer with her. Her parents live too far away to help, in Dorset, but her in-laws live quite nearby. “I have not had my hair cut in seven months!” she tells me, explaining how difficult it is to find any free time at all to go shopping or relax, when her every hour is accounted for either in the pub kitchen, in the office or at home looking after children.
Emily tells me that they try not to change the menus very much anymore. “In the beginning we would change the menus almost every day,” she explained, “but now we don’t do that anymore. I think that by not making too many changes within the season this has enabled us to achieve a more consistent standard. We have kept the same local suppliers since the start, but we have also definitely added to them. For example we buy fruit and vegetables from an excellent market gardener, Alan Cox, as well as sourcing from Daylesford Farm and University Farm in Bledington. Paddock Farm in Warwickshire is great for pork and Macaroni Farm in Eastleach ring us up if they have a lamb going for slaughter and market. “
The cooking style has definitely changed from when Emily and Miles first took The Plough on in 2007. I remember coming here at the very beginning, from when the doors opened, and thinking that I had stepped back to La Cacciata, in Umbria, where Alastair Little was teaching in the 1980’s. The flavours were robust, earthy and simple, very Italian “casalinga” style. I returned again and again, with different friends, family, Slow Food contacts and even professional food writers to watch the style develop and refine itself, to ultimately settle at a very confident Michelin Bib Gourmand standard with dishes even more beautifully presented than ever before.
The interior of the place has not really changed at all, it is still unassumingly elegant, in a country style that is comfortable, warm and neutral. There are cosy banquettes on the ground floor and big family tables on the first floor. There are wooden chairs, flagstone floors, brick fireplaces, tweed curtains and prints and paintings depicting local countryside scenes and animals. There are red stripy tea towels for napkins, storm lanterns filled with church candles and the most photogenic little Jack Russell pub dog called Ooti, named after a town in India. I am assured that she loves all the customers but hates the delivery men. She sits on the woollen cushions purveying the punters, with walnut brown eyes that gleam at the dishes carried out of the kitchen.
The seven bedrooms at The Plough are very chic and pampering, with every creature comfort seen to: starched linens, natural floorcoverings, modern bathrooms, Penhaligon toiletries and beautiful soft furnishings. The golden shopping, walking, hunting, shooting, fishing triangle of Stow-on-the-Wold, Burford and Cheltenham beckons you beyond the buff coloured dry stone walls of Kingham, and if you are travelling from afar it does make sense to make this your base. You can also sit outside, unlikely I know with the vagaries of the British summer, but if such a moment arose there is a very pretty covered, walled patio area for drinks. Do take a walk around Kingham. You need a hedge fund salary to live here and for a reason. One of the most beautiful Old Rectories in Britain can be found here, there is a very pretty green in the middle, other eateries, a village shop and houses that would not look out of place in an episode of Agatha Christie’s Miss. Marple. Aesthetic meanderings will enrich your appetite for a marvellous meal.
Of the latest Menu my lunch partner and I tried the “Globe artichoke custard, shallot and garlic shortbread, baby artichokes and duck egg dressing” and the “Chilled Heritage tomato and basil soup, roasted courgettes and tomato mousse”. The finesse and care taken are very commendable, in particular the wafery thinness shortbread, the lightness of the strained tomato juice and the softness of the mousse and custard.
If they are still on the menu when you get there, do try the steak and chips a la Plough and the haddock with seashore vegetables and butter sauce. Animals do not die in vain to reach this particular preparation bench: their flesh is perfectly seasoned, cooked sous vide or pan fried au point, left to rest till the optimal moment and then served with simplicity. There is beauty and great skill on your dish. If you are a cook you will no doubt look down for a few minutes, hands resting patiently on cutlery, deconstructive eyes scanning the dish for methodology and technique, to see how to recreate such a thing in the privacy of your own home.
The pudding choice is tiny, but make sure you order the raspberry and elderflower baked Alaska and the poached plum tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream. Take a photograph so you do not forget their glory and splendour lying decorously before you upon blue and white monogrammed porcelain plates and then sink your lucky teeth into their soft, sweet interiors, where fluffy meringue meets tart fruit and where warm pastry meets cold ice cream.
I have friends who dine here weekly and tell me that the bar snacks are as good as the main meals, featuring hand raised pork pies, homemade sausage rolls, Tamworth pork buns and a selection of local cheeses including Aveton goats cheese by Roger Crudge, Oxford Blue by Hartingtons and St. Wulfstan organic cow’s milk cheese from Gorsehill Abbey.
And there is yet another platform on which this sleek ship sails to excellence. A few weeks ago, on Twitter, a journalist wanted to know why restaurant websites and marketing are so awful, jaded and tired. Not here. Right across its branding strategy The Kingham delivers consistency, style and quality. There is an excellent little folded card that tells you all about their “Traditional Recipes” and “Modern Methods” approach. Their menus are short and well written, relaying the names of local suppliers, spelling foreign dishes accurately and explaining all the terms and conditions. They give away match boxes with recipes printed on the back. Their website is modern, well designed, professionally photographed and easy to surf. From their logo, to their font, their colours and their service, there is seamless vision across its offering disciplines.
Emily Watkins is now yawning with tiredness, and is going back into the office to finish her day. And for all the young women looking to enter the catering profession, with high aspirations, I am afraid that is the only way this point can be reached. It’s called judicious hard work over a consistently long period of time. And very little time at the hairdresser.
The Kingham Plough
Oxfordshire OX7 6YD
Telephone: 01608 658327