With a growing empire of 10 restaurants across three counties, Richard McComb meets the man at the helm.
I tell Lee Cash I’ll probably have the steak and I can tell – he’s gutted. I’d be gutted too if I was him and didn’t know me.
Without doubt, he’s thinking: “I go to all this bloody trouble, scour the fields and plunder the seas for all this produce, do all these tastings, put together all these recipes, bang on about seasonality, bang heads together, loose sleep ... and he choose steak. Steak!”
“Don’t have the steak,” he says, looking down at the menu, pleading. There’s duck, smoked fish chowder, pan-fried pork schnitzel, seabass with wasabi mayonnaise. Grilled tuna is on the daily specials board. All these dishes will show how whizzy the chef is.
So I come clean and tell Lee I never have steak when I go out. No one can beat my butcher’s rare breed beef and I’m perfectly capable of putting a piece of meat in a pan for three minutes, turning it over, doing the same, letting it rest, sprinkling with salt and consuming it.
Saying I’ll have your steak is the dining equivalent of saying: “I trust you.” Saying I’ll have steak is big deal. Well, biggish to a point. I happen to know the steak is from Aberdeenshire and has been sourced by Aubrey Allen. If it’s duff, I might as well become a vegetarian.
“Okay, okay, have the steak. That’s great,” says Lee.
But first he wants me to see it in all its naked, unadorned glory, and calls a waiter to retrieve one from the kitchen. It’s a 14oz T-bone, Flintstone-esque but beautifully marbled. Ordinarily, I’d consider it vulgar to tackle a steak of this gargantuanness, but sometimes you’ve got to, haven’t you, or life’s not worth living?
That’s for later, though. Now it’s Fairtrade Earl Grey and Smarties, which come in a dinky ceramic dish. I am chatting to Lee, the Midlands’ very own Mr Gastro Pub, in the bar of the Rose & Crown in Warwick. There’s a log fire, cool tunes on the stereo and an air of unpretentious good neighbourliness pervades.
As the boss of the Peach Pub Company, Lee has ten pubs – and counting – under his wing. They are sited in market towns and rural hotspots throughout Warwickshire and down into Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. In terms of profile, his customers are just as likely to turn up in the battered family Volvo with a slobbering wolfhound in the back as they are in the latest Range Rover. Staff will be delighted if you opt for a gastronomic nosh up, or you can just sit back in the snug with a pint. I see a bloke doing just that later in the evening, supping a pint of ale while scanning a paperback thriller.
The Rose & Crown was Lee’s first baby. It was a “dilapidated, down at heel boozer” when he took it on in 2002. A former manager of the now defunct Petit Blanc in Birmingham, he sized up 50-60 pubs before choosing it. Within two years, the Rose & Crown was named Best Pub in Britain.
Lee learned much about slick marketing, food presentation and service during his stint with Raymond Blanc and if you recognise his face it’s because Lee appeared with the French chef on the first series of the BBC madhouse reality-cook show The Restaurant.
Lee says his dad was a “shrewd businessman” while his mum was a “dippy hippy” and a dab hand at cooking. Both the entrepreneurial spirit and the love of food clearly rubbed off. “From when I was ten, I knew having my own business was my goal in life. I would rather run my own ice-cream stand than be the MD of Hilton,” says Lee. He has gone on record as saying: “There are people who are happy being part of a catering factory. I’m not one of them.”
Informality, solid cooking, good beer and decent wine have made the gastro-pub proposition increasingly attractive to British diners. But there are a lot of imposters, with anywhere with a reclaimed wheatsheaf pub sign and French mustard passing itself off as a comfortably middle-class “gastro” experience. It’s a pitfall of which Lee is well aware. “A good gastro pub is still a pub,” he says. “It’s a place where a good percentage of people pop in for a pint. You probably know someone or you know a member of staff.”
There is a separate dining room at the Rose & Crown although if Lee had his way the whole place would be “non-reservable,” guests turning up and taking their chances like travellers alighting at the taverns of old. He likes the bustle, the immediacy, the interaction. As it is, there are 30 places for lunches and dinners in the bar in addition to the more formal dining space. If there’s a space for your bum, you can sit and eat.
The pub has five en suite bedrooms and breakfast is served downstairs in the bar. The bacon sandwiches are heavenly.
Lee is 35 – he celebrated his birthday the day before we meet – and says running his own burgeoning business empire, together with co-founder Hamish Stoddart, has represented a steep upward learning curve.
“Back then [in 2002] I was a very, very junior restaurateur. This was a heart-and-soul run pub with great food. I’d come downstairs in the morning (he used to live “above the shop”), have a crazy idea and we’d just get on and do it.”
The next project was the One Elm in Stratford-on-Avon and there has been no let up.
Today, his pub group is launching its own training school, in Bicester, Oxfordshire, to educate the next generation of chefs and front-of-house staff in the ways of Peach. It must be a tricky feat to maintain the individualism of the pubs while adhering to certain “brand” philosophies, but listening to Lee allays any fears that Peach might become a McPub chain. He works tirelessly on menu development for the ten pubs and gives his chefs a list of ingredients he expects them to use, reflecting the best of seasonal produce. It’s the “do’s and don’t’s” list for Peach food. “So they never take off the deli boards, the steak or soup,” says Lee.
But it’s not a Stalinist catering regime and chefs are encouraged to concoct their own dishes and daily specials. With ten pubs and four seasons, that’s 40 different menus for Lee to approve each year. “All the menus are vetted and tasted by our customers, too.” he adds. “As soon as one season starts, we’re planning for the next.”
If Lee popped into one of his pubs today he would expect to see a classic risotto with spring vegetables, or new season rack of lamb with purple sprouting broccoli. “In the summer, I’d like to see a great salad Nicoise, or ratatouille.”
I tell Lee I am surprised he has not yet tried his successful formula in Birmingham, in the city centre or in Edgbaston/Harborne say, where suburbanites would lap up his gastro-pub experience.
“Don’t worry, we’ve been looking,” he says.
Mr Gastro Pub is biding his time.
The T-bone, I am happy to report, was jolly good, as was my creme brulee, served in a tea cup – English china, a nice touch.