The chef Chris Coubrough will be making waves on the Nofolk coast this spring...
...Chris Coubrough talks to Chris Bishop about his recent acquisition, The Ship at Brancaster.
The flying Kiwi
TV chef Chris Coubrough will be making waves on the Norfolk coast this spring when he opens his fourth pub. Chris Bishop meets the man from Down Under, who’s been quietly cooking up a storm.
Make sure you’ve got at least an hour to spare if you ever ask “the Flying Kiwi” how he came to touch down in Norfolk. Better make that two when Chris Coubrough gets going on his adopted county, where he now owns and runs a hotel and a trio of up and coming eat-out inns.
Yet this New Zealander, who came to our shores in search of the England he’d dreamed of as a kid Down Under, came close to giving up. “Back at home, you have this picture of England. We used to get Coronation Street on TV and there was a lot of English news,” says Chris. “I thought everyone played cricket and ate scones, and there’d be groups of boys with corkscrew perms playing football on the streets – I didn’t know anything about soccer, but everyone knew what Kevin Keegan looked like.”
Sleeping in an Earl’s Court squat in London in the early 1990s while he temped in kitchens, the reality soon sank in. Chris was saving up for a plane ticket home when a two-week stint at Southwold came up. “I went down to the temping agency. All I needed was �400 for my ticket, and I was all set to go home and tell the family England doesn’t exist,” recalls Chris. “The agency said it was two weeks in some place in Suffolk where they made beer and needed a chef. It was �200 a week, so I’d have the �400 I needed for my ticket. “As we drove into Southwold, they were playing cricket on the common, behind them was the sea and all the beach huts. I was thinking ‘This is it – I’ve found England’.”
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While Chris fell for Southwold, Adnams fell for Chris. Temping became a full-time cheffing spot at The Swan. Chris, now 38, met wife Jo, 35, when their eyes met across the bar. As romance blossomed, they dreamed of owning and running a country pub.
Their chance came in 2004 when they met the then owners of The Crown at Wells, who were looking for someone to revive its fortunes. “It’s fantastic. You pull into the Buttlands and you see the pub at the end of this field, with oak trees that have been there 200 years,” says Chris. “As a New Zealander, I love that sort of thing.
“Local history types say Nelson used to pace up and down on there, measuring out for the Battle of Amsterdam, so better pick your feet up when you walk on the grass! The Crown was born before New Zealand was even discovered, they were serving beer 200 years earlier.”
One of The Crown’s first innovations quickly became an institution – a starter two could share, made up of salmon belly, chorizo, marinated chicken wings, crab spring roll and smoked chicken and peanut salad, all served up on a slate. “When we started out there wasn’t enough crockery, so off I went to Docking Reclamation and bought 100 slates for 20p apiece,” remembers Chris.
Nowadays, not dissimilar slates are on sale in designer home-ware emporiums for around �20 each. While Chris awaits his commission for popularising crockery you can also patch up your roof with, slates are on menu at all of his eateries...
At the Crown Inn at East Rudham, they come stacked with antipasto; sun-blushed tomato, dried salami from Wells High Street, and salads to share. At the King’s Head, at Letheringsett, they slate up sundried tomatoes, baby gherkins, pastrami, hummus and salami. Main courses come and go with the seasons. But bills of fare remain as simple and robust as the coastline that hugs the big sky beaches off the Coast Road.
Houghton venison casserole comes served up with good old dumplings, begging an obvious question. Norfolk staples with the odd tweak here and there are edging out the Pacific Rim-inspired dishes that helped make Chris’s name at Wells. So is he going native?
“Yeah, maybe I’m becoming more and more English,” he admits. “I’ve got this mate called Nick, a retired marketing man from the City, who’s coaching me. I now know it’s important to watch England beat the French at Twickenham. It’s obviously not like that with the All Blacks, but everyone wants to see an Englishman win on the centre court at Wembley... no, hang on a minute, Wimbledon!”
Local produce reigns at the King’s Head, both Crowns and the re-opening Ship. Pictures of local producers like barley baron Teddy Maufe and Rudham-based asparagus farmer Johnny Cave adorn the walls and menus.
“We’re lucky; we’re living in an area that’s blessed with local bounty, be it seafood or asparagus, be it venison or great potatoes, carrots or parsnips,” Chris enthuses. “This is the Champagne area for growing barley in the UK, there’s no better barley anywhere. It’s the salt in the air that gives it that bitterness.”Teddy Maufe’s barley takes a detour to Suffolk, to be turned into Adnams, before it returns to the bar of The Crown.
Mussels dished up in white wine come from Wells, where the Frarys have been earning their living from the sea for 400 years. Norfolk mussels beat the New Zealand green-lipped variety found in supermarkets into a cocked hat, adds Chris.
“But buying local is good, because you’re buying off people you know,” he goes on. “You get to know so much about the food. Johnny knows his picture is up in the pub. It’s on the menu, so I know when I order 10kg of asparagus, I’m going to get 10kg of pukka asparagus.”
Alongside the cod with hand-cut chips and pan-fried guinea fowl, menus have children’s meals inspired by Lily – Chris and Jo’s five-year-old daughter. Cheese and beans with toast, and ham, cheese and cucumber are among her favourites.
“When I was a chef without children, I’d just say they can have half of anything on the adult menu,” said Chris. “Now I’m a dad, I sympathise with parents. I know Lily doesn’t want half a chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella and tomato, served with fondant potatoes.”
Chris became a TV chef after Anglia Television bosses spotted him doing cookery demos in Chapelfied and Castle Mall in Norwich on trestle tables wedged into the back of his now-expired Passat car.
Now Coastal Kitchen, in which Chris extolled the virtues of Norfolk’s liquid larder, has fallen victim to cut-backs in regional programming. But a pilot show for a new series has seen him forsake East Anglia for Greenland, where the locals munch mainly on cod, seals and more seals.
“They use the entire thing, they eat the meat, they render the blubber for heating and use the skin for clothing,” he said. “They just boil it all up; it’s not exactly fine cuisine.” Chris has no plans to import this style of dining to Wells or Brancaster, but TV might feature more in his future plans, once one or two other projects are up and running.
Chris, Jo, Lily and new arrival Maximus love to spend their spare time on the beaches and pine woods around Wells. “Norfolk’s so dynamic, we really do have a heap of things to do,” he comments. “It’s still England’s best-kept secret, though that’s changing slowly.” New on his agenda is The Ship at Brancaster, which Chris has spent the winter converting into a smart inn with rooms in readiness for its re-opening currently scheduled for next month. It might just be one of this summer’s talking points up on the coast road... unless an Englishman wins on the centre court at Wembley.