Chef Patron Mark Aisthorpe of the two AA Rosette Bulls Head, on the outskirts of Chesterfield, knew precisely what he wanted to do from a very young age.

His mother, Mavis, had a cake shop in Rotherham for several years, but had to give it up when Mark was born to look after him. Mark was born with cystic fibrosis and needed a lot of care, especially when he was younger.

‘I remember seeing her bake wedding cakes and memories of the smell and vivid colours are still really vivid,’ Mark recalls.

Great British Life: The front room at the Bull's HeadThe front room at the Bull's Head

‘From being a toddler, it was always something I was fascinated with and enjoyed watching. I used to play on my cystic fibrosis to get time off school. I told her I felt unwell when really I just wanted to be at home as I found school boring,’ he laughs.

Mark continued to learn from his mother at home, watching her diligently make wedding cakes for couples and learning about attention to detail, timing and presentation; qualities very much evident in his work today.

Mark further developed his culinary skills when, at 12 years old, he signed up for a junior chef’s club at Sheffield College.

He would learn much from Tracy Carr, executive head chef at the University of Sheffield, and, under her guidance, would go on to work alongside her, gaining valuable work experience through placements.

Great British Life: The Bull's Head's superb dishes has earned it two two AA Rosettes The Bull's Head's superb dishes has earned it two two AA Rosettes

Before going to Rotherham College to study a level 2 in professional cookery, Mark had already gained two years’ experience working in professional kitchens, thanks to Tracy.

‘I learnt so much from her,’ he acknowledges affectionally.

‘She was firm but fair and had an amazing attention to detail. She never cut any corners. She wasn’t only a good role model for me, but a fantastic mentor, too.’

Everything was going well for Mark until the hospital changed his cystic fibrosis medication to Tobramycin which, over the course of 18 months, caused him to lose 60% of his hearing – permanently.

This also coincided with him spending more time in the hospital. Mark was hospitalised when due to work at the annual Skills for Chefs Conference in Sheffield with Tracy and this proved a seminal moment, resulting in Mark making a bold move that would drastically change his life.

Great British Life: Mark outside the Bull's Head, HolymoorsideMark outside the Bull's Head, Holymoorside

‘I discharged myself from the hospital to work at the conference,’ he reveals. ‘It was a huge opportunity for me and one that I just couldn’t pass up.

‘There, I talked to Marcus Wareing, who offered me a job in London at the restaurant Petrus, based at the Berkely Hotel, which was part of Gordon Ramsay’s empire.

‘Afterwards, I went back into hospital and had to wait until I was well enough to head down to London.’

Mark worked for free for three months, determined to cut it in a high-pressured two Michelin Star restaurant based at a prestigious five-star hotel in the capital; proving his worth by gaining a permanent contract.

After two years he returned to Rotherham but, after realising there wasn’t much in the way of fine dining locally, headed to Cliveden House, near Reading, where he would work for a few months before the longing for home became too strong once again.

Great British Life: The Bull's Head's cuisine saw it sold out for five consecutive months last yearThe Bull's Head's cuisine saw it sold out for five consecutive months last year

Keen to return to his northern roots and find a premises of his own, Mark’s Derbyshire adventure began.

‘I looked at 20 or 30 places before deciding on the Bulls Head, in Holymoorside,’ says Mark.

‘I was ready to sign somewhere on the border of Sheffield and Barnsley, but there was just this doubt in my mind. I then I got a phone call to view the Bulls Head and soon realised it was in a better location and that the kitchen was better suited for what I planned to do.

‘When I came to view it, it was closed. It had five previous owners in the past two years, and I remember thinking that a pub like this, in a lovely rural location, needs good food.’

Nestled in the picturesque village of Holymoorside, close to Chesterfield in North East Derbyshire, the traditional inn has garnered quite a reputation from pubgoers and foodies since Mark’s arrival, and for a good reason.

The fresh, flavoursome produce is sourced locally, with some herbs and vegetables grown on site. Mark likes to forage and, when he has time, likes to shoot and butcher venison from the local area.

It wasn’t always like that, though.

‘At first, I ran it as a traditional pub,’ recalls Mark. ‘I was young and didn’t have the funding for all the fancy equipment needed for fine dining, and I didn’t have a team of people who could do it with me, so we slowly built towards that.

‘I wasn’t enjoying doing the traditional pub grub, and neither was the team. It wasn’t quite the vision that I wanted.’

Great British Life: Mark has worked hard to create culinary excellence at the Bull's HeadMark has worked hard to create culinary excellence at the Bull's Head

Just as things were starting to progress, the Covid-19 pandemic halted things and, as with all hospitality businesses, Mark had to close the doors and re-assess his options.

However, looking back, he admits it was the best thing that could have happened for the business at the time.

‘Whilst we were closed, we set the kitchen up as a bakery and started making fudge and pastries to sell, which got a little out of hand,’ he smiles.

‘We sold over 5,000 bags of fudge and 8,000 pastries each month to people who called in locally, using an honesty box, and we delivered to trade customers and farm shops.

‘We used the time when closed to think about what we really wanted to do going forward. When things started opening again, we relaunched the business with a tasting and À la Carte menu.’

The move has certainly paid dividends. Mark and his team received a two AA Rosette Award for culinary excellence in 2022 and five stars for the recently refurbished rooms, making the Bulls Head the only five-star in Chesterfield.

He has adapted the kitchen so that he is positioned in the middle and can see and speak to his chefs clearly, having learnt to lip read since becoming partially deaf.

Yet Mark’s remarkable journey was far from complete and a phone call one Thursday morning in March 2021 would change Mark’s life.

The call was from the team behind the BBC’s hugely popular show Great British Menu, and they wanted Mark to be on it.

‘It was very bizarre. I was talking to one of my chefs, Jono, in the kitchen, saying it’d be amazing if someone from the pub could get on there. I then randomly got a phone call two days later,’ he recalls. ‘I thought someone was joking around after the conversation, perhaps one of the staff.

‘I asked her to email me the information, and she did. That was when I realised it was a genuine call. I took a little time to think about it as TV and photos are something I’m not overly comfortable with.

‘I chatted with my girlfriend Alexandra, who said I should do it as it would be good for my career and the business, and the wheels were in motion.’

Mark was then invited to conduct a Zoom interview, answering a series of questions. Four months later, he received a call saying he had been selected for the final four and would be on the TV stage for regional heats.

He was then sent a brief and had a fortnight to decide on his dishes and submit them. The contestants were then given a further three weeks to submit their recipes.

‘We headed to Stratford-upon-Avon for an intense week of filming in October 2021,’ says Mark. ‘The days were long and tiring on set, and we were there from 7am to midnight for the whole week.’

Mark narrowly missed out on advancing to the next stage. Luke French, who owns Jöro in Sheffield, pipped him to the post, but both have since become good friends due to the show.

‘Despite not winning, being on the show was amazing. It has opened so many doors for me professionally and, business-wise, things have been great since the show. Last year we were fully booked every week for five consecutive months.

‘If I got invited back on to Great British Menu, I would definitely do it. I wouldn’t mind going on James Martin’s Saturday Morning Kitchen either, I think it’s a great show.’

Yet Mark’s focus remains with the gastronomical delights and reputation he has so expertly created at The Bulls Head. So what of the future for this fine Derbyshire establishment.

‘We have two Rosettes, I’d love to get three, as a minimum,’ Mark admits candidly.

‘The ultimate goal for any chef doing fine dining is to get a Michelin Star but you have to me measured. I think some people try to chase it a little too much and it has cost them everything, even losing their business.

‘If the restaurant is full every night and people are having lovely food and having a great time, that’s the main priority and goal for me.’