Richard Hughes, the man behind the extraordinary success of Norwich’s Assembly House, won the Outstanding Achievement Award at the latest Norfolk Food and Drink Awards. The Assembly House also won the Food/Drink Experience category, and went on to be named Small Serviced Accommodation of the Year in the East Anglian Tourism Awards this spring.

The Outstanding Achievement Award recognises someone who has made an exceptional contribution to the county’s food and drink sector with the judges looking for someone who is not just an expert with a proven track record, but is properly inspirational.

Inspirational could be Richard’s middle name. As well as running his hugely successful restaurant with rooms and cookery school he also trains and educates staff and colleagues, supports many local charitable initiatives – and has written several recipes as well as his hugely popular Norfolk magazine column.

We asked Richard to tell us a little about himself and the Assembly House.

Great British Life: Norfolk Food and Drink Awards - The Outstanding Achievement Award was won by Richard Hughes. Herman van den Berg of sponsors Alliance East Anglia with Stacey Preston, who accepted the award on behalf of her father. Norfolk Food and Drink Awards - The Outstanding Achievement Award was won by Richard Hughes. Herman van den Berg of sponsors Alliance East Anglia with Stacey Preston, who accepted the award on behalf of her father. (Image: Matt Potter Photography and Videography)

What do the awards mean to you?

It is always an honour to be recognised for your efforts, particularly by your peers! After being in the hospitality business for 48 years, it’s also nice to know that I'm still considered relevant and that people remember who I am!

What, for you, are the ingredients for a great food and drink experience?

The food, the surroundings, the company you're with…but ultimately, it’s all about the service you receive. Service can make or break an experience and everything else is simply a supporting act. When you find someone who is incredible at service, never, ever let them go!

Tell us how you create your amazing themed afternoon teas

Well, the real secret here is that…I don’t. They are created at the House by our head pastry chef Mark Mitson and our head chef Julia Hetherton and the ideas come from my wife, Stacia Briggs. She’s the one with the mood boards and Pinterest collections! However, I get to eat them all and have the final say on how they taste before sign-off (a difficult job, but someone has to do it…) and the wonderful Steve takes all our photographs. Teamwork makes the dream work!

Please tell us about your background in the food and drink industry and where your love of food and drink came from

I started way back in the late 1970s as an apprentice chef at The Imperial Hotel Great Yarmouth with the Mobbs family. It was an incredible experience and one I'm still grateful for. I opened my first restaurant, Number 24 in Wymondham,in 1991, sold it to move to The Lavender House and took on the Assembly House with my business partner Iain Wilson in 2009.

What have been the highlights of running The Assembly House so far?

I think the way that Iain and I, with the support of The Assembly House Trust (the charity which owns the building for the people of Norwich), have transformed and restored this magnificent building over the past 15 years is remarkable. We’ve added the bedrooms, refurbished the stunning public rooms and upgraded everything from the car park to the driveway, the kitchens to the restrooms, the office to the bike racks! We feel that we are leaving a legacy for Norwich. We've also been able to surround ourselves with a team of employees who are truly invested in the House and treat it as their own, with more than 90 people on the payroll. Our long-standing members of the team are integral to our success and it’s aways a highlight to see them in action, doing what they do best in this gorgeous building.

And the challenges?

The Assembly House is a Grade 1 listed Heritage Site, with all the complications and maintenance that such a listing rightly demands. The costs before you actually get to the point of opening the doors to serve customers are colossal. Balancing the books is a constant juggling act and the pressures to be busy are very heavy.

Great British Life: Afternoon tea at the Assembly House. Afternoon tea at the Assembly House. (Image: The Assembly House/Steve Adams Photography)

Who are your favourite Norfolk food and drink businesses/producers?

Having worked in the county for so long, we have built up so many close relationships. We have been using DJ Barnard the butcher, Gary Howard the fishmonger and John Killet The Cheese Truckle for decades. Personally, I love Richard Bainbridge and the Benedicts team, the remarkable Waffle House and the Control Tower Bed and Breakfast at Egmere is the most wonderful place.

What advice would you give to someone who has an idea for a food or drink business and is just starting out?

I’d think very long and very hard before you make the jump. Cooking for friends and family, or as a hobby, is as different as night is from day when it comes to running a business. Get to know someone with a head for the financials (my daughter Stacey is my accountant!) as an absolute priority. However much hard work you think it will be, times it by 10 and if you are a worrier, suffer with stress or are easily offended, stick with the day job! Don’t underestimate the impact it will have on your family life, either. That said, I absolutely love the business, it offers so many opportunities and I wouldn't have wanted to do anything else.

What do you like to eat when you're not working?

Most professional chefs rarely cook at home. For decades my off-duty diet consisted of sweets, breakfast cereals, tea and biscuits and two Fab lollies a day. We eat out whenever we can, but most nights it’ll be a carousel of jacket potatoes, pasta and ‘things from the fridge on a board’!