Image courtesy Tuddenham Mill/Lee Bye
Chef Lee Bye hit the ground running when he took the top job as head chef at Tuddenham Mill two years ago and he hasn’t stopped for breath yet. Steering the restaurant to gain an award of two rosettes by the AA a mere two months after taking up position and then being named the winner of the Employee of the Year Award in the Bury Free Press Business Awards, 2014 culminated in the restaurant being awarded the prestigious Good Food Guide Editors’ Award for
Tuddenham Mill enjoys a bucolic setting on the outskirts of its eponymous village, close to Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge. The hotel has been sensitively restored with a restaurant and bar used by locals and visitors to the region. Having developed a new menu, Chef Lee and his team intend to ensure that Tuddenham Mill becomes a regular stop off for locals and visitors to the region and Lee’s input has been fundamental to steering the Mill restaurant in a fresh direction.Lee may have won accolades early on in his tenure as head chef but he is far from complacent, aware of the pitfalls of the culinary equivalent of that difficult second album: “When I was told about the [Editors] award I kind of sat in my chair for two days; the spotlight comes onto you and brings a lot of pressure. As a young chef I was suddenly made to think ‘how do I sustain this?’ I’d reached a goal- The Good Food Guide- it was always a personal and professional goal of mine, that old school vintage thing that the award has, I like it and I achieved it early.”
How would you describe yourself as a colleague and boss?
I’m old school [as a chef]. I like the traditions, that idea of ‘win as a team, lose as a team’ and my main focus now is finding the right team members, the right blend of people in my kitchen.”
Every chef knows that to a certain extent they have to build a kitchen and the people who work within it in their own image but they also must balance this with bringing on the individual talents that each person brings to the table (or prep area in this case). The chef also has to manage their teams response to the long hours involved at the top. “It’s challenging across the industry as a whole and for the right reasons. It is hard to attract the right personnel and the people who want to do it for the right reasons. I’m 99.9% of the way there but it has been hard.” he answers when I ask him about how he copes- both as head chef and as a person trying to have a life, a life that involves a partner (who works front of house) and a new baby, born at the end of last year.
“I believe in the old values, of team work and consistency and complete honesty and I do not want them to suffer in silence when things are tough.” Valentines Day was a recent case in point, seventy people booked to eat the tasting menu with 350 plates to prepare and get out to tables of couples, buzzy with the expectation that Lee and his team will give them a memorably romantic evening- a LOT of pressure. If a chef is not proactive enough about signalling a potential problem in advance, the potential for it to all go tits up (technical term, that) is huge and there is no second chance from a customers point of view as he says: “The team is a very young one, top to bottom and it takes a lot of dedication to bring them on. When someone runs into deep trouble on their section and sits in silence I cannot bear it. I have to have honesty, for them to come to me early on. It can be sorted out then and the team functions as a whole.” Fortunately, they powered through what must be one of the industries busiest nights to live, cook and prosper another day in an industry where every service is the equivalent of opening night as far as the customer is concerned.
Behind the professional satisfaction these awards bring lies another, more complex story about consequences and implications, the behind the scenes stuff that places a young chef and his team in the running for industry recognition even though Lee is keen to impress that accolades do not define him and nor is he chasing them. As we talk about what it takes to function well in the kitchen and the long hours built into the industry as standard, a look of determination crosses his face. Lee is just a few months into new fatherhood and and working hard because of a joint decision made by himself and his partner that this is his time and one he must take full advantage of. Although their family life might appear to the casual observer, to be, in his words. a traditional set up, it is one that acknowledges that he has to sacrifice some family time now for the bigger picture and means hours away from his new baby and partner. This is something that he does not ask of his employees though, rather more, it is a decision that they must make for themselves “I cannot ask them to put me in front of their own families.” It is the right decision for his family and whilst undeniably, a tough one, he has a partner who he says fully understands the unique pressures of the hospitality industry being employed within it herself.
With regards to the under reported problem of stress, anxiety and other mental health issues within the catering industry, he has a clear sighted grasp on how it affects chefs and the difficulties they face in trying to wind down after a hectic adrenalin filled service. He is also cognizant of the lazy stereotype of a chef with a drink problem. ” People laugh at the thought of chefs as alcoholics, they laugh at the label. They should work in the field and they’d see what it is really like” he says with a degree of annoyance. “They just say, ‘there’s a lazy assed chef’ and don’t consider that there’s a life balance out of the window. If a policeman did that [drink excessively] people would acknowledge it as a problem but with chefs, people expect it or don’t think it is important. Chefs come home after 18 hours of service and have to force themselves to relax. You cannot just go to bed and that’s why many younger ones end up wandering down the High Street looking for a drink- they have to release that [adrenalin].”
Acknowledging this problem in an everyday manner is something he sees as important and the first step towards prevention. “it’s sad to see when chefs fall off the edge. I want my chefs to have a life [outside of work] and I want them to build their own strength, to be resourceful but I do check up on them to see if they are alright. I’ve been there- I didn’t want to ask for help- so I do ensure that they know they can come to me, to ask for help. I’ve seen when people go off in the wrong direction in their heads, they just swim off and you can lose them so I step in, get there before that.” He concludes by pointing out that this has benefits to both himself and the customer. Lee works six days a week and has just the one day off. Building a reliable team with an inbuilt sense of Lee as mentor and boss means that he can have time away knowing that all is well without him. “The customer must not know that on that day I am not in the kitchen. The food must not give that away.”
So who motivates the motivator then? As he says, It is very easy to let go when you are at the top without somebody else there and like most chefs, Lee has a strong background of mentors, the people who have guided his career or conduct themselves in ways he admires. Top of the mentor tree appears to be former head Chef of Tuddenham Mill Paul Foster, who Lee trained under, eventually becoming Sous, two and a half years ago. When Paul left last year, Lee returned to the Mill after a spell working across several other establishments, gaining experience. He donned his head chef toque. Aged only 31 when he left Tuddenham, Foster has garnered huge praise and respect from his former sous.“Working for Paul massively improved my brain and I will always be thankful. You find a lot of chefs will add one component too many and the dish then becomes unbalanced. Paul [among many things] educated my palate, taught me to bring my own personal edge to my food, not think too hard and end up with too much on a plate, using stuff for the sake of it and losing seasonality.”
The same respect is afforded the ‘chefs chef’, Marco Pierre White and Lee acknowledges that while he will probably never get the chance to work by his side, the books written by this undoubtedly great chef serve pretty well in his absence. “Going back to the idea of my kitchen philosophy and those of others, well Marco is full of them. He said ‘nature is the true artist’ and for me, that says it all. The easiest guideline but one that too many chefs ignore.”Lee’s own cooking shows he has taken heed of Marco’s counsel too. Take one main that caught my eye, served for sunday lunch- a straightforward sounding crispy pig’s head, cockles, pear aïoli. coastal herbs, written as is, on the menu. I asked Lee to talk me through the conceptualisation of the dish.
“I always bring the pig back to Suffolk. The pig is Suffolk and a lot of our meals, our canapes are pork based. Our core base has, in the past been a lot of city folk but I do not want to be London in Suffolk. I want our diners to have the experience of Suffolk with a boutique edge in the surroundings. As I’ve said, I’m quite old school, traditional in what I do and am inspired by what is around me.”
The dish is clean, uncluttered, paying homage to the pig as orchard animal with the pear spiked aoli, designed to both cut through the natural fattiness of pork and season the plate. Instead of going with the obvious apple, we have pear, also an orchard fruit and feasibly what pigs would eat should they get the chance to live as a pig naturally would. The coastal herbs are from Walberswick and whilst Lee doesn’t seem to want to be identified as someone who has adopted the recent trend for foraging- and there are serious environmental implications (some parts of the New Forest have seen indigenous fungi populations decimated)- he is aware of the amazing produce the region contains. “That salty edge from the sea herbs pulls this dish together. These are from Walberswick and collecting them on a walk is a great way to spend spare time. I’m not a massive fan [of foraging] but stuff like Samphire that is so good here? You’d be mad not to use it.”
The award winning set lunch menu features a lot more of the same good regional stuff (sea trout, beef flank with St Edmunds sauce, an under used cut) but avoids an over adherence to the principle to the exclusion of other ingredients worth a look in from further afield (Shetland mussels, Spanish squash). The puddings are eye rollingly tempting- a banana tea loaf with salted toffee, blackberries, earl grey ice cream had my name on it- and don’t seem an afterthought, something that a lot of other pudding menus display. My particular dislike is snobbishness about patisserie and good puddings where they aren’t seen as important as the other courses which might be the result of a place not employing a creative or technically innovative pastry chef or existing chefs simply not being interested in this aspect of cooking. The whole set menu comes in at £15,50 for two courses, £19,50 for three at the time of writing. That’s less than twenty quid for serious technique and flavours, right there.
I am unsurprised when I ask Lee what his last meal would be and he cites Pierre Koffman’s Gascony birthed stuffed pigs trotter, one of THE greatest signature dishes of all and originally served at La Tante Claire. Pureé chicken breast, egg whites and double cream are bound in with veal sweetbreads and morels then fried in butter to make an unctuous stuffing, elevating this usually humble pig part to an exalted position on the hog eating scale. It is a dish of classical technique, a test of a chefs training and a wonderful collection of contradictions- high/low, earthy/ethereal. Lee would follow this with a chaser of Beef Wellington cooked by Marco and Gordon Ramsay. (Would the dish ever end up at the pass or would it serve as kitchen projectile?) He rounds his last meal off with a glorious tarte tatin-made by Pea Porridge’s Justin Sharpe to be precise.
A bit of a coincidence that on the way to see Lee, I subjected my husband to a long monologue about the Koffman stuffed trotter and how one could protect a signature recipe from plagiarism. I asked Lee about this whole issue and he turned out to have a pretty measured take:
“It’s flattery at the end of the day. People will always be inspired by the food of others and they will want that for themselves.”
But how do you deal with this when it appears to be less of an homage and more attempt to actually pass off somebody else’s creation as your own, I wonder, finding it hard to imagine your average chef not turning puce with annoyance at all their hard work and inventiveness being essentially nicked. Lee passes on more wise advice from his former boss. “Paul used to say that they [plagiarists] will never replicate your brain, they cannot reproduce where that dish comes from.” He goes on to explain that when he trains his own team, he can teach them to cook from their hearts and to use their imagination to create dishes but the mind, the terroir if you like, of a chef is uniquely his. This terroir, like all carefully tended land, is multi layered, both wellspring and sponge, soaking up all that surrounds the chef, inspiring him to produce food that is greater than the sum of its parts.
And one thing that surrounds all chefs are critics- start making a name for yourself and they will appear. What do you think of them? Without missing a beat, Lee assured me that he saw a place for them, “It’s an opinion at the end of the day although we are at the needle point of the freedom to be praised or slagged off.” He spoke amusingly of the day Jay Rayner came to town, dined at the Mill and reviewed it, raving over the less is more, local and relevant philosophy that Paul became known for and Lee is now revising and developing. Lee was sous back then and was busy prepping in the kitchen on the Sunday the day the review came out- published some time after Rayner’s visit. He watched in amazement as “car after car, Jags etc came flooding in, down the drive and parking then people getting out with the copy of the paper underneath the arm.” He laughed. “We got on with it but…” I asked about the double edged sword of a review’s effect and he admitted that yes, there is the danger that for smaller establishments especially, the attention can be overwhelming and cause as many problems as a regular full service can solve.
Lee is pragmatic about critics, Trip Advisor reviews, and having to deal with the good and not so. As he points out, a chef cannot own the praise of a top critic and the approval of less famous patrons then disregard and reject the criticism if and when it comes. Not if he wants to avoid looking like a dick that is. But he also makes it clear that the work is hard, arduous involving deep emotion alongside finances and time: a bad review from someone who doesn’t understand what the chef is trying to do and bases an opinion more on personal taste as opposed to objective analysis may be a game changer, restaurant closer and career ender. There are consequences. The same goes for twitter he feels. Lee uses it (find him on @leebye) but counsels against unnecessary and indulgent unpleasantness for the hell of it. and because it can blur the line between professional person and professional ass, even if it is a private account. “it’s a brilliant tool.” After I recount a recent trolling experience that spilled over into real life from social media (threats made over my land line, police called), his face blenches.
Lee has achieved so much, relatively young but this is not a guy who is ready to rest on his laurels and nor is he restlessly looking for a new thrill or gimmick. Keen to take himself, his kitchen and the hotel to the next level, the last year has been about him establishing himself as head chef in a kitchen he has come up through, about putting more bums on seats and building the reputation of Tuddenham Mill as a flexible place to eat, offering many different options for dining. The coming year will see a challenges to attract even more locals to the restaurant and build on the reputation that being the recipient of such awards bring. As Chef Bye says “We’ve been through a long tunnel and held the ceiling up. This year we’re going to build through it.”
To make a reservation, head to the Tuddenham Mill website.