Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable’- an interview with HP Wood, author of Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet

Magruder's Cover

H.P. Woods spent a fair few summers propping up the bar at Coney Island’s Sideshows downing Coronas with her friends and sometimes buying a round for Michael the Tattooed Man. The granddaughter of a mad inventor and a sideshow magician, she read for a degree in theatre studies and took a series of girl-gotta-make-rent jobs in New York City before she settled into the world of publishing. Instead of making things disappear, she makes books of all shapes and sizes and has now written her first novel, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet (Sourcebooks Landmark) which was published earlier this month.

Woods went back to Coney Island for inspiration for her story, setting it in May 1904, when the resorts newest amusement park, Dreamland, has just opened with the hope of making back the cost of its investment. many times over. As crowds continued to flock to seaside resorts in their thousands, Kitty Hayward and her mother arrive in the city by steamer from South Africa. When Kitty’s mother takes ill, the hotel doctor sends Kitty to Manhattan to fetch some special medicine but a series of unfortunate events leaves Kitty alone in the city with nobody to turn to except the denizens of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet.

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Cyclops from “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008” at the Brooklyn Museum

Magruder’s is home to a forlorn flea circus, a handful of disgruntled Unusuals, and a mad Uzbek scientist. Kitty is taken under their wing and with their help she endeavours to find out what happened to her mother only to run into problems when a plague hits Coney Island and the resort is placed under quarantine. As the once-glamorous resort is abandoned to the freaks, anarchists, and madmen, is Kitty’s missing mother the least of their problems?


Coney Island is as much a character in the novel as Kitty and the Unusuals. Once the largest theme park in the USA (between 1880 and World War Two) Coney Island drew crowds of several million visitors per year as they flocked to the three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park based there. They promenaded on its iconic boardwalk, congregated at Nathans HotDogs and Childs Restaurant to people-watch and shoot the breeze and soaked up the sun and sea air on the beach, just a few miles away from the hot, dusty and crowded streets of New York City.

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On the beach at Coney Island in 1902

The amusements attracted entrepreneurs, opportunists and carneys and their innovation and imagination birthed a new age in theme park design. The earliest carousels (as we know them today) were built in Coney Island, alongside what is widely considered the first modern roller coaster in 1884, the Gravity Switchback Railway. As night fell, over 250,000 electric bulbs lit up the skies at Luna Park which was soon nicknamed Electric Eden after its opening in 1903 and crowds gathered inside Lilliputian Village which was staffed by three hundred dwarfs.

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet has been described as “gloriously original, colorful and alive…. a magnificent riot of unique turn-of-the-century characters…fools and sages, snakes and saviors” and a “cracking Coney Island roller coaster of an adventure, full of marvelous, colorful, and unapologetically authentic characters and a bright, breathless debut….” so  I asked HP Woods about the book and her inspiration. Here’s what she has to say.

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 Can you tell us about your family background of inventors and magicians?

Arthur F Poole was the inventor in the family and his main contribution to the world was an electric clock, which he spent the majority of his life and fortune perfecting… only to have a better ones be invented by others in the years that followed.  His son, my actual grandfather, was something of an inventor as well, and he was the only one who knew how to make what he called “a little doodad” that was required to make his father’s clocks run properly.  When he died in the 1970s, the little doodad went with him, and it is nearly impossible to make the family clocks run properly now.

So it is, if not a sad story, certainly one tinged with a certain irony and/or absurdity.

Theron Wood was a traveling sideshow magician in the 1920s and 1930s.  He gave it up to raise a family in central New York, although he did still perform from time to time.  My 11-year-old daughter is actually quite good at a basic coin trick that has been passed down in the family.  It’s a shame he never got to meet her… although I’m told that he was absolutely determined that women should not do magic, ever. Or wear trousers. So, perhaps it all worked out for the best.

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An advertisement of Theron’s, from when he settled down in NYC.

Is Magruders a story that has always been there, waiting to be told?

Ha! In a sense, Magruder’s is a story that has ALREADY been told!  By which I mean, the central premise—girl and mother check into hotel, mother gets sick and is “disappeared” by said hotel to cover up her dire illness—is apparently an “urban legend” that predates me by some time.  I was not aware of this when I was writing.  I came across the story in a book called The People’s Almanac, where it is presented as fact.  I’ve since been shown other versions of the story in other books, all likewise presented as fact.

In my blissful ignorance, I became very curious about what had become of the girl. As there was no information available (which makes sense in retrospect, the story being false!). I decided I had to write my own ending.  I set it in Coney Island because I have an abiding love for the place.

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Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head appeared in Sam Wagner’s freak show on Coney Island, 1938. Reputedly, he could rotate his head 180 degrees.

 

Tell us about your research process…

For research, I read a lot about the history of sideshows; I had studied them a bit while getting a theater degree in college, but I really delved into it much more when I was writing the book.

I read a lot about the plague.  Two books about the Black Death, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, were incredibly important to me. I also read about plague epidemics that hit San Francisco and Honolulu in the early 1900s.  Many events in my book, such as the spineless government cover-ups and scapegoating of immigrants, did actually occur, just on the West Coast rather than New York.  (Trivia moment: the Governor of California was thrown out of office in a scandal related to the fact that he spent two years lying about the existence of plague in his state.)

I’m very envious about your time spent at Coney Island and in the theatre. Were you actively storing up stories and vignettes back then?

I never worked at Coney Island, I just lazed about a great deal. But I did spend almost all my time until the age of about 24 in or around theater: amateur productions, student productions, professional, whatever I could do.  When I needed a job in high school, I got one in the box office of the Hartford Stage Company, which is quite a respected regional theater here in the US.  After college I worked at places like the now-defunct (not my fault!) Circle Repertory Company and New York Theater Workshop.

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The author, in her 20s, at the sideshow bar, on the Coney boardwalk

The playwright Lanford Wilson once stole my pen, so I’ve got that going for me.

My point is, as a writer I connected to my sideshow characters via that background, as fellow theater-types.  Not as biological oddities or weirdos.  And I think that does give the book a different angle on “freaks” than many other books have.  I don’t see the characters in Magruder’s as exotic in any way.  They are exoticized by others, for sure, and that’s a big deal in terms of how they live.  But I see them as regular showfolk trying to make a living and get by in an often-hostile world.

For instance, Zeph, a character who had his legs amputated after an accident, has to go around either on his hands or in a special vehicle.  There are little details about the gloves he has to wear, the handles that are bolted into furniture so he can climb around and reach things, and his utter shock at a girl ever flirting with him.  But all of this is discussed in passing.  It’s not, you know, Here Is A Disabled Character Let’s Discuss That.  It’s not exotic or weird, nor is it romantic or tragic. It’s just part of his regular day.

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The character of Rosalind is genderfluid but again, it’s just a fact of life. There’s no “coming out” narrative here.  In fact, Rosalind drops his boyfriend, Enzo, because Enzo hesitates to be “out” in public and Ros ain’t having it.

The character of Kitty, who is the newcomer to Magruder’s and therefore the reader’s surrogate, is just expected to catch up with all this.  It’s normal life at the Cabinet.

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Can the reader seek out their version of Magruder or is this a world and lifestyle that is completely gone? Our opinions about what makes a curiosity might have changed…

 Well the Coney Island Sideshow  is alive and well, that’s for sure.  In fact, yours truly will be reading from Magruder’s there on July 9, mark your calendars please.  They even have a sideshow school where you can take classes in fire-eating and banner-painting. Meanwhile, the World of Wonders Sideshow  still tours the US during the summer.

So I don’t think the tradition has completely gone away—although it is, as you hint, far more niche than it used to be.  One positive development, though, is that sideshows are much more performance-based now.  In other words, sideshows involve showing off weird skills, rather than exploiting biological differences.

Coney Island itself has had something of a resurgence of late.  New amusement rides, new restaurants, even a hotel going in finally.  But of course, that always sets up a different conflict, of the preservationists versus the gentrifiers.  By my nature I tend to side with the preservationists, but not all change is bad, either.  I’m glad that Coney Island doesn’t look like “The Warriors ” anymore.

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Michael Dolan: CC/ Flickr / Freak show signs at Coney Island

How challenging is it to balance the readers need for space to create his own image of Magruder’s curiosity cabinet and your obvious pleasure in describing it to your readers? I could have happily read a straight ten page description of the attraction as a section in itself but other readers seem to prefer more space. 

This is kind of a dream-come-true question for me, because I think of myself as being terrible at description!  As a reader I guiltily skim it.  I view myself—I think because of my theater background—as primarily a dialogue girl.  But since this isn’t a script, I knew I had to try to put the reader in the specific location.  I worked really hard at the description but never thought it was good enough.

I will say, it was hard to stop myself piling on more weird exhibits, just because they are fun to invent and/or discover.  Just to give you one tiny example, there really is a book called Ought I Be Baptized?  I saw it at a tag sale, and it must have been 500 pages at least.  You wouldn’t think that query would need such a thorough investigation but somebody clearly did.

But at a certain point I just wanted people to start talking!  So, returning to your actual question, I think I just followed my own instincts as a fairly impatient reader.  Don’t bother describing the furniture, gimme an argument.

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 I’ve always been interested in the tension that exists between what fascinates us and what repels us. The Victorian freak show was the incarnation of that and although it no longer exists in such a straightforward way, some might say we have its modern-day equivalent ie Jerry Springer, reality shows like The Kardashians and Donald Trump. What do you think about this? Are we less honest and self-aware about our need to ‘other’ some people than the Victorians were? 

My initial reaction is to deny any connection between my beloved Unusuals and Trump!  But I take your point.  However I am not so sure if the situation can be generalized as us being “more” aware or less.  In fact researching this book kind of led me to the supposition that humans really don’t change all that much.

Sideshows made their money by pinging whatever raw nerves society happened to have at the time.  Studying their history, you can see that very similar acts keep appearing and reappearing, but with adjustments based on whatever was bugging people at the moment.

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So for instance, there’s a famous act usually called Spidora or similar, in which a woman pretends to be part woman & part spider.  It’s an old act.  But what interested me was, the cause of the spider transformation changes over time.  Originally it would have been something simple like, a bite from an especially mean spider. So in that instance, the uncontrollable natural world is the enemy.  But later, “atomic radiation” was the culprit.  In the 1980s, that was adjusted to “toxic waste.”

In Magruder’s, you get to see Rosalind’s performance as a half-and-half, meaning one side male, one side female.  It’s an act whose popularity tracks pretty closely with the suffrage movement.  In the same era, you’d have cartoons in the newspaper showing “a suffragette at home,” where her husband is wearing a frilly apron as he cleans with one hand and holds a baby with another.  So there was tremendous gender anxiety at the time, and it was turned into performance at the sideshow.

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Anyway, it’s not hard to “read” Trump in this light.  He is performing hyper-masculine aggression at a time when a certain segment of Americans are feeling emasculated—by the post-Fordist economy, by globalization, by feminism.  By the very fact that a black man has led the free world for 7.5 years. Humankind is not perfectible, but I hold out hope that it is perhaps correctable.

I honestly don’t know enough about the Kardashians to get a read on them in this way, but I guarantee you there is some social itch that they are scratching, just like Spidora did back in her day.

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Who are you reading and what other books in the Magruder theme might you recommend to readers newly interested in this subject?

I am reading More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, which has pretty much nothing to do with Magruder’s, but you asked!  There are loads of novels about sideshows and Coney Island, most of which I avoided reading because I didn’t want to copy them.  But Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things is supposed to be excellent, as is Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry.  (Aside to that one damn reviewer who dismissed me as “derivative” of Hoffman: I started my book several years before Hoffman’s came out. And indeed I had myself a good long cry when I found out about hers, because I was certain all my work was for nothing. Humph!)

The Platonic Ideal of a “freak” book is of course Geek Love.  It is a Modern Classic that means a great deal to a great many people.  It’s not some dumb old commercial “beach read” like mine: Geek Love is respected as Great Literature.

I hate the bloody thing.  I can’t stand how profoundly, aggressively ugly and cruel all the freaks are. (Yes, I understand that it is social satire.  I “get” it, I just don’t “want” it.)  Jean-Luc Godard said that in order to criticize a film you need to make another film… And you could definitely interpret my book as a response to Geek Love in that sense.

And finally, on my website  I have a page called Magruder’s Library, which lists the books I read as research.  So there you’ll find the real history of Coney Island, sideshows, plagues, and all manner of other oddities.

Coney Island Freak Show

 

Mr Magruders Curiosity Cabinet is out now.

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Michael Dolan / Flickr: Coney Island in 2010

https://twitter.com/swordswallow


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking it to the Next Level: Tuddenham Mill’s Head Chef Lee Bye

Taste Head Chef

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 the best set lunch. In 2015, his team at Tuddenham Mill went on to win the prestigious Good Food Guide Editors’ Award 2015 for the best set lunch menu in the UK and Lee was titled Suffolk’s Chef of the Year in the Suffolk Food and Drink Awards 2015.

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 wouldn’t say I am a modern chef in that respect.” He takes a moment to think… ” My focus after winning was not to move onto the next thing but to sustain our success and build on it. 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.

The team at Tuddenham Mill/ photo by kind permission Tuddenham Mill/ Chef Lee Bye
The team at Tuddenham Mill/ photo by kind permission Tuddenham Mill/ Chef Lee Bye

“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.

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Tuddenham Mill at Halloween / courtesy Lee Bye

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.”

Stonebass 'St Jacques' sprout heart and Jerusalem artichoke/ courtesy Lee Bye
Stonebass ‘St Jacques’ sprout heart and Jerusalem artichoke/ courtesy Lee Bye

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.”

Stone bass, chervil root, Moules St Jacques, runner beans courtesy of Chef Lee Bye
Stone bass, chervil root, Moules St Jacques, runner beans courtesy of Chef Lee Bye

 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.

Cox apples baked in dark muscovado sugar with buttermilk cream and oats/ courtesy Lee Bye
Cox apples baked in dark muscovado sugar with buttermilk cream and oats/ courtesy Lee Bye

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.

Rosemary, hazelnut and bitter chocolate truffles: courtesy of Chef Lee Bye
Rosemary and bitter chocolate truffles: courtesy of Chef Lee Bye

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.”

Rice pudding, blueberry and pistachios / courtesy Lee Bye
Rice pudding, blueberry and pistachios / courtesy Lee Bye

To make a reservation, head to the Tuddenham Mill website.