The Chefs Changing The Face of Pub Food

Pubs where you wouldn’t touch the food are a thing of the past. Nowadays, the British pub is a place to find some truly cutting-edge cooking.
HOT 4 U are producing some very exciting cooking. Photograph: Caitlin Isola.

Ask anyone what pub food was like 20 years ago and they probably wouldn’t have a whole lot to say. Fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash. Most of what was served at the pub was pretty bog standard fare; food that’s main prerogative was filling you up and preventing you from getting too pissed during the night. I’m not saying that was a bad thing, I’m just saying that going to the pub for the food wasn’t the done thing. The dishes were nothing to write home about and there certainly wasn't anything for the Michelin inspectors to write about.

Go to a pub today, though, and you’re just as likely to be bombarded with an array of seasonal small plates as you are to be assaulted with a reheated Patak’s curry. Pubs across the country are starting to serve some truly cutting-edge cooking – food that’ll make you rethink your opinions of your local boozer.

I’ll be the first to admit that this trend for good pub grub is hardly box-fresh. Tom Kerridge opened up his Marlow gastropub, The Hand & Flowers, in 2005 and was almost instantly lauded for breathing new life into the public house. It’s still, to this day, the only pub in the country to hold two Michelin stars. The Sportsman in Whitstable has also held on to its own star since 2008, The Walnut Tree in Abergavenny regained its shiny star in 2010, and there’s plenty of excellent food pubs all over the United Kingdom that the tyre inspectors have deemed to be worthy. While that’s all well and good, I’m interested in the chefs cooking more affordable cuisine that’s free from accolades and awards. I'm talking about the pubs where you can find no-frills flavour without any expectation of being handed an eye-watering bill. It’s that new breed of pub, and the shit-hot restaurant residencies in pub kitchens, that have been on an upward trajectory over the recent months.

Hot 4 U is an example of a restaurant group (concept? empire? cult?) that has successfully turned pub food on its head. Initially started by Mathew Scott and Eddy Tejada as a delivery-only pivot during lockdown, the Hot 4 U empire (I’m sticking with that one, I like the majesty of it) now consists of three pubs – The Plough, The Prince Arthur, and The London Tavern in Margate – where you can get your fill of highly exciting and crushable plates like grilled lambs tongue with green beans and tomatoes or fresh Palourde clams served with braised summer peas and leche de tigre. No, this ain’t your standard pub menu.

“We have direct relationships with suppliers,” explains Mathew Scott, “not just that we buy directly from them, but that we actually consider them as our friends and collaborators. In terms of the Hot 4 U food style, I suppose it’s sort of inventive. We shoot from the hip – and it often surprises people! I’m personally driven by a want and need to constantly be creative.”

Prince Arthur

Tejada has stepped away from the kitchen to pursue other interests but Matthew is still running the ship and its merry band of young, piratical chefs. Hot 4 U has, in a lot of ways, become an incubator for creative culinary talents – a grad scheme for cooks with tasteful tattoos and a knack for making delicious food. Pan shakers like Jack Coggins, Luke Bradley, and Ed Zurawski are just a few of the names coming out of the Hot4U kitchen with first-class honours. Something that’s been especially impressive considering the dilapidated state the restaurant industry has been in for the last two years.

“Anywhere you can slap tables and chairs and offer food to people right now is a lifeline. But pubs have always been the lifelines of London, really, and they’ve certainly been a lifeline for us,” says Matthew. “We didn’t anticipate being here in the first place but it’s given us legroom to do what we want to do and we’ve met great people on the way. Pubs have always been a place to meet and form relationships. It’s a good place to feed people and it’s a good place to be yourself. Being yourself is very important to Hot 4 U and how we approach what we do.”

Hot 4 U aren’t alone in their rejuvenation of the British boozer. In fact, they’re not even the only wavemakers within the E9 postcode. Take a right from The Plough down Ponsford Street and continue along Morning Lane for about three minutes and you’ll end up at The Gun in Hackney. In the kitchen there you’ll find Ling Ling’s in residency serving up beautiful Chinese-inspired plates of food. Headed up by Jenny Phung and her sous James Shepherd, Ling Ling’s offers a fun and flexible approach to Chinese cuisine through dishes like crispy duck with pickles and house hoisin and dry-rub Chongqing wings.

Ling Lings

“I personally find pub food a little uninspiring at times,” says Jenny Phung, “but some pubs obviously do it so so well. I feel that pubs can be more creative now. Gone are the days when you could only order burgers and roasts. There have been so many amazing chefs pushing those boundaries. Four Legs, Hot 4 U, Liu Xiaomian, Mystic Börek to name a few. I didn't envision myself doing a pub residency but The Gun is different. Yes, it is a pub but you are able to be creative and the customers are receptive to it.”

The customers and clientele you get in a pub are, of course, different to those you’d get in a more formal sit-down restaurant. They’re much less of a captive audience; a lot haven’t necessarily come for the food but might simply find themselves in need of something to eat after a couple of drinks. That’s the beauty of the pub – it’s part-living room, part-watering hole, and a place where people who have otherwise nothing in common can gather over an icy pint.

Community is something we’ve all severely lacked recently (thanks, COVID!) and pubs are the perfect place to re-establish that connection with your fellow man. Eating and drinking alongside your neighbour is a great way to connect and The Gun is a great example of a venue where chefs like Jenny are using food to reconnect with their own culture and introduce countless others to it while they do.

Ling Lings2

Jenny says: “Ling Ling's is an accumulation of recipes from my childhood, my travels, and research. Every dish I cook is a representation of a memory – it's what I love the most about the dishes. Some come to me when I move from residency to residency, meeting new people and being exposed to new foods I've never eaten. Some are as direct as getting my parents to cook their dishes for me! One dish literally uses my dad's aromatic duck recipe and my version of ‘hoisin’ sauce. It's family in a dish.”

Serving more than just pub grub, and serving food that tells a genuine story with a genuine purpose, is something that’s important to Jenny. ”‘I wanted to change up the outdated opinion of Chinese food: to show people it wasn't all sweet and sour and black bean dishes but, if it was, it could still be an amazing version of it,” she adds, “I am British-born second-generation Chinese with immigrant parents and you can see that in my dishes.”

Traditionalists may not like it – a friend of mine once described Hot 4 U’s menu as something that “looks annoying” – but this is what peak performance looks like. It’s no longer about restaurants set up in swanky hotels and tasting menus that’ll cost you an arm and a leg.

The London food scene is about the chefs working manically out the back of a boozer, sending out endless orders of Dexter cheeseburgers and hefty portions of whole grilled fish. At least, that was the case with Four Legs – the hypebeast restaurant residency that very quickly had London’s Instagram elite eating out of the palm of its hand.

Having amicably ended their stint at The Compton Arms, Ed McIlroy and Jamie Allan (the shaggy-headed forefathers of Four Legs) created a Kickstarter campaign to get their new pub, The Plimsoll, off the ground. At the time of writing, that Kickstarter has raised £81,245 and construction of the pub is well underway.

The Four Legs Origin Story

Four Legs 1

Ed McIlroy was actually working at The Gun – Jenny’s current digs – when he first got a call from the Compton Arms’s landlord, Nick, in 2019. Nick told Ed about a spot that had just opened up in the Islington pub’s kitchen and although Ed and Jamie (who used to work at Hill & Szrok) didn’t know each other all that well, the two combined forces to form Four Legs. The rest, as they say, is history. But that’s not to say that Four Legs had their menu nailed from the get-go.

"We didn't start off with like a fucking scallop or seabass crudo on the menu,” says Ed McIlroy, speaking to me on the phone while he waits for the concrete to set on the downstairs floor of The Plimsoll, “because nine out of ten pubs I walk into – if not more – if I saw a seabass crudo on a pub menu I'd go: ‘fucking hell, I'm not eating that.’”

The menu that they ended up with, and the menu I’ve enjoyed on countless occasions since, took almost two years' worth of work. “When we first went in there, our menu was a lot more pubby and a lot simpler. We really didn't want to go in and do too much, too soon. We just wanted to get in, get set up, and sort of see what happened naturally,” Ed tells MOB Kitchen, “I think the first menu had things like mussels with cider and bacon and fish cheeks battered with tartare sauce – really classic British pub stuff, y’know?”

The reason they first decided to do a cheeseburger, the dish that everyone from TimeOut to The Evening Standard has raved about, was due to the fact that “every pub up and down the country” had already got one. “Had we just been in residency anywhere else, other than a pub, we probably wouldn't have done it,” says Ed, “that cheeseburger was purely trying to satisfy that need to not stray too far from what a regular pub menu would be.” I’m fairly certain I speak for everyone when I say I’m very glad they decided to make that burger.

It might have taken two years of graft for Four Legs to earn the customers’ trust enough to allow them to start mixing things up, but Jamie and Ed took full advantage of that trust once it was gained. Jamie, Ed’s other plimsoll, is a classically trained chef and it was his more precise approach to flavour which allowed them to bring in dishes like whole grilled flatfish with butter sauce and Caesar salad with dandelion, mussels, monks beard and a fried oyster in place of croutons. “It's not gastropub food: it's different. We started doing that more refined style of cooking because we had that open pub environment and we felt the freedom to start doing some fucking weird stuff. It all owes itself to the pub format, and I'll always say that.”

That attitude of "a pub's not a real pub if it's got good food in it" – a belief that's still held by a lot of the older boys that drink in pubs on the daily – is changing. Scallop crudo might not have ever featured on the Four Legs menu but tongue, heart, livers, and a load of offal certainly made their presence felt. “We had an ox heart on towards the end of my time at The Compton and that was, like, one of the biggest sellers,” says Ed, “people were loving it.”

Four Legs 3

As for what to expect from The Plimsoll in Finsbury Park? Don’t be surprised to see the return of a few pub classics. “It's going to be very different because we're going to have a new demographic of customer and we’ve questioned whether we’re going to have to ease them into that a little bit,” admits Ed, “we probably will still get the customers who used to travel to The Compton Arms to come and eat here but, outside of that, I feel like we're going to see the same faces day-in, day-out. Just people on the street popping in for a drink. Which, as a landlord now, is something that makes me so happy. It's the regulars that make the pub.”

Considering the communities that The Plimsoll, Ling Ling’s and Hot 4 U have fostered, it looks like Cheers had it right. All everyone is looking for from a pub, really, is a place where everybody knows your name. And maybe a couple of small plates.

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