Philippa James meets Steven Smith at The Freemasons, Wiswell
PUBLISHED: 00:35 10 January 2014
Philippa James meets the man who has put some sizzle into Wiswell
Our photographer, Kirsty Thompson, looked out of the window of The Freemasons and sighed: ‘I can’t believe I’ve never found Wiswell, before. It’s beautiful!’ Quick as a flash, chef-patron Steven Smith, joined by brother, Craig, corrected her. ‘It’s Wizzle, like sizzle!’
Steven has certainly put the sizzle into Wizzle, gaining many prestigious awards since settled into this beautiful medieval village just over four years ago.
Foodies have described him as being ‘technically advanced and bang on trend.’ But Stephen is no fan of trends in food. When I asked how it felt to be compared with the world renowned Noma in Copenhagen he responds: ‘Yes, it’s good, very good. But I don’t take an awful lot of notice of other businesses. So much time is taken following trends and the menus put out become poor versions of the original dishes. I’d much rather stay true to myself and to what I really like to achieve.’
The Freemasons is a former Lancashire Life award winner and the judges from The Sunday Times were so impressed they included it in Britain’s top 100 restaurants for 2013. Of that 100, more than 50 were London-based restaurants with only seven in the north west including the Michelin-starred Northcote, at Langho.
I told Steven that the first time I’d visited the Freemasons I had found the plates ‘all a bit too much’. He threw his head back and laughed: ‘Yes, I did try to get everything on each plate when I started out here, but now I’ve pared things down.
‘It’s all been re-defined and the menus re-designed, in fact this month we’re having a big photo-shoot to showcase what we’re doing now. I’m keen to concentrate on the purity of flavours, too.’
I commented on the delicious ‘hit’ of saltiness in the eclair recipe they prepared for Lancashire Life readers. ‘I work to get a balance of sweet and salt in all the desserts, if all you leave the table with is a big punch of sickly chocolate it can kibosh the rest of the meal if that’s all you remember.’
As we walked through what was the old beer yard into what is now a very compact kitchen, I marvelled at the organisational skills involved. Steven said he works on a poach and roast method, using the best of catering technology to assist him. To hear that ice creams are produced in just one litre batches underscores the attention to detail in this kitchen.
‘It’s very difficult to keep good staff,’ he adds. ‘Not everyone buys into our ‘family’ ethos, that I want the pub to be personable, not a brand. I expect everyone to put in the work and the long hours. One agency chef said my attention to detail was “ridiculous” but the fact that diners can pick out my style, for instance at the ‘Master and Apprentice Evening’, is an accolade as far as I’m concerned.’
Steven said he’s teamed up with Michael Shaw from The White Hart, at Lydgate, near Saddleworth, to do an annual ‘Master and Apprentice Evening’ where the diners vote on the winning meals.
Steven’s mum, Suzi, popped in to say hello and I asked her where Steven’s passion for food had started. She laughed and replied: ‘I’d say that would be as a kid with egg and beans on toast!’ He agreed. Steve trained, one day a week, at Blackburn College but he believes there is no substitute for on-the-job training.
He met his fiancée, Agnieszka Tyczka, affectionately known as Aga, eight years ago, at The Gilpin Lodge in the Lakes. She was front of house manager, as she is here, and Steve was head chef at the former Cassis, at Stanley House. They are a formidable, and seamless, duo. An investor acquired The Freemasons and collaborated with an art dealer to refurbish it.
I commented on the blackboard detailing seasonal produce and dishes, but Steven jumped in and said that, unlike many, he won’t always use local produce. ‘There’s no point using, say, locally foraged fungi if they’re too wet to have a good texture, so, yes, I’ll buy in from abroad when they are out of season. I’m probably the only place that doesn’t have any Lancashire on my cheeseboard, but everyone else does that.’ But he uses Lancashire cheese in some sauces because of the perfect level of acidity for a dish like cauliflower cheese.
Freemasons hosts a ‘Game Week’, annually, where top guest chefs come along and take over his kitchen to produce one-off menu’s, using what can be an under-rated ingredient, Steven’s winter menu reflects this with hare, venison and partridge featuring.
Steven is not a man to sit still for long so I felt flattered that he had afforded me so much of his time. It’s impossible not to admire his determination, commitment and vision. As we parted, he turned his eyes to the ceiling and admitted that his next goal is ‘a very shiny one’. I’m fairly sure it’s just a question of when the Michelin man comes knocking.