Five minutes with… Nick Deverell-Smith

Nick Deverell-Smith left his job as head chef for the Soho House Group in 2014 to open his first business – The Churchill Arms in Paxford in the North Cotswolds.  Nick’s career as a chef started at Simpsons in Kenilworth, where he worked under Andreas Antona. He then went on to work at Mallory Court in Leamington Spa for two years where he won the Gordon Ramsay Scholarship, giving him the chance to train with Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing before taking on a permanent position with Marco Pierre-White. He then worked with Eric Chavot at The Capital and Le Chalet Blanc for three years before joining Soho House Group. As The Churchill Arms celebrates its third year under Nick’s ownership he tells Hospitality & Catering News about what prompted the move into pubs, what he learnt from the industry’s legends and shares his tips on running a business.

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Tell us about your pub The Churchill Arms:

I call it a boutique pub where we do classic pub food done well. We’re not your average pub where you go in for a pint and a packet of crisps, we’re food-led with a really fantastic food offering where we try and source everything as locally as possible. We have a rule in the kitchen, which is that we try and source as much produce as we can within a 10 mile radius and build our dishes and menus around that philosophy.  We’re slap bang in the middle of the North Cotswolds with beautiful fields around us, a pork farm four miles away and a beef farm seven miles away, so when you’re driving to the pub you can almost see what you’re going to eat on your way. I think the Cotswolds has the best produce in the country so I’d be an idiot if I didn’t capitalise on that.

The philosophy extends to drink too. Our ales are from local suppliers – Purity and microbrewery the North Cotswolds Brewery, who are just three miles from the pub and make us our house-ale, a light session ale called Winston.

Your background was mainly in fine-dining restaurants, so what led you to open a pub?

From a young age I wanted to be a chef-owner or a restaurateur, but I knew the only way I’d get there was by working as a chef because I wasn’t academic at school. I’d worked my way up through kitchens to get where I wanted to be and even though I’d been in London for 11 years I couldn’t afford London rates and prices. I think I would have needed about £3m and that wasn’t something I, or anyone I knew, had lying around. Therefore I had to find a property that could fit in with my style of food and would be affordable to me.

I grew up in Warwick, so I know the Cotswolds. It’s an affluent area and I knew customers in London with homes here would understand what I was trying to do, so when I found this beautiful pub it seemed right.  I’m also a big fan of Tom Kerridge and I liked his style of food. It seemed fun, relaxed and tasty. I watched what he was doing at the Hand and Flowers and saw that more pubs were starting to do top food, which was the pull for me.

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The Churchill Arms opened three years ago, what are you most proud of achieving in that time?

It was just me starting up the pub. I didn’t have an investor putting a load of money behind me, I saved  money, sold my house and borrowed a small amount from my brother to take over a pub that had been closed for 16 months. Years before it had a good reputation, but had gone downhill after that so I would have to build it up again. I could only afford a small team of three when I opened and I had to convince them to believe in me and my dream for the business.  We now have 14 full-time employees here and they all get what we’re trying to do. They really get into it and are confident in what they’re doing and that’s what I’m most proud of, how far we’ve all come as a team. I couldn’t take a break in the first two years of business, but now I can go on holiday for two weeks and know it is in safe hands.

What top tips would you give to chefs looking to open their own business, particularly pubs?

Nothing will ever prepare you for owning your own business. Problems will appear that you’d never planned for and you have to think on your feet.  I had a fire in August – a tumble-drier set on fire on the top floor. I was doing a demonstration at the Bath and Bristol Food Festival at the time and got a call saying ‘your pub’s on fire’. The emotions you go through are immense.  We’ve also had to shut recently due to snow, but I still had to pay 14 members of staff without having any money coming in.  Therefore, my tips would be ‘enjoy it, but prepare for it to be hard and unpredictable and surround yourself with good people’.

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You’ve appeared on Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen, are you keen to do more TV work

I’d love to. I’m talking to Saturday Kitchen again and I’m always in touch with Great British Menu. I think the more TV you do the better you get at it. It’s the next step in my career really. Overall TV is good for business and it’s great for exposure, plus deep down I think all chefs are show-offs, so they want to be on it!

You’ve worked with some legends of the industry (Marco Pierre-White, Eric Chavot, Gordon Ramsay and Soho House) what did you learn from each one?

They were all at the pinnacle of their careers when I worked with them and they were inspirational to watch. They all had this amazing drive. They were always the first ones in and the last to leave at night. There was nothing they wouldn’t do to get where they wanted. Gordon Ramsay was a scary guy, but you knew why he was like that: he wanted to be better than Marco Pierre-White and I admire that. He wouldn’t be where he is now if he hadn’t pushed himself.  That drive was the most important thing I learnt from all of them I think and when I’m recruiting people, I look for that in them too. I also keep driving myself. I write a list every year of what I want to achieve and try and tick things off as I go. That’s how I operate best.

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Who do you admire most in the industry?

I love what Tom Kerridge does. I took my mum to The Coach recently and it was brilliant. I love the way he does relaxed dining, but it’s super-tasty and that’s what I try and do at The Churchill. You can come in with your dog after a long walk and sit and eat some delicious food, or you come in your Sunday best from church and eat the same. I love that Tom Kerridge caters for everyone, but makes it special. His books are great too and he comes across as a down-to-earth guy. Our industry can be quite regimental, but if you can rise out of it as a nice guy with focus on what you want to do and a smile on your face, you’ll earn my respect.

What keeps you awake at night?

I’m very driven and my brain is constantly working on what I can do better and on new ideas, but I’d say it’s more excitement than concern that keeps me awake. In the first two years of business, what kept me awake was wondering how I’d pay the bills, so it’s the nicest thing in the world to know that I’m past that and that’s no longer a daily or weekly worry.

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What does the future hold for your and The Churchill Arms?

I just want to continue to build my team and the brand. I’ve got a great young team and I feel that they are part of it now and they get it. I’d love to get another pub at some stage which I know is going to be tough, but it’s in the plan. In the meantime, we will continue on focusing on getting better – I want to be the best in the Cotswolds.

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