Simon Bonwick, Chef Patron, The Crown at Burchetts Green

The Staff Canteen

Google Simon Bonwick and there is not as much information as you may expect from a Michelin-starred chef.

He learned his trade in Michelin kitchens in London and five-star hotels before moving on to pubs. He now owns The Crown at Burchetts Green and he is still the only chef in the kitchen four years on from when he first opened the doors.

He credits his success to his wife Deborah and their nine children and this family affair led them to gain a star in the Michelin Guide UK 2017. They are also number ten in the Top 50 Gastropubs 2017 list.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Simon about his career, how important it is to understand the business before opening your own place and his French inspired menu.

The Crown at Burchetts Green
The Crown at Burchetts Green

The Crown received a star in the Michelin Guide 2017, is that something you were working towards?

We honestly had no idea whatsoever. When I called Michelin back after I had missed their earlier call, I thought they were going to say we didn’t have the Bib Gourmand anymore because I’d had one for so many years. I liked having that award, I was really proud of it. They invited me to the awards and then it unfolded. I didn’t know, maybe other people did but I’m not looking at social media every day – I need to watch my sauces and look after my fish! But I still don’t believe it I call it my Voldemort moment.

And despite the accolades, The Crown is still very much a pub?

It’s a difficult line to walk, you have to look after your beer and clean the lines because you can’t have wastage. But the bar just follows in the natural scheme of things really, people tell us that coming into The Crown is like coming into our house.

Info bar

Rising Stars

Adam Wright (Masion Troisgros)
Adam Summers (The Waterside Inn)
Tom De Keyser (The Coach)
Nick Beardshaw (The Coach)
Alan Bates (Henne)

Top 5 restaurants

The Waterside Inn (Bray)
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (London)
Les Santons (France, Port Grimaud)
Royal Oak Paley Street (Berkshire)
Core by Clare Smyth (London)

Guilty Pleasures

Mashed Sardines on Toast
Winkles and Whelks with malt vinegar
Pie, mash and liquor
½ pt Youngs “special” Ale

Top Cook Books

Simple French Food – Richard O’Lney
L’Atelier of Alan Ducasse
L’Atelier of Joel Robochon
Repertoire de la Cuisine
Patisserie L.J Hanaman

Tell us about your menu and the dishes on there at the moment.

Its foundations lay in the classics, with really strong French techniques. I then just make those ideas really luxurious and it’s all based around my conclusions of 30 years of cooking. I cook what I like to eat myself and I treat the ingredients I use with a huge amount of respect. It’s all about flavour and we’re a pub so we want people to be full. They get a nice plate of food and we always offer second helpings. The food is luxurious and generous!

Red Mullet and Crab Soup by Simon Bonwick

Red Mullet and Crab Soup

by Simon Bonwick

I always have crab and in winter I buy it from Norfolk and in summer I buy it from the south coast. The crab dish is with citrus, cashew nuts and apple – it’s become a bit of a Crown dish. There is always beef steamed on string which is a technically difficult dish to do, and it costs a lot of money to put on the plate.

So we offer signature dishes but we roll through the seasons and my dishes may not change but they become lighter, fresher depending on the time of year.

We couldn’t find much about your cooking background online, tell us a bit about your career as a chef?

I’m quite a private person, and I’ve never really shouted about what I’ve done. I started cooking in the early eighties but before that, I already had the notion that I was going to be a chef. My dad brought myself and my five sisters up on his own in Croydon, it was a tough, Victorian London life. I remember having mumps and watching an episode of Mr Benn where he cooked a meal for the princess and at the same time my dad cooked me a stew and dumplings from the Delia cookbook which was the only one we had in the house. I just felt totally rejuvenated while I was eating the stew and watching Mr Benn – and a light came on in me and I thought I’m going to cook.

Dining room at The Crown at Burchetts Green
Dining room at The Crown at Burchetts Green

When did you first experience a professional kitchen?

When I was 14 I left Croydon and went to Lincolnshire, I pulled up outside a big hotel called The Bridge Hotel in Sutton Bridge which was very busy at the time, and my dad told me to go in ask for David Rollow. He was Scottish and had been a senior sous chef at The Connaught in the early seventies - I didn’t know any of that!
I started that weekend and never went to school again really.

You went back to London, what drew you back?

I enjoyed my time in Lincolnshire, learning about nature, poachers and game keeping but I had been brought up in Croydon so being there was very strange for me. I enjoyed it but I came back down to work at The Connaught for a while and then I worked for lots of different people and I improved in their kitchens. I was in London for a number of years but I got burnt out working in big, five-star hotels and Michelin-starred kitchens so in 1999 I went to work in pubs.

You started in pubs 18 years ago, but you haven’t always been successful?

The first pub I was at we got a Bib Gourmand and I was very happy with that, then the next place it followed us there and again I was happy with that and the Good Food Guide results. Then I moved to my own place if I thought I was Napoleon this was my Waterloo! I had two restaurants hit the wall, they ruined me and I lost so much money. I didn’t manage the cash flow properly, I knew about kitchen costings I just didn’t understand fixed costs and I didn’t know about the business. When I lost the final place, the Three Tuns in Henley, I said ‘that’s it’ and my wife said ‘yes that is it!’.

I didn’t lose my wife or my children, they stuck by me which is why I’m careful today and they run the business.

Tart Bourdaloue by Simon Bonwick

Tart Bourdaloue

I got given a job in private service and I saved every penny because every day I would pass The Crown and it used to wink at me! It became available after two years of me going past it - it was greasy, broken and run down. But I got it clean and immaculate and I started cooking there in 2013 and my wife told me it was the last one!
What was important was when I started there I did everything, I knew I had to wash the floors, the loos, pull the pints, set the tables - I knew I had to do all that before I started in the kitchen. I did it all for 14 months and I wasn’t very busy, most nights I’d stand in the dark pretending it was full! I willed The Crown to have people in it.

Then we got a Bib Gourmand and I thought ‘wow it’s followed me again’. I got really busy after then and I was still on my own, I nearly died! My eldest son Dean, he had been at The Waterside Inn, he left to come to The Crown and make the family business work. He took over the front and told me to stay in the kitchen, within a year we had a Michelin star.

How has The Crown evolved since you first started four years ago?

I think it has naturally become a little legacy for the family. We are taking it forward and investing in it all the time. Every penny we have goes back in and the service is so important because we are in such a competitive area. My sons really know what they are doing front of house as they’ve been doing it since such a young age, and my 16-year-old Charlie, he will join me in the kitchen this month as an apprentice. I still love being in the kitchen, being amongst it all and polishing the steel at the end of the day.

What advice would you give to chefs looking to open their own place?

There can be a lot of heartache and you need a lot of patience. I wonder sometimes why I kept failing and it was probably because my life skills and emotional intelligence wasn’t quite there. I’m a different guy now to what I was 30 years ago, even in my mid-twenties I wanted a restaurant impatiently. Patience is everything for a cook and that will express itself through your food as well.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 18th September 2017

Simon Bonwick, Chef Patron, The Crown at Burchetts Green