Crowning glory: Chef’s recipe for success

THE Bildeston Crown, just six miles from Lavenham, has 12 luxury en suite double/twin bedrooms.

In spring 2012, the inn introduced “Ingrams” – its refurbished 30-seat dining room, which showcases the creativity and talents of head chef Chris Lee: the reason why the Crown has held AA 3 rosettes since 2007 - as Emma Crowhurst discovered.

Ingrams features the seasonally-changing “Select” menu and the increasingly popular eight-course Crown Tasting menu.

The new dining room complements the more relaxed dining available in the restaurant/bar.

Chris uses locally-sourced produce whenever possible, including Red Poll beef (an indigenous Suffolk breed), and lamb from the owner’s neighbouring farm, and has won a clutch of awards for his efforts.

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Championing local food is a good place to start when describing what drives Chris. He hails from Kent but later moved to Northampton, where he gained his catering qualifications on a day release scheme at Northampton College.

It would be misleading, in spite of the style and finesse of Chris’s food, to say his talent was the result of learning alongside one of today’s super chefs. Chris is the first to admit he had some great experiences whilst working at the Windows restaurant at the Hilton Park Lane and at Fawsley Hall Hotel in Northampton but, on the whole, his style is very much self-taught and inspired by eating out, as much as time allows, at the best restaurants in the country.

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The big break in Chris’s professional life came when Suffolk farmer and businessman James Buckle bought the Bildeston Crown in November 2003. James’s initial thoughts were to restore this wonderful Grade 2* listed former coaching inn and re-establish its purpose as a place for good food, drink and local employment.

However, at the back of his mind was the vision to do so much more. In The Bildeston Crown he had the opportunity to develop his own outlet from which to sell his own produce. Although not self-sufficient by any means, James is very happy to see beef from his own Red Poll herd and his lambs, now available from butchers as Nedging Lamb, as a regular on the menu.

Chris is also more than happy working for a farmer. “How many chefs can boast that they are using meat farmed just down the road on the owner’s land? As chefs we enjoy seeing the boss take such great pride in what he farms for us to use and the resulting dishes we create to showcase what we truly believe is Suffolk food at its very best,” he says.

Meeting James and being offered the opportunity to make the Bildeston Crown the place to eat in Suffolk marked Chris Lee as a chef to watch. He quickly attained AA two rosette status by 2007. This had increased to AA 3 rosettes and the restaurant is currently one of only two restaurants in Suffolk to have this status.

In the same month the restaurant entered the pages of The Good Food Guide for the first year, with great style. The 2008 edition of the independent restaurant bible not only listed The Bildeston Crown as one of only 22 highlighted food venues to visit in Suffolk but also named Chris Lee as joint winner of the up-and-coming chef’s award for the whole country. Elizabeth Carter, consultant editor, The Good Food Guide, was quoted as saying: “Chris Lee is an ambitious, self-taught chef. His ‘intricate cuisine gastronomique’ is definitely showy, but backed up by sound technique. Subtle flavours, complementary textures and dish combinations are analytically thought out.”

Only a year later, Times reviewer Giles Coren was equally positive, calling the Bildeston Crown “the best little progressive kitchen in Suffolk”.

Then in February, 2009, Chris found himself in front of the cameras when he took on The Hairy Bikers – and won! The Hairy Bikers’ Tour of Britain is a television series in which Simon King and Dave Myers get on their bikes to find the best of each county’s larder and meet the local producers keeping traditional recipes alive.

The Bikers went up against Chris in a cook-off, with restaurant diners deciding who had created the dish that best defined Suffolk. Chris emerged as winner, with eight out of the nine votes.

The Bildeston Crown has won silver in the National Enjoy England Awards for Excellence. In 2010 it was named “Best Restaurant” at the Suffolk Food & Drink Awards. In October, 2011, it was ranked 107 in The Sunday Times “The Food List”, Britain’s Top 200 Restaurants.

As a keen supporter of Suffolk produce, Chris is delighted to be taking part in a number of the county’s food festivals this year. He will be demonstrating how to cook chargrilled rib of Suffolk beef to share with chips, wild mushrooms, French beans & b�arnaise sauce – the only dish to appear on both menus at The Bildeston Crown – at the Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival on Sunday, September 30.

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