Entrepreneurial family puts food at the hub of business at Kenton Hall

Lucy, left, and Emily McVeigh

Lucy, left, and Emily McVeigh - Credit: Archant

Frances Hopewell-Smith meets the McVeigh family at their new venture, the Food Hub at Kenton Hall

The Food Hub founder Emily McVeigh is young and petite, but don’t let that fool you into thinking she’s a business lightweight.

She’s like a coiled spring and has a bubbly zeal which is irresistible. When I meet her at 10 on a Monday morning she’s already finalised the arrangements for a big party and overseen the clearing of the weekend wedding, but is looking unflustered and immaculate.

Over coffee and cake (very good and made by Granny) she tells me about her background and how the Food Hub came about.

Now aged 23, she did a ski season as a chalet host, worked in London as a PA and then was lured back to Suffolk.

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She worked at the wonderful Lawson’s deli in Aldeburgh but felt deep down that she wanted to do her own thing and definitely something based at home on the family farm.

The McVeigh farm is 460 acres near Debenham and, after convincing her parents she was serious about it, Emily’s first venture (at just 21) was a wedding venue and glamping site.

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Although she could do more dates, she restricts weddings to eight a year because she’s a perfectionist and wants each one to be a memorable, unique experience, not a conveyor-belt, marriage-by-numbers job.

Pretty soon this was easy to run (really?) and not enough to challenge the tireless Emily. She and her father, David, thought it would be an interesting idea to start a cookery school and together they researched the market.

Never taking the easy route they decided to have more than just a school and decided to go all out to create an entire food hub – a centre for many different areas of food production as well as a dedicated kitchen for specialised demonstrations, master classes and cooking courses.

Emily had earmarked a disused cow byre and with a great dollop of McVeigh determination and energy she oversaw its transformation into a state of the art complex of units in just four months. Yes, four months.

There’s a smokery, a curing room, bespoke kitchen for local catering company Events Couture, butchery (Palfrey and Hall), and, the jewel in the crown, the demonstration kitchen.

With its range cookers and cupboards stocked with meticulously arranged utensils and appliances, Emily tells me proudly about how each item was selected, bought and delivered, all in the ridiculous time scale.

Having admired the kitchens – I long for a kitchen as ordered and sparkling – said hello to the butchers checked out the smokery and catering facilities, Emily can’t wait to show me the rest of the farm. We set off at a brisk pace and an enormous tractor swoops up behind us.

The cab door opens and a slight girl jumps down to introduce herself as Lucy, Emily’s sister who is two years younger.

She tells me how she got on a tractor when she was 15 and has hardly been off one since. Her 17th birthday present? A combine harvester, of course.

While Emily concentrates on the events and the new Food Hub, Lucy’s passion is the farm and its herd of English Longhorn cattle, each of the 45 with names and, as is apparent, much more to Lucy than beef on legs.

Our tour continues with a prolonged visit to the kitchen garden where I meet Auntie Paddy. The garden is Paddy’s domain and it is exhibition standard.

The fruit and vegetables in ordered beds are in bright rows, almost as if they daren’t fall out of line.

The greenhouse is bursting with plants and seedlings and has that delicious smell that is only available in English greenhouses.

There’s a handy bench outside where Paddy talks me through her plans for extending and expanding the garden to cope with all the regular plundering from the Food Hub kitchens.

The Food Hub was opened in June 2014 by Lady Caroline Cranbrook and has been busy non-stop since then. Peter Harrison is the regular chef, well-known for his devotion to all food things local and seasonal.

So it’s a dream come true for him because he and his students can just walk across the yard into Auntie Paddy’s paradise and come back with baskets full of vegetables, fruit and herbs to cook straight away.

Added to that the ready supply of best quality beef and it’s just so perfect. Peter has put his own finish on a speciality burger which goes in a bespoke Pump Street Bakery bun and at its debut sold in the hundreds.

And, yes, you guessed it, Emily and her dad have designed and built a mobile burger trailer.

So it’s all go at Kenton Hall Food Hub. There are supper clubs for groups of up to 10 people who have a lesson then eat their efforts.

There are specialist demonstrations for up to 30 at a time where Peter shows off his considerable cooking skills or Henrietta Inman, patissiere, whips up her magic and reveals how to make the perfect macaron or meringue.

Strategically placed overhead screens show every minute detail of each process so there’s little excuse for getting it wrong, even for raw beginners.

Emily’s most recent event was a hen party which combined a cookery lesson, a very jolly supper and overnight glamping in the nearby glade. It was a huge success and no-one cried.

There’s so much to take in here and its obvious how close and how involved the extended family is in every single aspect of each project. Emily’s ideas and the possibilities seem endless and there’s no doubt the support of her family is fundamental to her achievements.

As I leave she tells me how the whole family gets together at Granny’s house up the drive twice a day for tea and cake. Well I’m just plain jealous and am going to apply to be a McVeigh.

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