Brendan Padfield - ‘I didn’t know anything about running a restaurant’
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Brendan Padfield looks smug. Not in a smarmy, ungracious, arrogant kind of way. But he wears the smile of a deep-sea diving treasure hunter. Someone who’s been searching and trawling to find their way for what seems a lifetime, only to finally, at last, discover that shining gem amongst the rubble.
He sits below one of the unashamedly unusual pieces of artwork that typify the ‘quirkiness’ of his pub-restaurant The Unruly Pig.
The Pig (as it’s more affectionately known) is feted for its playful setting. For its art. While it doesn’t quite have the aesthetic of London’s Sketch, the pub can rightfully be called idiosyncratic. Something judges in the many many awards bestowed upon the business have said is reflective of Brendan as an owner.
A Pop Art print of the Irishman’s beloved Tato chips welcomes guests in the bar. Mickey Mouse looms large, brandishing the fat end of a cigar. A wild boar’s head snarls from its home over one of the pub's fireplaces.
“I like the surreal. The weird,” Brendan says of his collection. “Where else in Suffolk will you find Chairman Mao propaganda in the loos?
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“It’s what people love about us here. We’re unique. We’re definitely different. But, importantly, we’re still accessible. Yes, we have taken the food offering more upmarket in recent times, but our burger is still our biggest seller, with dripping chips and melting gorgonzola. That’s the essence of what we’re about.
“We keep our feet firmly on the ground. I don’t want the Pig to be stuffy. That’s why our waiters serve in jeans. It’s that kind of place.”
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The Unruly Pig opened in Bromeswell near Woodbridge in June 2015, replacing what was The British Larder. Just 12 weeks later, the pub was plunged into crisis as fire ripped through the kitchen, closing the fledgling business for six months. It was, says Brendan, one of the darkest times of his life. He tears up with emotion just remembering the shock and stress of the widely reported incident, which made even more of an impact on him because this new venture, this foray into the world of restaurants, is something he’d dreamt about since he was knee high to a grasshopper.
It’s hard to imagine the restaurateur and bon viveur, who talks so animatedly on the subjects of food and wine, being cooped up in a high-rise City office, weighted down by case loads and paperwork.
Between swooning over Dave’s latest creations on the menu, and meditating on memories of family holidays along the Puglian coastline, devouring just-landed seafood, Brendan reflects on the ‘before’. The first chapter of his life. There are no regrets he says. A career as a lawyer served him well – got his daughters through school and university, helped fund his dream. But...there is a but...what if he’d got out a bit earlier?
“I’ve been a foodie before foodie was even a word,” he laughs. “From the age of about 22 people were asking me when I was going to get out of this law lark and into the food business.
“I have to say, people must have thought I was on medication when I decided to do this. But I hated law. In fact, I don’t think I was very good at it. There are hundreds of people who decide every year they want to set up a café, or a pub or a restaurant who don’t know the intricacies of what’s involved in catering – and I’m one of them.
“I didn’t know anything. Truly. But I was supported by head chef Dave, sous chef Karl, and my business manager. Happily (and luckily) they knew how to run a restaurant. I just swan round looking at it all – as helpful, probably, as a chocolate tea pot.
“It’s very strange now, coming back from holidays (when that was a thing). Before, I’d have my head in my hands thinking ‘oh God how many emails will I have to deal with when I get back to the office?’. Now, my wife says as we’re driving away from the airport, ‘You’re not going to that bloody pub are you?’
“’Yes. Yes I am going to that bloody pub,’ I say, ‘because I love that bloody pub!’”
As aforementioned, in its six years of operation (five if you take out the lockdowns and fire), The Unruly Pig has been showered with attention from the glitterati of the food world. There have been accolades for Best Pub, Best Front of House....the Pig even won Best Restaurant in our own Eat Suffolk Food and Drink Awards – Brendan wasn’t going to enter that year as they’d lost out the previous two times.
What is the moment, he feels, the team ‘made it’?
“Definitely, without being immodest, when we got to number 24 in the Estrella Damm UK Top 50 Gastropubs. It’s hugely prestigious, with 10 Michelin star places listed. To sit amongst them as our peers, well, that was incredible. When we got to 24 I thought ‘that’s pretty damn good’. So this year, to have leaped to number 10...people go to the Oscars and say ‘I’m so surprised’ and that’s just what it was like. I was genuinely shocked to have been the highest climber. To be book-ended by Michelin Stars. It’s a testament to Dave and the team.
“I’m not embarrassed to say, while I was watching the awards online I had a weep. To then be named Dining Pub of the Year 2021 by the Good Pub Guide was the cherry on the cake. After such a difficult year-and-a-bit, it doesn’t get better than that.
“It makes me well-up now actually. I am so, so proud of everything we’ve achieved. That’s not false modesty. I never imagined we’d be so successful. We always wanted to reach for the stars, but we were realistic. For me, I’m over 60, and to have had a shot at a second career that I love is the dream, it really is.”
His favourite dish? “Oh easy. Dave’s recent creation of Iberico acorn-fed black pig from Spain, served with Fruit Pig black pudding. The sheer quality of it, cooked over the Japanese charcoal grill is a sensation. I’ve never tasted meat like it in my life...and I’ve been around the block a few times.
Five minutes with executive chef Dave Wall
Cool as a cucumber, and coming from kitchens of the highest calibre before he joined the Pig team in 2015, Dave walks, talks and breathes food.
More importantly – real food. In an age where it’s so easy for restaurants to take the convenience route (with pre-made stocks and sauces, and ready-butchered meat), Dave has been insistent since the beginning that the stoves of the Pig would be an homage to classical technique. How else, he says, are young recruits, to learn, improve and aspire?
Dave and his team have forged relationships with the very best suppliers and producers along the east coast. They go foraging. Great slabs of beef, pork, game, come in on the bone, to be broken down on site – the bones bubbling away for hours into stock.
It’s these fundamentals which the chef is unwilling to compromise upon. Quality comes first. Then, naturally, flavour follows.
There have been changes along the way, but these are largely due to the landscape of clientele the Pig has managed to attract as it picked up recognition.
“We’ve definitely refined our offering,” Dave says. “The original pitch was to make sure it was accessible. Our predecessor had a reputation for being a bit elitist, and we wanted to ensure the whole family could come, and that we could cater for everyone as much as possible.
“That was great, but over the years, as we’ve managed to grow our following to become a destination, we’ve been able to reduce the menu size, elevate the dishes a bit more, and perhaps use ingredients people are less familiar with. Customers are more often than not, now seeking us out to try something new.”
Is that part of the appeal of The Unruly Pig then? And does Dave feel it’s the responsibility of lauded venues, to educate diners when it comes to trying something out-of-the-ordinary?
“Definitely. We try to use lots of unusual ingredients you might not find anywhere else around here. Brendan often pushes back and says ‘ooh I don’t think they’ll like that, are you sure?’ but those dishes become our best-sellers. An example of that is octopus.
“It’s not a ‘crazy’ ingredient, but it’s horrifically expensive, so straight away it was outside our comfort zone. But people absolutely loved it and it’s now far and away our best-selling starter by three to one. If we try to take it off, have a little break from it, we have outcry from customers!”
Other off-piste ingredients that have proved smash hits have been hare, smoked eel and the sea herb agretti. Dave is always, he says, looking to push the envelope.
“We are trying now to cater for the ‘foodie market’. So we can do more and more with our dishes. Whereas before we had two different burgers, and two different steaks, and we thought we’d better have a classic chicken dish, now that axis has inverted. We’ll have one or two accessible things, and then everything else is an experience.”
Most memorable, says Dave, has been a hare dish matched with rich chocolate and sharp local blackberries.
Going back to those all-important producers, Dave is rightly proud to put Suffolk smack-bang in the centre of his Britalian menus.
There’s brioche from Pump Street (who also provided their sourdough before the kitchen began making their own), alongside Pump Street’s decadent bean-to-bar chocolate – a ubiquitous feature of the dessert selection.
“Like octopus, we cannot take Pump Street desserts off the menu. Our puddings have evolved over lockdown. I’m not a natural pastry chef – I've spent time in pastry in my career but never sustained it- but it’s something we’ve really been able to work on to ensure it’s as good as the main courses and the starters. We’ve learnt a lot of new techniques and have really elevated what we’re doing.”
Smoked fish is purchased from Pinney’s, also in Orford, who supply spanking fresh fish direct from their day boats to The Unruly Pig kitchen, giving Dave a buzz in the mornings to talk through the catches of the day. These stories. This quality. They make the food at the Pig what it is.
If you want to experience a true taste of what the restaurant has to offer you should, says the chef, book in for the Be Unruly menu – ever-changing and launched over the summer.
“We’ve done tasting menus for things like Valentine’s Day, but with this we’re trying to be a bit more robust. Being listed in the Estrella awards has meant we’re getting more food tourists coming to see us, and I don’t want to fob them off with tiny portions – that's not what we’re about. This menu is true to our style – wholesome dishes. They’ll get a starter, fish, main course and a pudding, with some nibbles and petit fours either side. It’s a great snapshot of what we can do here.”
Five minutes with front of house manager TJ Russell
TJ joined The Unruly Pig in December, replacing much-loved front of house manager Amy, who had built solid, award-winning foundations in service.
Having worked in some of the UK’s top restaurants with chefs including Tom Kerridge and Josh Egerton, TJ says he’d long been curious about The Unruly Pig. “I’d always wanted to come to this part of the world. I was drawn in by the quirkiness of this place. And I wanted to bring my knowledge to the team here – taking it up even further to where I think it can be.
“What epitomises good service is achieving being relaxed, but also offering that high level of attention to detail. Guests should feel warm and welcome, and making sure everyone’s looked after individually is really important to me. Eating out should feel like a family gathering. It should make you feel good.
“That comes from giving the team a lot of knowledge, which builds their confidence.”
Talking about confidence and making guests feel welcome, TJ is keen to point out that just because social distancing rules have relaxed, the Pig isn’t throwing everything out the window.
“We’ve got a reputation for being very Covid secure,” he says. “We’re keeping our booths and most of the screens Brendan put in, but we also have our marquee and decking area outside. We will continue to wear masks for as long as our customers want us to. And when guests book, we ask them how they would like to be served. If they want it completely contactless, we can do that.
“A lot of people are coming back here because they say they feel safe. I think that’s brilliant.”
The Unruly Pig – Brendan’s highs and lows
February 2015 - Brendan Padfield, a former solicitor of over 34 years, purchases what was The British Larder in Bromeswell. Dave Wall (ex-Gordon Ramsay at Claridges,The Boxwood Cafe, Bibendum and Le Talbooth) becomes head chef of The Unruly Pig – today he is executive chef patron, and Brendan’s business partner.
April 2015 - The Unruly Pig opens to critical acclaim, being recommended by The Sunday Times, the Financial Times and The Good Food Guide.
June 23, 2015 - The Unruly Pig suffers from a catastrophic fire, losing over 40% of the building, including the kitchen and much of the upper floors, enforcing a six-month closure.
August 2015 - Whilst still closed the pub is burgled.
December 15 - The Unruly Pig reopens, renewed inside and out.
2016 - 2017 Further recommendations by The Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Mirror, as well as Olive and Delicious magazines. The team doubles in size. The Pig is named as an Estrella Damm UK Top 50 Gastropub - then, and ever since the only UK Top 50 Gastropub in Suffolk.
2018 - The business wins the Eat Suffolk Food & Drink Awards Best Restaurant accolade and in the Estrella Damm UK Top 50 Gastropub Awards for service.
2019 - Dave Wall is voted by his peers (the Craft Guild of Chefs) as the UK’s Best Pub Restaurant Chef . The Unruly Pig wins ‘Best for Wine’ award in the Great British Pub Awards 2019.
2020 - The Pig makes the Estrella Damm UK Top 50 Gastropub Awards list in position 24 and receives a special commendation from the AA Pub Guide for its wine list.
March 2021 - The first of three lockdowns begins. Brendan invests more than £20,000 in anti Covid measures, including booths, automatic taps, screens, temperature check points and contactless service. An ‘at home’ service is launched and a marquee placed in the garden for outside dining.
October 2020 - William Sitwell from the Daily Telegraph gives The Unruly Pig an extremely rare five star award, describing it as “just a damn good restaurant “ adding that it is the “standard bearer for the new normal. Seriously good, unfussy food, fine service, a nod to fashion and a firm grasp on how hospitality can and should be.”
2021 - The Unruly Pig is placed at 10 in the Estrella Damm UK Top 50 Gastropub Awards 2021, winning the Highest Climber award. It is also named Dining Pub of the Year by the Good Pub Guide 2021.