My childhood dream was to be a singer. I decided at the age of 14 that I was going to be the youngest opera singer on the Covent Garden stage. My school careers officer on the other hand thought I should be a secretary! However with a lot of help from my Mum, my step father Geoff and my singing teacher Grayston Burgess, I somehow managed to get a place at Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham University at the age of 16. Sadly it was a pretty miserable experience; very competitive and academically driven and quite frankly my parents were right, I wasn't ready. I wanted to have fun. So I quit after a year and came to London.
I started working in restaurants. And I loved it. I loved the performance of service, the chaos in the kitchen, the hard physical work, the interesting people, the flexible hours and even the money. Though in those days I often didn't receive a wage at all, all your money came from tips, and I never received a day's holiday or sick pay until I was in management.
But although I enjoyed the work, the industry as a whole seemed to be seriously lacking in any concept of provenance or ethic. I was absolutely astounded at how these qualified, skilled chefs had no idea what season fruit or vegetables were in, were indifferent to where their meat was coming from, or what additives or chemicals the ingredients might be laced with. Having worked in restaurants for a few years, I realised, out there, there was a market for people like me who wanted to know the provenance and ethics of the food they were eating in restaurants. I was striving for something more honest but at the same time more relaxed. And the uptight formality of the restaurant business just did not sit well with me.
It was 1993 when I came across The Eagle in Farringdon. This was it! Relaxed dining, simple food, ingredients-led, simple wine lists and great beer all served in a classic pub atmosphere. What the Eagle had done, combining the pub with restaurant quality food and drink in the pub atmosphere, was a stroke of genius. It began the resurgence of bringing pubs back into the 21st century. Good food had been in pubs for years, but it was always the same kind of thing, steak and chips etc, in carpeted rooms with twee curtains. The Eagle took the bare building and the bare ingredients and served them up in a simple atmosphere. The simplest ideas are the best.
I was 23 years old and my plan was born. I wanted a ‘gastro pub' as the Eagle's neighbour, The Guardian, had named it. But I wanted it to be ethical, sustainable, traceable and values-driven. It had to be, very first and foremost an excellent gastro pub, but backed up by values inspired by my upbringing, Anita Roddick and the Soil Association.
I started writing business plans, but my poor education was finally catching up with me. I did some research at Mintel and the stats were there to back the plan up. It dawned on me that I might need a business partner. I started trying to recruit one, I went through a couple of people who didn't work out, and then I stumbled on an old childhood friend, Esther Boulton. Having shown her the idea, and talked her through the plan she was on board. A year after that first meeting we opened the Duke of Cambridge.
That year before opening was probably the hardest of all my time in business. Esther left her job and started working in the restaurant industry (being a museum curator wasn't going to look good on the CV for investors). While holding down five jobs between us, in our spare time we wrote the business plan, sitting side by side on the floor of my bedroom; with Esther writing and me gabbing on about my ideas it quickly came to fruition. When there are two of you, you drive each other forward; you have a responsibility to each other which means there is no escape into displacement activities. I had to save every penny I earned to pay for the expenses involved in the planning stage, investors to be dined, architects to be paid for, projects that didn't come off, books, business plans, accountants and lawyers.
I thought that raising the money would be the hardest part, but actually with an extremely strong business plan, with Mintel stats, and a superb design by Paul, my boyfriend (his now successful design/advertising and film production company still does all our design), getting the investment was pretty easy. You had to have total confidence in what you were doing, which of course is not always easy. Raising money for new business is selling ideas. I had to have an alter-ego, which didn't allow any of my doubts to show. Of course there were huge doubts, questioning yourself is essential, if you don't you are heading for a disaster. It turned out the really hard part was finding a site.
We searched high and low for a pub; most were tied to breweries which meant we wouldn't be able to serve our own beer and wine so they were out. Free houses were snapped up by more stable propositions; landlords weren't really keen to lend to a couple of women with a risky idea.
Then one Friday afternoon we spotted the for sale sign outside the Duke of Cambridge - it was going to auction the following Monday. All weekend we tried to find a buyer, tailored the business plan to the location and sat at the site counting foot fall, shopping bags, cars and anything that might give an indication that this was the site we were looking for.
On Monday, no buyer on board, we went to the auction, business plan in hand. We tried to watch the buyers bidding; they were so discreet it was almost impossible to spot them. When the Duke came on I was a bag of nerves. Only one person bid, we followed him out of the door gave him a copy of the plan and asked him to lease us the pub. He said he would be in contact.
A few weeks later, good as his word, he called and agreed to lease us the pub! Finally, my dream was beginning to look like a reality.
Soy and Sesame Baked Mullet with Soba Noodle, Spring Onion and Asparagus Salad
Red mullet is a surprisingly under-used fish considering how absolutely delicious it is. It is succulent and meaty with big bones that are easy to manage. The meatiness beautifully complements the rich Asian tang, while creating a light and zesty spring atmosphere.
100 ml soy sauce
100 ml water
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tsp sesame seeds
30 g fresh ginger root, grated
4 limes (2 to serve)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
25 g chopped coriander, including stalks
4 whole red mullet, scaled and gutted
300 g soba noodles
6 spring onions
8 asparagus spears
200 g spring greens, roughly shredded
1. Bring the soy sauce, water, sesame oil, sesame seeds, ginger, juice of 2 limes and garlic to the boil, immediately put aside and let cool completely. Add half the coriander. Pour over the mullet (keeping a few tablespoons of the soy marinade for the noodle salad) and place in the fridge for a few hours.
2. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Cook the soba noodles for 7-9 minutes or until soft. Drain and refresh immediately with cold water. Top, tail and cut the spring onions in half and do the same with the asparagus spears. Bring another saucepan of water to the boil, and blanch the asparagus and spring onions, together with the spring greens, for about four minutes. Put aside.
3. Take the mullet out of the marinade. Heat a frying pan, add a little sunflower oil, and place the fish in, away from you so you don't get any hot oil on you, and fry until golden brown, about 5 minutes on each side, being careful not to burn the skin.
4. Place the drained noodles in a mixing bowl, add the asparagus, spring onions, spring greens and toss in the remaining soy dressing.
5. Serve the fish with half a lime each and some coriander leaves.
Rhubarb, Oat and Almond Crumble with Custard
Delicious rhubarb, with its all-too-brief season like asparagus, should be eaten in plenty when it's available. The almond in the crumble of this dish will really make it scrumptious and served with custard, what could be more perfect? It flies off the blackboard at the pub.
1 kg rhubarb
1 tbsp caster sugar
25 g butter, to grease the dish
75 g butter, unsalted
100 g demerara sugar
75 g plain flour
75 g ground almonds
50 g rolled oats
1. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6. Wash and cut the rhubarb into 2 cm long pieces.
2. Make the crumble topping. You can use almost any nuts you like really but I prefer almonds or toasted hazelnuts but walnuts are delicious too. Cut the butter into little cubes and rub them together with the remaining crumble topping ingredients, using your fingertips until they resemble bread crumbs. Butter a 20 cm x by 17 cm ovenproof dish. Put the fruit into the dish, sprinkle with sugar and cover with the crumble topping. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the topping is golden brown. Serve with custard.
Geetie's Cookbook: Recipes from the kitchen of the Duke of Cambridge Organic Pub by Geetie Singh & Sara Berg (Grub Street, £18.99) can be purchased by Ecologist readers for £16.99 including postage and packaging by calling 0207 924 3966.
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