We sat down with chef Leigh Evans to find out a little more about why eating at the Old Bell Hotel in Malmesbury is so special.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, including where you are today, professionally, and what got you here?
I am Executive chef of the oldest hotel in England, The Old Bell hotel, Malmesbury, which includes our in-house restaurant, Abbey Row.
I have spent my career working in high quality restaurants, spending my early years at the Royal Crescent Hotel and then taking my first Head Chef job at The Chequers, Bath. I then went on to work as Head Chef and General Manager of the Methuen Arms in Corsham if you can believe it.
That was not an easy task. Whilst heading everything up there, my team achieved 3 AA rosettes and five-star Inn status. My time there is something I’m super proud of.
After that, I went on to be Development Chef for those excellent Clarence Court eggs that we all love, working closely with top manufacturers and supermarkets such as Waitrose and M&S, bringing current chef trends and innovation into the food to go and convenience fixture.
The lure of The Old Bell and Abbey Row was too much to turn down, and I have now been here a year. We have achieved so much already, and we are well on our way to becoming the best independent hotel in the UK.
What’s your signature dish?
It’s a dish that has evolved over the years, and always has a place on my menu. Orkney scallops, roasted cauliflower, granny smith, smoked ham hock, black treacle & lime.
What are the most important considerations when crafting your menu?
Is it seasonal? Is it sustainable? Does it make the correct margin (it’s a business after all), and most important, is it delicious? If one of those isn’t right, the dish doesn’t make it to the menu.
How would you describe your cooking style?
Big on flavour, with a play on classics, but always accessible.
Do you have a favourite time of year or ingredients that you look forward to working with?
I would probably say Christmas – as crazy as it normally is in the kitchen in December. There are so many classic and nostalgic combinations that can be modernised, and the guests really understands them as it brings back memories of childhood. Our climate grows more vegetables in the autumn/wintertime too, so a few more home-grown items to use. It’s a happy time of year too, you cook better when you are happy.
What is your favourite ingredient?
We use Beech Ridge duck at the restaurant. It’s incredible. The meat is rich and dark, and the fat covering is golden, like corn-fed chicken. The flavour really is unbelievable and it’s not something you see about much. So currently, I would have to say that.
What’s your favourite piece of kitchen equipment?
It’s called a Vita Prep. It’s an amazing blender. It gives you super smooth sauces and purees. Nobody likes a grainy sauce, right?
Where’s your favourite place to dine?
Me and my girlfriend go to our local pub, the Pear Tree in Whitley. It’s such a beautiful pub and does the best pub burger around. We also recently went to Cornerstone in Hackney Wick in London, run by Chef Tom Brown. Amazing!
What do you think is the most overhyped food trend?
The supermarket vegan products. They are more of a chemistry set than food. The consumer buys into it, as they want to cut down on meat, and rightly so. But I feel we could just be more creative with the humble vegetable rather than making imitation meats.
How would you describe the food you create to somebody who’s never experienced your kind of food?
Recognisable combinations with an element of surprise.
How do you go about menu planning?
We have a kitchen garden, so that’s the first point of call. See what is coming through, its quality, and come up with a dish around it. Then get around the table with the senior team, get some ideas of what they are keen to put on the menu, and then collaboratively come up with the dish.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
When I was younger, I actually did some work experience as a stone mason, and I really loved it. So probably that or something hands on and creative.
What’s your favourite takeaway or comfort food?
Indian food. Love the stuff and I never get bored of it. There’s so much variety and I love interesting uses of spice.
The Old Bell Hotel, Abbey Row, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 0BW
Instagram – @oldbell_hotel & @abbey_row & @leighevanschef