Devon's Dining Halls
PUBLISHED: 16:46 01 August 2016 | UPDATED: 16:46 01 August 2016
Rural village halls are at the centre of an alternative supper club idea from chef Tim Maddams, as Catherine Courtenay discovers
He may have worked with the likes of Marco Pierre White and Fergus Henderson and cooked on TV with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but these days, you’re just as likely to find ex River Cottage chef Tim Maddams hunting through the kitchen cupboards in your village hall.
Indeed, that bastion of parish council meetings, keep fit classes and horticultural shows, the community hall is the venue of choice for the Devon chef’s supper club venture, the appropriately named Hall and Hearty.
Three years ago, Tim had an idea of starting a different sort of supper club. Like the equally trendy “pop up” restaurants, these one off events were becoming increasingly popular, particularly in towns and cities, with chefs and ambitious home cooks going it alone and creating bespoke, dining out evenings, sometimes in their own homes and sometimes in unusual venues or empty town centre shops.
Tim, who’d had experience of running supper clubs in London, turned to the heart of the community for his inspiration.
“Chefs were doing all these pop ups in towns and I just thought, ‘these places have already got lots of restaurants and businesses where you can eat’. It wasn’t really providing something new and interesting and it wasn’t really competing on a level playing field,” he says, reflecting on how he came to start Hall and Hearty, before adding, tentatively, “I suppose it was me being a bit ‘anti’.”
His idea was to make village halls the supper club venues, and for the event to be organised by local community groups.
So, how it works is, Hall and Hearty charges £25 a head and the village organisers need to guarantee at least 40 diners. That covers Tim’s costs, including his hire of the hall; everything else raised on the night, through raffles, a bar, -“they may even want to charge more on each ticket”, says Tim - goes to the community.
As well as the food, a rather special three course meal, Tim brings his front of house staff, but there’s always the option for the organisers to have their own team, in which case Tim gives a discount on the ticket price.
The first experimental supper club was held at Offwell Social Club, “We had 19 people turn up,” says Tim, before adding, “It was a shocking success, but we made no money!”
After the trial run, Tim not only perfected the financial aspect of the arrangement, he also brought on board charcutier and chef Robin Rea from the Rusty Pig in Honiton, whose kitchen also provided a useful base for initial food preparation.
The next event at Colyford became the blueprint for the Hall and Hearty formula - and the idea took off. To date, Tim and his team have held supper clubs in halls across Devon and further afield, to north Cornwall and even Salisbury.
It’s not always plain sailing, sometimes people need a little persuading, he admits, particularly when they know there’s only one choice on the menu (although there is always a vegetarian option and special diets are catered for). “We did one near Salisbury and the lady organising it had got 80 people together, but quite a few had been a bit press ganged into it, they weren’t too sure if they’d like it,” he says. “But we had a chat and talked about the meal and within about 10 minutes it was fine.” They always say a few words about the meal before bringing out the first course he reassures, whether that’s Tim, Robin or another integral team member, Joe Draper.
“There’s just something great about going out to dinner; it’s a shared experience,” enthuses Tim. He also recognises that in many communities people welcome the opportunity to meet up.
Village halls have a long tradition of enabling groups of local people to socialise, but a Hall and Hearty meal can be a great way to get lots of disparate groups together - so you’ll get young farmers, WIs, sports clubs, all in one place sharing a meal, “And we’ve had everyone from age 12 up to 90,” he adds.
Following the principles of his Green Sauce food company, Hall and Hearty is all about taking an ethical approach to food. At its heart, says Tim, it’s about a group of people sharing a meal, eating tasty and good food using seasonal ingredients and making it a low food miles, ethical way of dining out. The approach even extends to Tim’s preference for using the hall’s own glasses and plates whenever possible.
Despite the back to basics surroundings, Tim is passionate about the low key setting. “We’re losing our shops, our pubs and all that’s left is the village hall, “ he says. “So let’s find ways to use them before we lose them.”
But, in keeping with his philosophy, there’s one line he won’t cross. “If there’s already a pub in the village, the organisers must talk to them first and see if they mind. We don’t want to steal their business, that’s not the idea.”
Fabulous food is guaranteed, although the hall’s limitations may mean it doesn’t look as beautiful as what you’d find in an à la carte restaurant. But that just adds to the challenge for the chefs, says Tim. “You have to be very brave; but it’s really honest - as chefs we’re not hiding behind anything. You can’t hide the fact that it’s in a village hall, so you may as well make the most of it.” And the real key to it all is the community aspect: “The magic is not about us,” he says, “we just facilitate it; the trick is to get everyone together.”