Interview with Devon chef Donna Berry
PUBLISHED: 17:45 13 February 2020
We talk to Donna Berry from The Swan at Bampton, who has her roots firmly in the Devon food scene
If there was ever a bona fide Devon chef, Donna Berry from The Swan at Bampton is it. Born in Torquay, she's worked right across the county, from Newquay to Ilfracombe, Cullompton to Tedburn St Mary.
Donna realised early on that her destiny was to be a chef. "My auntie gave me a mixing bowl, wooden spoon, measuring jug and apron when I was 13. I was soon baking cakes and quiches with enthusiasm."
She desperately wanted to take O Level cookery but the school had stopped offering the option. When Donna asked why, the deputy head said, 'There's no call for it'. Undeterred, she took a CSE and applied to South Devon College for a chef's course. "Mum wanted me to be a secretary and suggested a management course with a bit of cooking, but I said absolutely no. I just wanted to cook."
Back then, in the early '80s, female chefs were few and far between. "There were two groups on my course made up mainly of girls and just four boys, but the girls didn't follow it through. They became secretaries, took shop work or started families."
Donna, however, went to work at Torquay's Palm Court Hotel. "It was okay until the summer season ended. I looked for more hotel work but kept hearing 'our kitchens only have men in them!'."
She took a job as a waitress. "At least I was in the right environment - and I worked in the kitchen when the chef was on day release." Over the next seven years, roles included waitress, chef, head waitress, head chef and assistant manageress, all within the same hotel group.
She snuck out of Devon for a spell, moving to Oxfordshire where she met Paul. "He was running the multi-award-winning Green Dragon in Hadenham. His was a very different background to mine - he was a 'posh chef' while my recipes at the time were based on dishes I found in magazines and frozen food catalogues which I'd tweak. Paul taught me refinement; he basically beat me into shape!"
The lure of Devon was too strong, and Donna and Paul returned to take on the Quarrymans Rest in Bampton, where they garnered a reputation for quality food.
Meanwhile, The Swan, which had been closed, was refurbished by local entrepreneurs, who came up with a deal that Donna and Paul couldn't turn down.
It didn't take long for The Swan to pick up its first award; the Devon Life Pub of the Year.
Since then the accolades have flooded in, most recently AA Inn of the Year; with three pretty rooms the pub attracts not just tourists but regulars coming to Devon to visit family, for business trips and, in the shooting season, itinerant drivers.
Like many a great Devon restaurant, The Swan is notable for local sourcing, with fish from Brixham, lamb from Exmoor and steak and kidney for the ubiquitous savoury pudding from the local butcher. Donna describes the menu as 'modern British'. I describe it as delicious.
I ask Donna how tough it is as a female chef in what is still a male dominated industry - stats indicate that only 17 percent of chefs in the UK are women. She acknowledges that there is an element of limitation - for her, raising children meant that the pub restaurant scene was a more practical option than a formal restaurant. And generally, she thinks that it takes just a bit more effort for women to achieve recognition. At a recent Catering Forum lunch for women, everyone talked about the struggle they had to get the jobs they wanted as well as the fact that they got there eventually by sheer persistence. The real problem now, she says, is that it's hard to get anyone into the catering industry, male or female.
To help counteract this, she and Paul offer job flexibility, as it is often the hours that put people off a career in catering. Currently there are two apprentices in the kitchen plus young chef Finn Hutchinson, who was previously at the Michelin-starred Masons Arms, all learning from talented head Chef Olivier Certain alongside Donna and Paul.
The Swan has been an amazing success story, but there's no resting on laurels - last year the pair refurbished an old bakery shop in Bampton and created Spelt, a concept restaurant offering a selection of dishes especially developed for sharing. There are no starters or mains; instead two people eating could share four or five plates of food.
The Berrys think of Spelt as a 'wonderful adventure' but, Paul says, "…rest assured, we aren't taking our eyes off the ball at The Swan. We have a deep-rooted passion for the pub, and it is just as important to us today, as it was eight years ago when we took it on."
No respite for Donna then, but would she change things if she could? "Of course, it can be tough at times; it really takes over your life. But I wouldn't have it any other way. For me it's all about the people, the diners, the guests, the suppliers. I meet some really great people."