Jack's silver celebration
PUBLISHED: 14:59 09 June 2017 | UPDATED: 14:59 09 June 2017
It's the anniversary of a well-known dining inn so Catherine Courtenay takes time out with its owner and head chef
Twenty five years ago, after a career running hotels across Europe, a landlord and his wife decided to buy a dilapidated inn, not far from Exeter.
Two years later, a young chef knocked at the door looking for work.
It’s not too over-the-top to say that when Paul Parnell gave Matthew Mason a job, it was a landmark moment, the effects of which neither one could possibly have imagined.
This month Paul and Judy, Matt and his manager wife Joanne and their team are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Rockbeare’s roadside pub, Jack in the Green, or ‘the Jack’ as everyone knows it.
And a lot of people know it.
This slightly rambling, nondescript building, with its trademark holly green exterior is legendary among the county’s chefs, restaurateurs and foodie types.
This is down to its consistently fabulous food, drink and hospitality; but it’s also something more, something harder to put a finger on, but something which is probably due to the quiet way the Jack has woven itself into the community, a community of chefs, producers, diners, locals, sportsmen and charities. In short, it’s about people and relationships.
“And it’s intense, it’s bloody hard work,” Matt reminds me.
Taking a rare break from the kitchen, he continues: “We get nights when you just think: ‘God we were good today!’ And I’ll be in the kitchen, shaking chefs’ hands, saying: ‘We did it right’.”
Even after all these years, ‘a good night’ still gives him the ultimate buzz. People travel from far and wide for the food at the Jack. With incredible attention to detail and a strong work ethic, Matt and his team turn out consistently excellent dishes, that have won accolades from Top Gastropub listings to a Michelin Bib Gourmand. The Jack’s kitchen is a happy one, which may explain not only why so many team members have gone on to culinary career heights but also, as Paul points out: “In 25 years I’ve never had to advertise for staff and always had a full team.”
“We’re always busy,” he adds. “It’s not always perfect, and it’s not for shirkers, but if you want to learn, it’s great.”
Like Matt, Paul is as intensely dedicated to the Jack as ever and is continually thinking ahead, (currently about extending the building and remodelling some of the dining areas). But he also knows he can walk away for a weekend with the certainty that things will run like clockwork. This enviable, but rare in the culinary world, situation is down to “investing in people”, he says.
He’s not just talking about staff either; for Paul and Matt the Jack is all about relationships. Matt is genuinely awed by the fact so many people choose to celebrate special occasions at the Jack, events that now transcend the generations.
As Paul says: “We’ve had kids in pushchairs coming in who are now in here buying dad a pint.”
“That the really special bit for me,” he reflects. “It’s when customers become friends. You’re inviting them into your home to have a meal. It’s all about people and relationships.”
Then there’s the network of suppliers, spreading out into the surrounding countryside, rooting the Jack and Matt’s food in the landscape. Some of them have been working with Matt for decades, others are newer additions; many of them discovered in typically quiet and roundabout Devonian ways - a comment made over a pint perhaps; the discovery that a regular turns out to be a specialist grower; or even when chef’s out running in the lanes and stumbles across a smallholding.
Matt says how he gets blueberries from two miles down the road in Aylesbeare; he describes the impact of eating one of the fruits straight from the bush: “They are just so, so perfect...” Such is his obvious passion, for a moment he’s transported somewhere else.
Matt is heading back to his beloved kitchen and in answer to my question about the secret of the Jack’s success, Paul says: “It’s about hospitality, awareness (you can sense when something’s wrong at a table), attention to detail…and then there’s the welcome and goodbye.”
“And none of that costs money,” he smiles as he gets up to welcome the lunchtime arrivals.
Where are they now?
Scott Paton: former head chef at The Horn of Plenty now head chef at Boringdon Hall spent 9 years at the Jack starting from pot wash to winning International Pastry Chef of the Year along the way. He was named South West Chef Year of the Year while at the Jack.
Matt Downing: Head chef at River Cottage, Axminster was 7 years at the Jack during which time he was also South West Chef of the Year.
Craig Samson: Head chef at Blundell’s School was 8 years at the Jack and runner up in the South West Chef of the Year.
Harriet Pecover: After 5 years at the Jack, during which she was a South West Chef of the Year runner up, now runs a restaurant in Australia.
Shaun Cassidy: Was 5 years at the Jack. Now at River Cottage, with plans to open his own outside catering business, he was also runner up of South West Chef of the Year.
The Jack is hosting an all day party, from 2pm-2am, on Saturday, 10 June featuring live music, entertainment and a barbecue with beer and cider tents. Everyone is welcome.
On the evenings of Friday 9 June and Saturday 10 June there will be a special menu running in the restaurant full of Jack classics and favourites from the last quarter century. Pre-booking is essential.
In September a month long Menu Exceptionnel will see prices rolled back to £25 for 3 courses.
In November there will be a charity dinner, building on the £2,000 already raised for FORCE Cancer in Exeter from sales of The Jack Cook Book, published last year.