The secrets to success for the floating River Exe Cafe
PUBLISHED: 10:40 14 August 2018 | UPDATED: 11:11 17 August 2018
Verity Hesketh is enchanted by Devon's renowned floating restaurant
The journey to the River Exe Café has started; I pick up my water taxi from the marina and we whoosh away across the estuary. Clouds scud overhead, we pass bobbing boats, eagerly circling gulls, and an eel fisherman casting his nets in a wide arc. I’m not just going to a restaurant, I’m off on an adventure.
The River Exe Café has been standing (or rather floating) since 2011, the brain child of the owners, David Foa and Paul James Craven. Its modest appearance is suggestive of a rustic beach hut, the sort of place where you can kick off your shoes and no-one will mind in the slightest.
There is absolutely no running water or electricity onboard, so everything is done through a generator and holding tanks.
As I clamber aboard, Chris Dayer, the head chef, springs out of the kitchen, straight onto deck to greet me. Fresh from the afternoon’s service, he is by no means resting on his laurels.
“We don’t play up anything here, we tend to let the setting speak for itself, but nevertheless, the presentation and the destination both work seamlessly together in tandem – one wouldn’t work as well without the other.”
Starting work as a relief chef for super yachts around the Caribbean, Chris received a telephone call: “The lady from the agency told me that she had an interesting place that needed a chef – it was in England, and it was on the water but wasn’t quite a boat... Of course I had to check it out!”
Since the River Exe Café opens for the summer only, from April until the end of September, Chris still continues to chef aboard super yachts in the season when the restaurant is closed. These travels play a crucial part in the menu; despite a traditional core, vivid flavours and colours from across the world are everywhere in his food.
He’s still on fire from his latest trip to Mauritius: “The flavours from there knocked me out! … I feel that the only way to truly understand your food is to travel. Infusion has to be done properly though; no use chucking it all in and hoping for the best.
“It’s all about placing food on the plate in the same way you would place a paintbrush on a canvas. You can’t progress if you don’t make sure that everything is perfect.” He thumps fervently on the table for a little emphasis, “Just so; imagine an alphabet – all the letters have to go in a particular order. It’s the same with plating up.”
The crowd that comes to the restaurant every day is varied. Accordingly, the menu aims to please. The choice of seafood is of course huge: from an elegant tower of hake, crisp-skinned and soft-fleshed, topped with a silky layer of caviar, to some jolly good fish and chips (crunchy, chunky, perfectly golden).
Vegetarians and vegans do beautifully too; not a tedious onion tart in sight, but instead a host of joyously funky flavours across a choice of Caribbean curry, a hearty veggie burger, and a luxuriously smoky Tuscan bean chilli.
The River Exe Café seems to have hit a just-right note of harmony with its punters, seemingly understated, outwardly modest, but hitting you right between the eyes with Chris’s carefully crafted, ‘alphabetised’ flavour bombs (try the scallops, they will melt your heart into a buttery pool like the one they are served in).
With the call of the gulls in my ears and the occasional gentle wave lulling me further into a feeling of Sunday-afternoon contentment, my senses are fully engaged.
Chris agrees, sweeping an expansive arm in a gesture that includes the whole marvellously summery scene, from the caerulean sky, down to a yacht, arriving to tie up at the restaurant’s pontoon, perfect if you are lucky to have your own watery transport.
“If you went to Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant, you’d have to wear an earpiece to simulate the sounds and smells. I admire Heston’s attention to sensation and theatre, but I’ve got it all here, ready and waiting for me.”
What happens, I wonder, when the weather isn’t as gorgeous as today?
“Different weather conditions enhance different things in your head – we tuck everyone up with blankets when it’s cold, and other aspects of the meal come to the fore. Different weathers call for different food choices, that’s all.”
The setting not only sets the tone for the restaurant, but binds the team together in exactly the same way it would a ship’s crew: “We’re like a family, we work closely together six days a week, from when we meet at 9am on the quay every morning, to when we arrive back on the quay at midnight.
I’m like the Dad, the mother, and the grandad and whatever else I have to be! Together it works, whilst keeping a strict hierarchy; that clock is always ticking for the turn of the tide or the next arrival of customers.”
In Chris’s minute onboard kitchen, everything to the last tiny dessert spoon is tucked away in its proper place, carefully factored into Chris’s tight-ship thinking: “I have to use local suppliers that not only provide the best quality produce, but are good time-keepers so that our produce is always in the right place at the right time. Waste isn’t an option.”
“If you looked at the menu, really looked at it, you might see it’s designed like a Rubik’s Cube, to move and combine with fresh produce. The core is always the same, but we make sure the menu’s got room to breathe and move with the season’s rhythm.”
It seems the River Exe Café’s charm holds no bounds: who could not be enchanted by the chance to go on an adventure that involves a top-notch, travel-inspired menu, all from the best suppliers that Devon can provide? Not me, I felt, feeling the salty breeze on my face, my shoes kicked off under the table. Not me.