All the Queens' man

09 October 2002 by
All the Queens' man

Few chefs are able to claim that they have toured with Queen, the rock band, and cooked for the Queen, the head of state. Graham Garrett can. His experience as caterer to the monarch came about in 2000 when Her Majesty hosted a dinner at The House, the Chelsea restaurant where Garrett was chef-patron. And he played alongside rock's aristocracy when his own band, Ya-Ya, was a support act in the 1980s.

These days, Garrett has given up the drum kit for the kitchen (going from a hi-hat to a toque) and swapped genteel Chelsea for rural Kent, where he has taken over the West House, the Grade-II listed restaurant in Biddenden that had sat empty for a year.

Country food
The location suits his style of cooking. "I was always trying to cook seasonal country food in the middle of London," Garrett explains. "Here, I'm surrounded by the best English produce - I get my fish from Rye and my lamb from Romney Marsh."

Having such top-notch produce on his doorstep has been an eye-opener for Garrett. "I'd never really thought about seasonality of fish, but it stops you having to use the farmed stuff," he says. Over the summer, Garrett's menus carried not only locally caught sea bass but fish rarely seen on restaurant menus - starters of English Channel sardines, for instance, and dab, breaded as fillets with a green herb sauce.

A less British-feeling starter is a dish of red mullet: the cooked fish fillets are laid atop a tomato-and-herb relish finished with Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar. Saffron gnocchi forms the garnish. "All the flavours work for me," Garrett says. "It's very simple and colourful - the red of the mullet and the gold of the gnocchi."

Simplicity is vital to Garrett - he is the only chef in the kitchen and, with the West House averaging 120 covers a week, "that's a fair bit of prep to do on your own". Elaborate sauces are avoided and the daily-changing menu is restricted to five starters, five mains, four desserts and cheese.

However, the simplicity does not mean that the menu is without sophistication. A main of Gloucester Old Spot pork belly is a case in point. Salt, fennel seeds, garlic, star anise, cinnamon and a few herbs are blitzed together and rubbed all over the boned meat, which is left for as much as a week. The cure is then rubbed off and the pork poached till tender, roasted and served with sage oil. It's a best-seller that's rarely off the menu, though for variety Garrett regularly changes the garnish; currently, it's a choucroute of fennel, apple and chorizo.

Garrett has been surprised not only by the appetite for gutsy cooking in a small village - "the potted rabbit and lambs' kidneys have both flown out" - but by the fact that diners have been forthcoming about the European wine list of 17 whites and 18 reds - "not something people usually comment on".

Such has been the restaurant's success that Garrett has increased the number of seats from 15 to 33, while average spend is a respectable £40. Lunchtimes are not busy, admittedly, but Saturday night is booked out a week ahead. And Garrett is satisfied with that - although the previous incarnation of the West House had two AA rosettes, he is just happy that the locals like what he is doing.

The West House, 28 High Street, Biddenden, Kent TN27 8AH. Tel: 01580 291341

A selection of dishes from the menus of the West House

(£24.50 for a three-course dinner)
Spiced beef, beetroot, horseradish and cornichons
Smoked haddock and sweetcorn chowder
Confit chicken, ham and apricot terrine, white bean and garlic dressing
Roast mallard, Savoy cabbage, girolles, butternut squash tortellini
Braised shank of lamb, red onion, balsamic and rosemary
Locally caught sea bass, parsnip purée, sautéd cèpes and truffle butter
Honey and thyme roast figs with goats' cheese ice-cream
Vanilla crème brûlée, almond crisp
Damson and cobnut crumble with vanilla ice-cream

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