Boxing clever

03 November 2004
Boxing clever

Simon Gueller is very much at home. He has been running the legendary Box Tree restaurant in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, for just two months, but is already feeling totally relaxed and comfortable in his new surroundings.

Gueller: "I used to rule my chefs with a rod of iron, but now I'm more confident about achieving results in a different way"

His last experience of running a restaurant was not so happy, ending unexpectedly following business and health traumas. In fact, things were so bad that Gueller believed that he would never run his own restaurant again.

He certainly never had any master plan to buy the Box Tree, which for more than 40 years has been regarded as a British culinary institution. While the restaurant was once at the cutting edge of British gastronomy, in recent years it has fallen from grace with the loss of its Michelin star and a succession of four head chefs in as many years.

Gueller was experiencing problems at the same time. Following enormous critical success at his first two restaurants - Millers in Harrogate and Rascasse in Leeds - everything started falling apart when his third restaurant, Guellers in Leeds, went into voluntary liquidation in 2001, just six months after being launched. A late opening and the resulting litigious wrangles with builders had created insurmountable financial problems.

Just as Gueller had begun to get the business running again, under new ownership - "I was working really hard to prove myself, both as a competent chef and in order to get my credibility back" - he was struck down in summer 2002 with what seemed to be a potentially life-threatening condition.

An ongoing back problem, resulting in paralysis in one leg, was diagnosed as a tumour on the spine. During surgery it was discovered that there was no tumour after all - instead, material stemming from a slipped disc had fused to Gueller's sciatic nerve, but the problem was successfully dealt with.

The experience proved to be life-changing. "It made me realise that I was no longer enjoying cooking - in fact, I finally faced up to the fact that my love of cooking had died while I was at Rascasse," he says.

Gueller had found that his creativity was so hampered by the circumstances at Rascasse, a successful 100-seat restaurant, that he was severely restricted by what he could cook in order to retain the Michelin star he had gained in 1997.

After leaving Guellers, later renamed No3 York Place, he set up an outside catering business with his wife Rena, called Gueller Events. And gradually, able to concentrate on producing high-quality food for small parties of corporate clients, including the directors of the Yorkshire Bank, his love of cooking returned. "Suddenly I was feeling refreshed and relaxed about the business. Before, I'd been distressed all the time," he says.

In the meantime, Rena, who was doing some staff consultancy work, came into contact with Helen-Lela Avis, owner of the Box Tree. Avis was looking for new staff, but then she invited the Guellers to take over the running of the Box Tree on a management contract. They declined the offer, but said they would be interested in buying the restaurant.

Protracted and difficult negotiation ensued but eventually the Guellers, supported by an anonymous financial backer, paid £150,000 to take on a 12-year lease, with Avis remaining the freeholder.

"I was completely overwhelmed," says Gueller. "I hadn't truly believed it was going to happen, and suddenly the enormous responsibility of deciding what to do with this great institution that was the Box Tree was upon our shoulders."

Faced with a 300-year-old building in need of care and attention, the Guellers were forced into deciding what to do - namely, spending £150,000 on a complete refurbishment, including a new kitchen, electrical work and interior decor. Many items of furniture were retained and renovated, and all the original chairs were reupholstered.

On 17 September, three months after purchase of the lease, the Box Tree reopened, its cluttered boudoir look replaced by a more subtle, glamorous decor. Created by Windsor House Antiques, the interior is a mix of restrained contemporary touches, such as the sleek red and gold fabric on the chairs in the main dining room, and quirky features from the original Box Tree, like the marble-topped bar. "Mrs Avis is no longer involved in running the restaurant and a new chapter in the life of the Box Tree has begun," says Gueller.

Once again, he's buoyed up by cooking in a restaurant environment. Not only is he happy about producing food for numbers which he can control, he's also revelling in a whole host of new toys in his kitchen.

"So much has happened, technically, since I've been out of the kitchen," he says, "and I'm now very much enjoying using induction hobs, a water-bath and a holding oven - all of which are helping us to use different techniques to achieve better results."

Gueller explains how the holding oven - a Hugentobler Hold-O-Mat - has been a revelation to him. "It allows me to hold a perfectly cooked piece of beef with a crusty exterior and medium-raw in the centre for as long as I need to. The crust will remain crispy and the interior will stay pink," he says.

The consistent and highly controllable temperature settings on the three IE Magic induction hobs allow Gueller to cook one piece of meat after another, ensuring he achieves exactly the same level of caramelisation on the outside and moist centre for every one. The water-bath, used for both meat and fish, produces the same consistent results.

While Gueller has embraced new cooking techniques, he doesn't intend cooking cutting-edge food. Instead, he's concentrating on producing the same style of classical food that made his name at Rascasse. Dishes such as braised Old Spot pig's trotter stuffed with ham hock and morels, served with a truffle sauce (£18), will be familiar to customers from both Rascasse and Guellers.

But he has adapted the way he cooks certain dishes. Whereas he would have once roasted a piece of wild sea bass, he will now poach it in the water-bath, before crisping the skin in a pan on the induction hob. Wild sea bass is on the menu, served with aubergine caviar, anchovy beignet, confit tomatoes, beurre noisette and balsamic (£23).

"I'm interested in great flavours and tastes and I don't think you can get much better than something classical like a lobster and tarragon risotto, in which those two flavours dominate," says Gueller.

He is currently offering just one menu, an … la carte offering seven starters, eight main courses and six desserts, and is open only from Tuesday to Saturday evenings and for Sunday lunch. "We probably will eventually open for lunch during the week, and also offer a tasting menu," he says.

He adds: "At the moment, there's me and four others in the kitchen, and Rena and four staff front of house. To do all these other things, we'll need to take on more staff. In the past when opening restaurants, we've done everything at once. This time, I want to build things slowly and develop from a strong base. The Box Tree is a long-term project and I'm in no hurry to get there fast, and that applies to achieving a Michelin star, too. It would be nice if it happens again, but it's not as important to me as it was in the past."

Gueller's calm and relaxed approach to building up the business has, no doubt, come as a result of past experiences. His maturity - he's 40 - has also helped him to reassess his behaviour in the kitchen. "I used to rule my chefs with a rod of iron," he admits, "but now I'm more confident about achieving results in a different way, and that means sitting down and explaining things clearly, rather than screaming."

Gueller, it seems, as well as the Box Tree, has undergone a transformation. Together, they make a formidable partnership.

The Box Tree
37 Church Street
West Yorkshire
LS29 9DR
Tel: 01943 608484

Selections from the Box Tree menu
Average spend for three courses and wine is £60

  • Panach‚ of roast quail and foie gras, velout‚ of lentils and pancetta, £14
  • Roast sea scallops "Fa‡on du Chef", celeriac and truffles, £12
  • Tranche of turbot, braised with leeks and shiitake mushrooms, £19.50
  • Pot squab, Alsace cabbage, pommes fondant, jus of thyme, £23.50
  • Pear tarte tatin, ginger ice-cream, £7.50
  • Hot prune and Armagnac souffl‚ with its own ice-cream, £7.50

The Box Tree - A History Situated in a Yorkshire stone farmhouse dating back to the early 18th century, the Box Tree first opened its doors as a restaurant in 1962. Under owners Malcolm Reid and Colin Long, the restaurant swiftly became as well known for its eclectic, cluttered interior as its fine cuisine, inspired by the owners' frequent gastronomic trips to France. It was a restaurant very much ahead of its time, and by 1972 had won two Michelin stars, an accolade shared in Britain only by the Connaught, Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn.

Head chef at the time was Michael Lawson, with Michael Truelove and Edward Denny filling the same role in following years. Also working in the kitchen during this inspirational period was a young Marco Pierre White.

Reid and Long sold the restaurant in 1986 to Atlanta businessman Eric Kyte. In 1992, however, it fell victim to recession and went into receivership. Helen-Lela Avis bought the restaurant out of receivership in 1992 for £179,000, with the intention of returning the Box Tree to its former glory. It remained stable for eight years under head chef Thierry LePretre-Granet, who again won it a Michelin star. But in recent years there have been difficulties with a succession of head chefs, including Toby Hill, and the loss of the Michelin star. Avis eventually decided to sell the business following the death of her husband, Anthony.

Simon and Rena Gueller completed their purchase of the leasehold of the 48-seat restaurant on 15 June 2004, and have already breathed new life into the celebrated venue.

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