As chef patron of the Swan Inn in Islip in Oxfordshire and its new Cygnet restaurant, Paul Welburn brings cheffing skills to a project where new operator Migg Inns is taking flight. Tessa Allingham reports
Mid-January is showing its grumpy grey face, the River Ray has burst its banks dramatically onto the road outside the Swan Inn, Islip, and there's a list of jobs to be done ahead of the first service of the year on 18 January. A wire needs to be chased away and some hooks screwed in; there'll no doubt be a final polish of the copper pass, a plump of the velvet cushions, and the glitterball in the Heaven loo – of which more later – will be set to razzle-dazzle mode.
Long-time friends Nina Gray and Nicole Patrick are on it. As directors of Migg Inns, the hospitality novices are behind an ambitious renovation in an attractive village between Oxford and Bicester. The Swan is now home to the 24-cover Cygnet restaurant (it will build to 40 covers), a semi-private dining space and the Majlis Lounge (a ‘majlis' is the term for the spacious lounge typical of homes in Dubai, where Gray and her family lived for 10 years before moving to Islip – her husband still works there).
And it is where Paul Welburn has settled in as chef patron. "I'm super-excited," he says, back at the stove alongside longstanding colleague Peter Wilton. "There's a shared vision. It's about amazing investors who want to do something special but who also listen to the practical side of operating a restaurant and allow the team to be dynamic."
After leaving 215 Kitchen & Drinks in Oxford's Summertown district at the end of 2021, Welburn was at a crossroads, wondering whether to go back to his hometown of Scarborough in Yorkshire, take the first head chef job on offer or maybe work for a company rolling out concepts? None of the above. "What excites me is being hands-on in an environment that's ever-changing and that I can fit my food style into," he says. The fact that Cygnet is a ‘start from scratch' project, and very much a restaurant despite its Cotswold stone pub exterior, appealed too.
Welburn's formative professional years were passed in the Michelin-starred environment of Gary Rhodes' restaurant at the Cumberland hotel in London. As head chef of Rhodes W1, Welburn retained that Michelin star for five years, and then went on to earn another for the Oxford Kitchen in 2018, which it kept until the pandemic forced its reinvention as 215 Kitchen & Drinks.
It all started with Gray's longing to own the pub next door to her home. Various tenants had run it as a B&B, an Indian takeaway and the back room (now Cygnet) had even been a bowling alley. "I used to dream about making it something amazing," Gray says. She knew the area, understood the draw of nearby good schools, the direct train to London from Islip and the growth of Bicester with its Bicester Village shopping mall, and could see how a revamped Swan could fit alongside the likes of the Nut Tree, the Sir Charles Napier and the Wild Rabbit.
Then one day a piece of A4 was stuck on the pub door saying the property was for sale or to rent. "I cracked open the Moët," she says. "I hadn't even called the number!"
After a series of twists and turns, on 17 April 2022 the Grays and their close friends Nicole and Maurice Patrick finally signed a "favourable" 10-year lease with first option to buy. The two couples are equal shareholders in Migg Inns; the name is a play on Gray's nickname – Mrs Miggins of Blackadder fame. "That took all of two seconds to decide!" says Gray. Islip neighbour and Oxford University academic Carol Robinson completes the all-female company leadership as a silent partner.
"The 17 April was a Sunday, and on the Wednesday I had my builders in," says Gray. While the 18th-century building was unlisted, its renovation was inevitably more complex, expensive and time-consuming than expected. Proper drainage had to be dug and floors levelled. Bedrooms were scrapped in favour of an upstairs prep kitchen, staffroom and store. The original kitchen was knocked through to create an open space equipped to Welburn's spec. "That was my first heart attack," says Patrick. "£100,000 for the kitchens."
Original stone and beams remain, but the vibe is less country pub and more contemporary restaurant and wine bar, with shades of burgundy and bespoke banquettes in sage-green velvet. Works by local artists include striking papier-mâché animal heads by David Farrer. The four unisex loos have had a lot of love: each cubicle has its own sink and mirror, and each design has a story, the glittering Heaven is a homage to Gray's favourite nightclub.
It's easy to see how a £300,000 budget turned into a £550,000 spend, and a hoped-for August 2022 opening of Cygnet was pushed back to December, when some low-key services acted as a gentle opener. Work on the sun-trap garden will have to wait.
Chefs at the gates
Front and centre of the business – literally – is Welburn. With the open kitchen and pass just steps from the restaurant's entrance, Welburn and his chefs are the first people that guests see. "When you come to a restaurant where the food is personal to the chef, you need to see them making it," he says. A four-day week (Wednesday to Saturday, lunch and dinner) with five closed weeks a year means Welburn will always be there.
He and Gray met in January 2022. "I knew Paul's food from the Oxford Kitchen," Gray says. "When I read that he was leaving 215 I messaged him." A few WhatsApps later, their dinner at the Back Lane Tavern in Woodstock "was like a blind date. It was like, ‘I'm checking you out, you're checking me out,' on fire for four hours". They clicked and he joined.
"Paul is the magic here," Gray says. "We couldn't do this without him. This business is about him. We're here to support."
Flying out the kitchen
Welburn's £60 four-course set menu, including house-made bread, snacks and petits fours, will change every two to three weeks. There are vegetarian alternatives to the fish and meat courses, with the starter and dessert remaining the same. "Cygnet is me on a plate," Welburn says. "Modern flavours, but popular ones, not too out there. The format and price make it less of a destination place, more approachable, unpretentious."
The 2-2-2 lunch menu (£37 or £42 for two or three courses) will expand to include "wide-ranging" dishes, Welburn says, but for now features the likes of citrus-cured salmon with fennel and dill emulsion, and slow-cooked ox cheek with carrot purée, baby gem and beef-fat crumble. Small plates (from £3.50 to £12) served in the Majlis include Black Cow Cheddar custard creams, and mushroom risotto with Berkswell béarnaise.
Keeping costs in check is a constant focus. Welburn won't scrimp on portions, but you won't find caviar, hand-dived scallops or wild turbot on the menu, and shelves of pickles and preserves reflect attention to waste.
"A 10- to 12-course tasting menu for £120 doesn't work with the cost of ingredients and staff issues these days," he says. "Before you know it, it becomes a beast. You have to stock so much food the potential for waste is huge. And knocking out 30 to 40 covers of 10 to 12 courses would be mad with this open kitchen. And do people want to sit down for four- or five-hour meals?"
The wine offer remains a work in progress. Consultants have helped draw up the initial list, and there are plans for a fine wine list incorporating the owners' collection.
An eye to Michelin? Welburn pauses. "My main focus is building a team and a sustainable business. Awards are a reflection of what you put in. This is a brand-new place, but I do know what we are capable of."
Expertise front of house includes restaurant manager Giuliano Paolino, former private dining room supervisor at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. And there's Karen Cross, 2019 winner of the Gold Service Scholarship and Le Manoir's former assistant restaurant manager, who works part-time to fit around a young family. "She's amazing – I mean, amazing," Gray says. "We are three female directors, and we're keen to enable women to be in the workplace. We're very lucky to have her."
What the directors lack in hospitality experience, they compensate for elsewhere. Gray is a former PE teacher with 20 years' teaching in London schools under her belt and her husband owns a law firm in Dubai. Patrick was chief of staff at accountancy firm PwC until leaving in April 2021 and her husband is an analyst at Barclays. She calls herself the "dot-joiner" – the back-of-house spreadsheet person to Gray's "front-of-house noise".
"I had no idea just what went into running a hospitality business, but at the end of the day, it's business," Patrick says. She is confident the Swan formula is right. Calculating an average spend per head of £100 at dinner including drinks and service, £60 at lunch, and 70% capacity, she expects they will start to break even by the end of February. An energy tariff was locked in before prices rocketed, and along with the other utilities and rent accounts for 20% of operating costs – the remaining 80% is split equally between payroll and F&B.
But it will be nimble. "To be successful in any business, it's no good being average. The ones that survive are ones that constantly adapt," Patrick says.
It's a principle that Welburn embraces. "It'll never be a case here of ‘that's it, job done'," he says. "We will be dynamic."
From the menu
- Charred carrot, dukkah, whipped goats' curd, black garlic
- Roast halibut, lemongrass velouté, baby gem, caper raisin purée
- Slow-cooked duck egg, Jerusalem artichoke velouté, hazelnut
- Pork fillet and slow-cooked collar, sage dumplings, chutney sauce, radish
- Sage potato dumplings, Stilton, radish, walnut, apple
- Sticky pear pudding, butterscotch sauce, iced pear
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