Nick Brodie wasn’t particularly green-fingered before he came to work as head chef at Llangoed Hall in the Wye Valley in Wales, but with 17 acres of land available for planting and growing, how could he not become passionate about fruit and veg?
The hotel’s kitchen garden is so much more than a patch of soil where they can grow a few lettuces and attract positive PR for caring about the environment.
Right on the doorstep of the kitchen are rows of vegetable plots, greenhouses, chicken pens and a duck pond, as well as a smokehouse and a traditional Victorian garden lined with fruit trees and bushes, producing endless bounties of redcurrants, raspberries, blueberries and nuts.
Depending on the time of year, the gardens can sustain the hotel’s entire fruit, veg and egg requirements.
When Brodie arrived at Llangoed Hall some two years ago, the gardens were almost non-existent save for the duck pond. “Within the first couple of months, the chefs were going down there in their breaks and clearing the land,” he recalls.
Within a year, they had a raft of produce throughout the seasons – lettuce, cabbage, asparagus, you name it – and on the day that I visit there is still work being done laying down paths.
“Within another year it will be a big transformation again from where we’re at now,” says Brodie.
The aim is to become as self-sufficient as they can be. And a country house hotel set in deepest darkest Wales is certainly the place to give that a go.
Brodie is particularly excited by the chicken, duck and quail eggs he and his brigade of chefs collect each morning.
“We have some rare breeds in there which give some nice colours and different sizes, but they produce about one egg every two or three days,” he says. “The food you see on the plate isn’t sliced and diced to within an inch of its life; it’s natural. If you come down for eggs in the morning, one egg might be bigger than the other, but the quality is superior.
“We have a traditional run of hens laying every day that are consistent, which are good for things like cakes because you’re guaranteed a size.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the hotel employs three gardeners, who work closely with Brodie to manage the planting and supply. It’s not just a case of making sure there is enough produce to supply the kitchen, though, the menu must also respond and adapt constantly to what is available to them.
“Everything we have on the menu we can sustain,” says Brodie. “It took a lot of work to get it that way though, with a lot of menu changes at the initial stages. In the first year I was changing menus all the time, suddenly faced with having to use 200 cauliflowers!”
Now, Brodie can confidently run a menu for a month before he’s running low on produce and the land is replanted with something else.
It might sound like a huge amount of extra work to do outside the kitchen, but Brodie doesn’t see the hours he spends in the garden as part of his day job.
“I don’t really classify it as a job,” he says. “It’s a really cool project. Everything is fresher than you could ever buy; you could get everything for a dish within 10 minutes of the restaurant.”
It has been a huge learning curve for Brodie and for his team, who are always encouraged to get involved in the kitchen garden.
Brodie came to Llangoed Hall following jobs in city establishments in Hong Kong, London and Bath, including sous chef at The Bath Priory and head chef at The Queensbury Hotel.
He spent a year opening a restaurant, café and bakery – with little knowledge of pastry – which taught him that you can do anything if you put your mind to it.
He says: “That’s why I get the guys in the kitchen not to be stuck on one thing but do everything. If you’re bored, then do pastry for a bit, or get on larder.”
Brodie is always learning too and Wales is inspiring him every day. “What I’ve learned taking this job on has been amazing,” he says. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do – looking after chickens and ducks – to the planting, food, presentation; it’s all changed with just coming here.”
Located close to the Brecon Beacons and Hay-on-Wye, and with views of the Black Mountains, it is hard not to be inspired by the surroundings.
As guests follow the winding roads on the approach to the Jacobean building – which was once owned by Sir Bernard Ashley, husband of designer Laura Ashley, who turned the property into a hotel in 1990 – they are greeted by landscaped gardens and traditionally-decorated, homely rooms (with much of the furniture having belonged to the Ashley family).
Brodie explains that while he was influenced for a long time by Oriental cuisine following his time working in Hong Kong, his food has changed and adapted with his surroundings.
“It’s only coming here that I lost that because we use everything from the grounds and I’ve really found a style that’s more suited to me,” he says.
Adapting to his surroundings does also mean that Brodie has had to adapt his food to the clientele. “This is a country house in a semi-remote area and people are coming here with different tastes so you have to cater for that,” he says.
Brodie has roughly seven menus at any one time, including a lounge menu serving British favourites such as fish and chips, a pull for guests who are staying for more than one night.
While Brodie does offer an a la carte menu in the restaurant, he takes pride in his tasting menus, which includes a chef recommendation menu and a vegetarian menu.
A vegetarian tasting menu might not work in some restaurants, but again the success of this menu is down to the hotel’s fantastic produce. “We have people who are not vegetarian and they go for it,” he says. “They’ve been in the garden and can see what produce we have.”
Brodie has found that his diners are increasingly becoming more interested in the food being served. They can tour the kitchen gardens, but they also enjoy talking to the chefs who come to the table to serve the canapés at the very start of the meal.
“I don’t write very much on the menus because I want interaction, I want people to ask about the dishes,” he says. “It’s quite a domineering house when you come down the drive and we really don’t want it to be like that in here. We want it to be a homely atmosphere where you can talk to the staff.”
Of course, not all of Brodie’s menus can be made up of fruit and vegetables. Everything is still local however, with plenty of Welsh black beef and local Radnorshire lamb. But this isn’t without its problems, as Brodie very quickly found on arriving at the hotel.
“Wales has loads of great suppliers and artisan producers, but there’s no supply chain,” he says. “It’s a case of, ‘yes, we produce it, but we can’t deliver it!’. We have a butcher in Brecon, but it’s not like a normal butcher who delivers before 9am. You really have to use your head when it comes to ordering.
“In my last job in the city centre, you could walk to work through the park and feel the seasons around you and think yes, I’ve got these ideas to go in to work with; you can order the stuff and it’s in there the next day. Here it’s totally different and you have to plan it and talk to the gardener about how to go about it. It was challenging to start with but menu design is the bit I really like.”
Firmly settled in outside, Brodie has also been hard at work making sure that inside, the kitchens at Llangoed Hall are worthy of the three AA rosettes he has achieved for the dining at the hotel. The kitchen has recently undergone a major refurbishment, something that Brodie was planning even before he arrived in the role.
The biggest change for him, he says, is the pass – over a metre wide – which is ideal for mass catering events.
“We can do canapés down one side, while sending mains from another part, even pastry in one hit, it’s no issue,” he says. The kitchen has also received an all-new suite of ovens, griddles and a salamander, while the chefs can work more comfortably from a double tier gantry in a wider space. The kitchen, being off the grid, is run on electric and LPG, which “has plenty of power behind it, and fingers crossed we’ve never run out!” says Brodie.
The refurb was needed, he affirms, especially as weddings are such a popular feature of Llangoed Hall. The hotel hosts one or two a month, which might not be as frequent as some hotels, but when the majority come with exclusive use of the hotel, it is a big money driver for all involved.
As demand for weddings at Llangoed Hall have risen, a new wedding menu has been created with canapés and 24 of each of starter, main, desserts and some intermediate options, from which Brodie will sit with each couple to discuss any tweaks they want to make their day personalised to them.
As spring approaches, it is an enviable thought of what produce Brodie will be able to offer wedding couples and the hotel’s guests, all from the gardens on the land. It might be an awful lot of work, but Brodie and his chefs – not to mention the guests – will be happy.