This article was also published in the Financial Times.
I have never seen the rather unprepossessing, small Somerset village of Barrow Gurney, on the A38 between Bristol and Bristol Airport, mentioned on any British restaurant menu I have come across.
This is surprising as it is the source of some of the best fish which ends up being filleted and cooked at Le Gavroche or served as sushi at Nobu; all the suckling pigs roasted at St John as well as their confited ducks' gizzards; a great deal of game currently in season, not just pheasant and partridge but also teal, snipe and woodcock which will appear on menus in early December; and perhaps, most unusually of all the odd, rare and expensive, crawfish, caught off the Scilly Islands.
There are two simple reasons to explain the relevance of Barrow Gurney to more than a 100 top restaurants from Bristol to the cluster around Bray, The Waterside Inn, The Fat Duck and The Hind's Head and the rest in and around London and they are: Steve Downey and motorways.
Although trained as an accountant, Downey, 47, the founder of Chef Direct, has spent the last 15 years supplying British chefs with top quality ingredients from his Somerset base. During that time he has got to know all of the country's top chefs by their first names, fallen out with a few along the way and come to understand how they buy their produce. But as he explained it, it is the country's motorway network which has allowed him to fulfil this role without straying too far from home.
"We are here principally because this is the most convenient place to receive all that the UK has to offer. It is the crossroads of the motorways," Downey explained. "From Cornwall and the fishing ports on the south coast we receive all the line caught fish and whatever the day boats have landed as well as all their shellfish: lobster, crabs, mussels and cockles. From Wales we get a lot of our salmon and sea trout while suppliers in Scotland send us diver caught scallops and langoustines. And during the season, from April 21st to the end of May we get delicious gulls' eggs from Hampshire.
"But the farmers round here are equally important as they are only too happy to produce something special to a chef's specification. We have got milk-fed Old Gloucester pigs hanging in the freezer which one farmer was specifically asked to breed by the chefs at Moro, and right next door to us is a field full of small, well-formed Angus and Hereford heifers whose meat has got plenty of much-valued marbling on it. And because we are so close, we get the best of what is slaughtered each week."
How all this produce arrives in London kitchens every morning as the chefs arrive for work is the result of a 22 hour operation. Chef Direct takes its orders from some chefs early every morning but that is usually only for the meat and game, because that is when their butcher is working, and because there are only certain chefs who plan their ordering ahead. Downey cited Michel Roux Jnr at Le Gavroche as one whose orders they could always count on as ordering early as he is one who is particularly well organised but also one who has the added luxury of knowing he will be consistently busy every lunch and dinner.
But the bulk of Chef Direct's orders start coming in from 10pm onwards and will taper out about 1am (the Chinese restaurants who principally order eels, razor clams and fish, tend to be the last to order). During that time chefs, or their sous chefs, will phone through their orders based on what they have sold during that day and on the daily order sheet that has been emailed through to them that morning. As the calls come in, Steve or John, his long-time assistant, write the orders down and hand them to two brothers, Matt and Ben, whose rather less prosaic job is to assemble the orders.
At 4am the van leaves Barrow Gurney with up to 70 restaurants' orders on it and by 6am it is making its first deliveries to the cluster of restaurants around exit 8/9 on the M4. It then continues into London and at around 7am its contents are disgorged into two smaller vans at Chiswick which then negotiate the smaller streets of the capital dropping off orders as they go. By 9am restaurants as diverse as the Anchor & Hope, Zafferano, Moro and Wiltons will have received their orders, as will the kitchens at Gartmore Investment, UBS, White's Club and occasionally, Buckingham Palace.
I discovered, however, that Chef Direct's base is very different from these comfortable, warm restaurants as I climbed the stairs to Downey's office and walked past three large buckets of fish bones which they also supply so that restaurants can make their fish stock. It was the second night of the cold spell which had already killed all the basil plants Downey's wife had planted and was planning to convert into pesto for the sausages their butcher makes. I was very glad of the warm jacket and the Wellington boots Downey had advised me to bring.
Downey's office is spartan and distinguished only by a board on the door which records the orders for boxes of langoustines, large, small and medium and the names of which restaurants had ordered them. Before the phone calls started he explained somewhat glumly that tonight was going to be 'a bit of a disaster' as the storms off the west coast of Scotland had prevented any deliveries of scallops or langoustines (and as Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck was to tell me subsequently, "if I can't get it from Chef Direct it is most unlikely anyone else will have it").
In between taking that night's orders, which started earlier than usual as the cold weather had resulted in several restaurants' being slightly quieter than usual, Downey took me on a tour beginning with a cold room where the fish orders were prepared. Earlier he had told me that that morning he had received 300 kilos of sea bass caught by anglers in north Devon who ensured their freshness by spiking them through the top of their heads and then keeping them in iced sea water (rather like a slush puppy drink, he quipped). Twenty minutes later they would be iced down and would keep very well. One hotel had already ordered them, and after filleting them, would keep them in the freezer for their New Year's Eve dinner. Meanwhile, five four kilo sea bass still in rigor mortis were lying in one box for Nobu next to another containing two magnificent, large turbot for Le Gavroche.
There was far more activity in the next room where over 20 purification tanks contained an array of scrabbling shellfish. One held portion size crabs; another bigger crabs for two and a third those that Downey described as 'big bruisers' of 5/6lbs, their tendons cut so they could be plucked from the water. Then there were the one and half pound Cornish lobsters, a catch which Downey described with some pleasure as 'controlled far better that it was only a few years ago' and finally tanks full of razor clams and cockles. The orders for these, which had been landed by boats only two hours away, would be made up around 3am so that they would stay in water as long as possible.
Through the next door is a part of the business that is playing an increasingly important role in Chef Direct, a shop (known as Taste) which sells to all the keen amateur cooks everything Downey has on offer for the professionals (and by mail order). Its importance lies not just in its growing sales but also in its contribution to cash flow. One of the most difficult aspects of running Chef Direct currently is getting paid, as Downey explained. "I have never known demand from London restaurants to be as strong as it is at the moment and certain restaurants, Nobu for example, can sell seemingly regardless of price as long as the quality is first class. But ever since one high-profile chef decided unilaterally that his company's restaurants payment terms would double to 90 days, others have followed suit. Our sales have grown significantly over the past five years but on average it takes us 30 days longer to get paid than it used to."
But, having just refused to deal any longer with one restaurant whose chef was unnecessarily rude to his driver, Downey knows where his priorities lie. "Thankfully, it is quite easy to sell all that we have here because the produce is so good. My job is to look after all my suppliers. To give you an example, I buy all my game from Lincolnshire although there are several closer. But that is where the woodcock first cross into the UK having flown using the moon and the stars for navigation from Scandinavia and the Baltic and so that is where most are shot. But it would be unreasonable to buy just the woodcock so I buy all my game from there as well as our hares."
Over a pint in the local pub, before going back to take the night's final orders, Downey recapped on other changes he had witnessed recently: the growing demand from chefs for organic salmon and fish that have been line-caught rather than trawled for, thereby minimising any environmental damage, and the growing popularity of fish such as pollock which used to be thrown back by fishermen but are now treated with respect and creativity by chefs such as Anthony Demtre at Arbutus. Sea bass and mackerel will be particularly good in the coming months as they come closer to shore to forage.
As we parted, Downey said how much he was looking forward to a day off at the end of the week when, after spending his working week taking orders for fish, he would go off fishing for sea bass himself. But with his mobile firmly switched off.
Chef Direct, Lakeside, Barrow Gurney, Bristol BS48 3SJ, 01275 475252