Gather Totnes – No Compromise
I have a confession…I am a relative newbie to Totnes. Even though I’ve lived in Devon for over thirteen years now, there is still much of it that I am yet to properly explore and, so, I was excited to visit Totnes recently with a spring in my step (no jokes about my age or weight please), a fresh pair of eyes and an excitement deep in my stomach. Literally, in my stomach, for I had been kindly invited to a menu tasting at the equally brand-new Gather Totnes, a twenty-eight cover, boutique, fine-dining spot positioned bang in the middle of the town, half way up Fore Street.
Just opened at the beginning of April, I had previously met General Manager James Skeffington and twenty-one-year-old Chef Patron Harrison Brockington in January of this year at a networking event. I was instantly struck by how different yet complementary they both were and James had told me about their shared dream of opening a high-quality, creative, uncompromising eatery in Totnes. Back then, they had secured their premises and were busily going about refurbishing it to their exacting standards, ready for opening in early April.
Originally started as a pop-up dining experience which toured around South Devon and the South Hams, Gather Totnes is the brain child of Harrison (a graduate of the Michael Caines Academy) along with Declan and Oli, three friends who met at Exeter College a few years ago. All aged either twenty or twenty-one years old, I was fascinated and excited to see such a young team of chefs bringing their energy and creativity to an industry with such traditional and rigorous standards. Youth is unafraid of asking questions, pushing boundaries and trying new things, after all. This exuberance, vitality and freshness is complemented perfectly by the more than thirty-years of experience that General Manager James brings to the table.
Having worked at internationally renowned restaurants, with many well-known chefs, James brings a calmness, expertise and laser-like eye for detail to proceedings and these skills, harnessed with those in the kitchen, are a force to be reckoned with in my opinion. Add to this already impressive team dynamic the front-of-house team of Evie (fellow Exeter College student and Michael Caines Academy alumni) and Rose (the final completing member of ‘Team Gather’) and they have a small but perfectly formed crew, with shared values, goals and passions.
So, as I stepped over the threshold of Gather, accompanied by renowned photographer and food enthusiast Nick Hook, we were immediately welcomed by Evie, who took our coats with a smile on her face and seated us at our table. With spring sunlight pouring through the front windows, we were guided through the highly seasonal menu and then left to make our deliberations.
Every single dish on the lunch menu was appealing. Gather Totnes consider the shorelines, hedgerows and fields of Devon to be their larder and they forage daily for many of their finesse and seasoning ingredients. With a focus on the less-favoured, sometimes under-used cuts of meat and forgotten fruits, vegetables and fish, their menu really is one of a kind. Also, with seasonality at the very heart of everything that Gather do, the menu changes at least weekly, if not daily, so diners can be guaranteed the very most fresh, local and seasonal of ingredients.
Because of this unique approach to putting together a fine-dining menu, it took me a minute or two to adjust and drill down into the finer detail of some of the dishes on offer. This didn’t feel like a chore though, as we were treated in the meantime to a soft White Sourdough which had a light and crispy crust and was served with Three-Cornered Leek Butter, which had an almost cheese-like taste. We also were brought a couple of appetisers – a Crispy Bone Marrow with a Nettle Pesto and a beautifully rich Cheese Sablée with goats curd and freshly foraged micro herbs – both exquisite.
In the end, I opted for the Asparagus and Rhubarb Salad, with Cornish Kern and Iberico Ham, topped with a Crispy Hen’s Egg to start. The dish was beautifully balanced in its taste profile, with multiple textures, colours and smells going on at one time. It was a truly a feast for the senses and the rhubarb perfectly exalted the other ingredients to produce an incredibly pleasing culinary experience. Nick on the other hand, elected for the Tortellini with Hedgerow Greens Velouté and Spring Shoots. Packed full of freshly foraged local hedgerow greens, it was as if Harrison, Dec and Oli had taken the very vegetation of the local countryside and delivered it onto Nick’s plate. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what they’d done…
Onto our mains and I had selected the Rabbit Hash seasoned with Mustard and Tarragon and served with a Cider Béarnaise Sauce. As soon as the first mouthful made a connection with my taste buds, I was hooked. The dish had such a depth of flavour, a subtle and playful seasoning and ate really well. Never have I truly enjoyed eating rabbit before, but the Confit Rabbit Leg was incredibly tender and moreish and the Cider Béarnaise Sauce was to die for. I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t already daydreamed several times about returning to Totnes, solely for the purpose of partaking in a little more rabbit-related wonderment.
Nick, alternatively, decided upon the Ling (a member of the Cod family), with Prawn and Wild Garlic Dolmas and a White Wine Velouté. Nick described the dish as sweet and fragrant and all drawn together by the Caramelised Onion, resulting in a lovely creamy acidity. It is rare to find dishes that are so light but with so many distinct flavours shining through. Impressive seafood cooking indeed.
Up until this point, the dining experience, ingredient choice and environment of the restaurant had been exceptional. We were not to be disappointed when our third course was brought to the table either. I had selected a Truckle of Maryland Mature Cheddar served with freshly made Eccles Cakes – a genius combination that reminded me of home, Christmas and my Grandma all at once. I didn’t really express it outwardly at the time but it was an emotive experience eating the small but powerful dish.
Nick had gone for the Chocolate Crémeux with Ewes Milk Ice Cream and Dulce de Leche. An immensely comforting and playful dish, the set chocolate custard was a powerhouse of sweetness, complemented perfectly by the sourness of the ice cream (which was more like a sorbet due to the lightness of the Ewes Milk). The real treat within this dish though was the hidden dollop of Dulce de Leche hidden like treasure on the seabed underneath the ocean of chocolatey goodness. I’m not a huge fan of chocolate desserts, but this was, by a country-mile, my favourite to date.
Another impressive part of the Gather Totnes experience was that the portion sizes were perfect. So often when eating out you are given quantity over quality or, at the other end of the spectrum, you are given a morsel of food which doesn’t even make a dent in satisfying your hunger. Gather had the best of both worlds – a good amount of high-quality food. Both Nick and I were nicely full by the end.
This wasn’t the end though… oh no. With a glint in his eye and a look of a man treating his friends to a hidden secret, James came over holding a glass in each hand. As he set them down on our table he smiled and announced the arrival of some beautiful ten-year-old chilled Warre’s Otima Tawny Port from Portugal. Packed with raisin notes and dangerously drinkable, the port complemented both the chocolate and cheese desserts. The perfect way of bringing the meal to an end.
Over freshly made coffee and some Petit Fours, Nick and I welcomed James to the table to give him a barrage of compliments and to chat a little more about the Gather story. James explained,
“Harrison and I met at the Grosvenor in Torquay where we both worked with John Burton-Race. It was an amazing time, but things started to fall apart a bit and we both got out while we could. We stayed in touch and ended up going on walks on Dartmoor together, foraging and chatting about the future. It became clear that our values and vision were aligned and, after a while, Harrison suggested that we do a few pop-up dining experiences, which we did at the Royal Torbay Yacht Club, Cockington Hall and then Branscombe beach. These were a resounding success and gave us the opportunity to develop our approach and become more confident in our offering. It wasn’t long before we were looking for premises and gearing up to launch a restaurant together.”
Having moved over from Belfast some years ago, James now lives in Babbacombe and is a fully converted and evangelical Devonian. He expanded,
“Devon has four or five Michelin Stars now. It really is becoming a home for the highest quality food and drink and we believe it has the potential to become synonymous with the best culinary offering in the UK. When people think of California, San Sebastián, Tuscany or the South of France for example, they think of great food and drink. Why not The South West of England and, particularly, Devon?”
Expanding on the Gather Totnes offering, James continued,
“We have worked hard to achieve contemporary, modern cooking but rooted firmly in the classic gastronomic tradition. Right at the heart of the Gather ethos is creativity, fun and adaptability. When a chunk of your ingredients are foraged or caught fresh in the morning, you have an absolute maximum life span of seventy-two hours before they lose their freshness. As a result, Harrison and his chefs have to think on their feet and react to what the seasons produce. We see this as a real strength and opportunity rather than a challenge or a negative. It’s what makes us unique! And the same will be true of our cocktail menu which is due to launch later this year. Fresh, local ingredients and a menu that reacts quickly to the seasons.”
When I asked James what had attracted him to the Gather project, he simply stated,
“Working with this lot is the most fun I have had in my whole career. Harrison, Declan and Oli have a talent unlike any that I have seen before in my many years in the industry and I am convinced that they will go on to become well-known chefs. Their complete lack of ego is thoroughly refreshing and they have had to work bloody hard to get to where they have got to already. There is an element of inherent talent, but it is mainly really, really hard work.”
In summary, James commented,
“We are at the beginning of something really exciting here. We don’t want to be millionaires. We don’t want a chain of restaurants. We want to make really good food and serve it to a small amount of people on a regular basis. Even the fact that we close two days per week (Sunday and Monday) means that we have one team who always work together. We also socialise together and go on educational but relaxing ‘family holidays’ – food and drink trips which we both enjoy and are inspired by.”
I was impacted during my time at Gather Totnes in a way that I’m not sure I have ever been before by a restaurant. You could see, hear, taste and smell the ethos behind the business and the compassionate, communal and ethical backbone to the Gather approach left me feeling a happier and more fulfilled human. A bold statement, but a genuine one.
You are going to struggle to find such excellent food, cooked with such feeling and for such a reasonable price anywhere in Devon, so I would recommend whole-heartedly that you visit Totnes, head straight for 50 Fore Street and see what all the fuss is about. Trust me, it will be well worth your while.
To find out more about Gather Totnes or monitor their exciting journey, follow @gathertotnes on Twitter or visit their website.