Foodie Features

John Topham – Northern Pride

By Rosie Birkett

John Topham rose to culinary stardom at two ‘pub grub’ pioneer establishments – The Angel in Hetton and The General Tarleton in Knaresborough – and he’s continued to win plaudits for pushing up the standards of British pub food. Rosie Birkett spoke to him.

In his own words, he was pioneering gastropub fare “…..before we even knew what gastropubs were”. Joining the late Denis Watkins’ Angel pub in Hetton, North Yorkshire as a young chef in the late 80s, he was suddenly aware of being part of a new movement in pub food.

“In those days, it really was stuff in a basket – the scampi and haddock was brought in frozen,” he chuckles. “I came from a restaurant background and started applying that to a pub setting. Denis had started going to the Manchester market and buying fish directly from there, which was really progressive at the time. We’d go in on a Thursday first thing, do the market run and fill a van plus bring back eight to ten salmon. It was amazing because we started selling all this stuff and it was so much fresher than people were used to. We were cutting out all the middle men and it was really quite radical back then.”

This ‘market to table’ approach, teamed with Watkins’ sense of culinary adventure, sparked gastronomic aspirations in Topham in terms of what he could achieve from a pub kitchen.

“Denis was a bon viveur and very ‘out there’ and we started going out for dinners and lunches and learning from all these great chefs. We had a trip to the Manoir in its first year and were blown away. I saw my challenge as “how do I put this standard of food into a pub environment doing the volume we’re doing.

“The AA rosettes and the Bib Gourmand are nice to have, but we are here for the customers, first and foremost.” - John Topham
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“We adopted that philosophy – putting fine dining ideas into a pub where you could still get a good pie – and it was a great success. There were queues outside the door by noon in those days.” After eighteen years at the helm of the Angel, Topham’s chance came to open, in conjunction with Watkins, The General Tarleton.

“It was very much viewed as a sister to the Angel – it was supposed to be more of a good pub.” But expectations, given the gastronomic kudos of the Angel, were running high. “We soon found out that people were expecting the Angel’s equivalent – if not better. So we had to rethink. We put in a new kitchen and closed the door for six months to refurbish.” But the property, an 18th century coaching inn, remained Watkins’ baby until ten years ago, when Topham and his wife Claire took it over.

“It was ticking along fine but we planned to sell it. We had a buyer and then Claire, my wife said; ‘we’re stupid to let this go, we haven’t given it a chance’. I was forty and thought if I didn’t make a go of it at that moment, I’d always be in Denis’ shadow. So we had a very amicable separation and I took over fully.”

Topham’s seasonal, creative British cooking has won him much acclaim over the years, including ‘Pub Chef of the Year‘ in 2000. But it’s running his own operation and teaching his brigade of young chefs skills they can use to elevate British cooking further, that rewards him the most. “I started as a fourteen year-old boy in the kitchen and now I’ve gone on to own my lovely little place – without any financial help. It just shows that you can do it.”

“The AA rosettes and the Bib Gourmand are nice to have, but we’re here for the customers, first and foremost.”

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