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Paul Clerehugh - Interview

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 14 / 11 / 2014

Paul Clerehugh - Interview


Nick Dent-Robinson talks to former Sweet and Toy Dolls guitarist and restaurateur Paul Clerehugh about his Oxfordshire-based musicians' pub, the Crooked Billet

Down at the bottom of one of the narrowest, twistiest lanes in rural Oxfordshire there is a pub. A gem of a pub, awash with rustic charm. The Crooked Billet in Stoke Row dates back to 1649. It was one of highwayman Dick Turpin's haunts. He would court the landlord's lovely daughter Bess while hiding from local officers of the law. Today the Crooked Billet provides refuge of a different kind. A shame to share its secret perhaps, but the pub is now a hideaway for the wealthy and well-known. Especially famous musicians. They enjoy the authenticity of the cosy surroundings, the low beams, open fires and flagstone floors. And they appreciate the fresh local produce and organic fare which are mainstays of the kitchen. Sometimes they perform at the Crooked Billet too. “Unplugged” musical evenings are a regular feature throughout the year. It is no coincidence that Paul Clerehugh, the pub's award-winning chef and proprietor, was himself formerly a rock guitarist. Paul talked to me about his previous life in music and his remarkable success as a self-taught chef. A story which began some years before he took the Crooked Billet's lease back in 1989. Driving to the little Oxfordshire village of Stoke Row to meet Paul Clerehugh, I reflected that I knew the Crooked Billet many years ago when I was in my teens. It was a favourite stop when walking in the Chilterns. And on winter evenings it was a wonderfully warm and friendly place to visit. The quite elderly landlord back then, just known to everyone as “Nobby”, always made us local lads and our girlfriends welcome. We appreciated his flexible approach to closing times and readiness to proffer a free hunk of bread and cheese or discreetly loan us a pound or two whenever this was needed. The pub had no bar - it still doesn't - and each pint of finest Brakspear's ale would be individually poured in the cellar. Regular customers would put logs on the fire. Sometimes one of them would be asked to take a hot water bottle up the creaking staircase to Nobby's mother (or was it his mother-in-law?) in the bedroom above the pub's small “lounge” - which was like any cottage sitting room with family mementos, well-worn comfy chairs and a large round table in the middle. Other members of the clientele would help out washing beer glasses or mopping the tile and flagstone floor. During several visits in the later 1970s, I was intrigued to find ex-Beatle George Harrison sitting quietly in the lounge, sometimes with his great friend and fellow-guitarist, Joe Brown. Joe and his family lived just a few hundred yards from the pub. Of course, Nobby was not of the rock 'n' roll era and so wasn't remotely star-struck. And the regular customers took their cue from the landlord and made no fuss at all. Which was one reason why the ex-Beatle and a host of other celebrities of the time so enjoyed their visits to the Crooked Billet. On one winter's evening George Harrison, Joe Brown, Jeff Lynne and a few other musician mates were enjoying a little jam session at the pub when a couple of neighbours (a local solicitor and an accountant) who had been playing bridge at their nearby homes) complained about the noise! George apologised, but commented wryly to the complainant that some people had actually been known to pay to hear a noise like that.....and somehow the story made the pages of the next day's ‘Sun’ and ‘Daily Mirror’! Almost three decades had passed when the singer-songwriter Sam Brown - daughter of Joe - took me back to the Crooked Billet for lunch. It was a revelation. And Sam suggested I should talk to the 51 year-old Paul Clerehugh to hear how he'd put the Crooked Billet on the map. It was some weeks later that Paul and I finally met at his pub. “Right from my school days at Ponteland High School up near Newcastle I had been keen on music and cooking - the two parallel strands of my career,” Paul began, as he joined me at a scrubbed pine table, adjacent to a roaring fire. “I cringe now at the memory. But I in a way I was lucky. I played guitar in a school band called the Toy Dolls. They had a big Christmas hit with ‘Nellie the Elephant’ which I had played on. It was recorded in the late 1970s - long before it was a success. In those days novelty songs were popular at Christmas and EMI used to build up a bank of them and release them over time. It was December 1984 when ‘Nellie’ made the charts, and by then I had joined the punk rock band of John Otway as bass guitarist. But through all this time, even when I was at school, I had been working in pub kitchens. I had a flair for cooking and, while still a schoolboy, I was helping run a successful pub – the Highlander at Belsay near Ponteland. It became the only pub restaurant in the Egon Ronay Good Food Guide at that time. But when I started supporting John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett the guitar playing started to take over from the cooking. I was also with Brian Connolly's band, Sweet, for a while. But I always tried to do a bit of part-time work as a chef.” Was there a seminal moment when Paul realised he wanted to abandon professional musicianship and focus on food? “There really wasn't. You see, in punk rock we weren't making much money. We had a loyal following, but some nights you might get just £35 each which wasn't a lot even in the 1980s. It was a great life if you were a young lad just wanting to drink, play bass guitar and have a good time. Some people never wanted more than that. But I couldn't see a way to make a real career from it. And though I was an adequate musician I knew I'd never be great at it. We'd all been raised with glam rock and before that the Shadows. So, all we did was play glam rock and the Shadows badly and too fast, with a raw edge. In so-called “punk” that didn't matter but I had no illusions and doubted I could earn a sensible living from music longer-term. Plus increasingly I felt I wasn't being challenged by the guitar playing I was doing. I had always continued doing some work as a chef, and I just started to do more of it and fewer gigs. Gradually cooking and catering management took over. I did a stint at the Swan hotel in Pangbourne, and soon I was the head chef at the Trust House Forte Oriel restaurant in Sloane Square. Seeing how successful and profitable a restaurant could be, I decided I'd like to have one of my own.” How easy was it to finance that? “Well, the first bank turned me down flat. I don't blame them. I was a 26 year-old former punk guitarist who is a reasonable cook but with no collateral. Not an attractive prospect. So, I went to another bank and said I am a well-paid head chef for Trust House Forte, my accommodation is provided with my job and I'd like a loan to buy a nice Porsche car. They lent me the money. It was in December 1989, and back then the price of a Porsche was enough to buy the lease on the Crooked Billet. Which is what I did. I've never bought a Porsche!” “I had first seen the pub in the mid-1980s when I was working in Pangbourne. Nobby was still running it. It was a wonderful place. But very dilapidated. There was even a tree growing up through the floor and out through the ceiling in one place! I am very glad I didn't take over directly from Nobby. He was such an institution and an almost impossible act to follow! Somebody else did that, so thankfully I was spared the flak for being the person who came and ruined Nobby's pub. Of course, Nobby hadn't developed the place at all. Which had been a big part of the attraction. But in terms of profitability it was hopeless. I don't think Brakspear's Brewery in Henley expected me to succeed with it. I was determined to keep the basic features of the pub the same. There is still no bar and, as you can see, it is very small plus the overall feel remains rustic! But I knew straight away that really good food would be key though I always envisaged introducing music nights too.” “I wanted the food to reflect the rural surroundings. We still exchange a lunch or a dinner for home-grown vegetables villagers give us. And on my smallholding near Henley where I live with my wife and three young daughters we rear sheep and lambs for the pub kitchen. At the Crooked Billet and the London Street Brasserie restaurant I now also run in Reading we are self-sufficient in the three ages of sheep meat – lamb, hogget and mutton.” The food is eclectic but includes some traditional favourites – and has won Paul numerous awards. Typical first courses are seared partridge breasts with cream cabbage, lardons, chestnuts and juniper jus or crispy duck salad frisee, spring onions, cucumber and chilli dressing. To follow there might be roast rack of lamb from Paul's smallholding with dauphinoise potatoes and baby vegetables or beef fillet, foie gras, rosti potato, saute mushrooms, buttered spinach and red wine jus or rabbit braised with winter vegetables and mustard dumplings. Desserts include Bakewell tart and custard or rich dark Belgian chocolate mousse with clotted cream. Simple fare but brilliantly executed. Vegetarian and gluten free meals are always available, too. How soon after 1989 did Paul start the Crooked Billet's music evenings? “The pub was already popular with a lot of musicians and with my background this was a natural thing to do. It began very early on. Though at the Crooked Billet the food is the top priority; music will always be secondary.” Does Paul ever play guitar in his pub? “Never. And I am not tempted to. I have hardly played since I took over the pub. That was a different phase of my life and that genre of music wouldn't be right for someone aged over 50 to play. Plus, frankly, I wasn't ever good enough to qualify to play at the Crooked Billet! We keep the musical standards here very high!” “We have a wide range of people playing. Wonderful musicians, all of them. We began with gypsy jazz with some great French, Belgian, Italian, and East European gypsy groups plus some very good British performers too. The New Orleans jazz/blues singer Lillian Boutte and the jazz guitarist Denny Ilett are now regulars. Hazel O'Connor has performed here, as has Chris Jagger and jazz singer Rebecca Poole and folk singer Megan Henwood, plus Steve Marriott's talented daughter Mollie. The list goes on and on! We have had some classical guitarists too. But George Harrison played here as has Jeff Beck and Chas 'n' Dave plus Kiki Dee. The late Jon Lord from Deep Purple once accompanied Sir John Mortimer when he did a spoken word one man show here – though the actress Sinead Cusack supported him. And, of course, Joe Brown and his daughter Sam and son Pete have performed here. Like the late Sir John Mortimer was, they are friends and great supporters of the Crooked Billett. They have introduced many people to us.” “Tonight we have members of Whitesnake playing here and some of Deep Purple are dining with us. The music helps ensure the pub is full of diners, even on a Tuesday evening. The span of styles is vast – from Tenpole Tudor or Wreckless Eric to a superb classical string quartet. I keep it eclectic. The one thing the musicians all have in common is quality. They are the very best of their genre.” The profitability must have improved dramatically? “In 10 years – by 1999 – the takings had gone from £500 a week to over £1 million annually.” It was in 1999 that Paul decided to open a second restaurant, the London Street Brasserie, in Reading. It is bigger and provided Paul and some of his talented young staff with a welcome new challenge. The quality of its cuisine is on a par with the Crooked Billet's, and the new restaurant soon achieved a Michelin Guide listing. “The brasserie is a proper restaurant in the heart of Reading. It has controls, procedures, systems and strategies and seats more people, so it does make more money than the Crooked Billet. But this pub is a lifestyle thing really. It is more a reflection of me. Of course, the publicity from hosting Kate Winslet's wedding reception in 1998 helped spread the word about the Crooked Billet. And when Kate remarried to the director Sam Mendes in 2003 we did offer a 20 per cent discount on the wedding reception. But they opted to marry in Anguilla so Stoke Row wasn't too convenient. They still come here though. As does Kate's sister Beth who is a close friend of one of my managers at the Brasserie. We also hosted the wedding reception of George Harrison's son Dhani.” The pub's regular clientele now includes many household names. Celebrities feature throughout the conversation with Paul. But in a natural, not a showy, kind of way. They are just part of what day to day life at the Crooked Billet now is. Kenneth Branagh, Joanna Lumley, Jeremy Paxman, Paul Daniels, Jeremy Irons, Michael Parkinson, John Hannah, Orlando Bloom, Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Marianne Faithfull, the Hollies' Tony Hicks, Jethro Tull's Barrie Barlow, Jimmy Page, various ‘Eastenders’ cast members, the chefs Gordon Ramsey, Marco Pierre White, Anthony Worrall-Thompson - all have eaten at the Crooked Billet. As have Bill Gates and Tony and Cherie Blair. There was a story that Paul had complained to Tony Blair about the quality of school dinners. “Well, it was discussed briefly. I have been heavily involved with lunches here at Stoke Row village school. The school came to us a few years ago. They asked me to take a look at what the council were sending for the children to eat. It was appalling. And only three children were having the meals. So, I agreed to take over and cook. I thought, even if the numbers quadruple to twelve, we can easily do that. But they didn't just quadruple. In no time there was demand for 80 meals a day. The TV caught on to it and this was before Jamie Oliver became involved. In fact when they were putting together the first ‘Jamie's School Dinners’ TV show they asked me to be a consultant. The BBC came down with Jamie to film the kids having lunch at Stoke Row school. I still work with Jamie. But sadly I have stopped doing the meals at the school now. It was a nice community thing initially, but it started to get very bureaucratic. Lots of legislation and, as the political spotlight shone on school meals, there were increasing numbers of people telling me what I could and couldn't do. And some of what was being said was just plain wrong. So, I ended it.” Paul has been involved in various TV and radio programmes and has also written regularly for newspapers and magazines. How does this media activity fit with running two thriving restaurants? “I have great teams here and at the Brasserie. And the media work isn't too demanding. Apart from my work with Jamie Oliver, I did ‘Food Hero’ for UKTV and the BBC ‘Good Food Show’, plus I presented on ‘Mind Your Own Business’ on BBC1 and I have done some things on BBC local radio. You have to be selective though. I have been offered some pretty naff projects and rejected them. It would be a bit like expecting Jeff Beck to just strum along with some local kids' choir or asking Sam Brown to do an amateur Abba tribute. Incidentally, Frida Lyngstad from Abba is another regular customer!” And how important has it been to win food awards and accolades? “It is good PR which always helps. I was very pleased to be the first chef from a pub to win the Guild of Chefs' Award. Because all the top names over the years have won it. The Roux brothers, Raymond Blanc, Anton Mosimann, Brian Turner, all of them. And when we won that for the Crooked Billet it was the first time the profession started to recognise that some pubs were doing really good food. We were also top eating place outside London in ‘Time Out’. And ‘The Sunday Times’ listed lunch at the Crooked Billet in the top ten of their hundred best things to do in the summer – ahead of Wimbledon, the Summer Ball in Berkeley Square or a Madonna concert.” Does Paul have any regrets at leaving the music business? Had he ever considered a career in music management? “The music evenings keep me in touch with musicians. And I have run the Crooked Billet Christmas Ball several years at Henley Town Hall. Mud and many more well-known names have performed there. Plus I have cooked and provided champagne for the Sunflower Jam – a glittering annual rock 'n' roll charity evening at Notting Hill's Porchester Hall. I also cook sometimes on special occasions for musicians at their homes. All these things keep me involved. But I did actually do some music management, too. Between 1994 and 2004 I looked after John Otway. I did this alongside my work here at the pub and later at the brasserie”. “For years John had done every Glastonbury and some Reading festivals too. But mainly he was just performing the pub circuit. His 2000th show was coming up and we wanted to celebrate that. So, with sponsorship from ‘Viz’ comic magazine, I put together a Gig 2000 tour for John. I learned all about using electronic databases and mailing lists. Something that has been invaluable for the Crooked Billet. I was able to reach 15,000 staunch Otway fans, and we found a way to give John the gift he most wanted for his 50th birthday - a hit record. I wrote a song and by persuading his 15,000 fans to pre-order through high street record stores we got a hit – number 9. “We'd used Abbey Road for the recording which was a great experience. There were engineers there from the original Joe Brown and early Beatles days. I remember John asking one of them, 'Do you remember recording with....'. And the engineer's face just glazed over. You could see him thinking....'Not that tired old Beatles question again.' But John Otway went on, '...with Benny Hill when he did ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)?' The engineer just beamed and loved talking about recording Benny Hill and Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren. He loved those old novelty records Abbey Road used to do, many of them actually produced by George Martin (who has also been to the CrookedBillet!). Then, to cap it all, we got on ‘Top of the Pops’ - live. With Justin Timberlake, Christine Aguilera – who turned out to be an Otway fan. Sitting in the star bar there at the BBC afterwards, I just thought that I'd never better that. So, I stopped my music management sideline then and there.” What have been some of the best moments at the Crooked Billet? “There have been so many. I like the warmth of the atmosphere. That's what fills a pub. Not just fine food or music. It's that indefinable good ambience and I think we get that here. We never stop working at it. I like it when the famous names just swim in. And some of the musical evenings have been amazing; very special.” There have often been a lot of top producers, engineers as well as artists dining at the Crooked Billet. On one occasion when Chas Hodges (of Chas 'n' Dave) was preparing to perform at the pub, he was having a small technical problem with his sound system and asked if there was anyone in the pub who might assist. Although the dining room seats fewer than sixty, he was spoiled for choice as volunteers included two top record producers, three guitarist icons plus several talented recording engineers – one of whom swiftly fixed the gliche. “There can be funny moments, too,” Paul recalled. “There is this lovely older lady who comes, often on her own, for the Django-style jazz nights we've had for years. One night I was talking to her - I'd always talked to her - and she said quietly, 'You know, I must bring my son here. He plays guitar but not quite so much lately.' So, wondering if he might just have played a bit at home or maybe with a few friends, I said, just to be polite, really, 'Was he in a band? Would I have heard of it?' And she replied, 'You might. The band had an unusual name. Led Zeppelin.' It was Jimmy Page's mum! And I think she was playing me along a bit, you know. Mr Page has been here since though. As has his daughter Scarlet, the talented photographer of musicians.” What are Paul's future plans? “There will only ever be one Crooked Billet. My main aim is just to continue to nurture the pub, maintain the highest standards of cuisine and enjoy other people's love of the place. Especially on our music nights. It is such a joy to see all kinds of different people lifted by wonderful food and great music. And I feel lucky to play a part in that.”

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Paul Clerehugh - Interview

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