I’ve been going to the Secret Garden tearooms and restaurant in Sudbury, Suffolk for a long time. In fact, I even worked there, many years ago, as a waitress and kitchen assistant. I now think of the Secret Garden as a kind of Doctor Who establishment. It’s had a few changes of ownership over the decades but improves with each ‘reincarnation’.
It’s a hidden gem offering food of a standard you’d struggle to find in many similar small market towns. On my most recent visit this week-end we ate: pan-fried chicken livers with tahini creme fraiche and coriander salsa; honey roasted pork belly with juniper cabbage, spiced sweet potatoes, and guacamole; followed by delicious plum and almond tart. What’s not to like!
And quality isn’t achieved at the expense of ethics. I took advantage of my visit to Sudbury to talk to Alain Jacq about how he, and co-owner Stéphane Chapotot, embed sustainability and integrity into every aspect of their operations.
wscf: Alain, can you tell me a bit about your background? What inspired you to come to Sudbury?
Alain: Originally I’m from France but I worked for many years in luxury hotels in London (the Park Lane Hilton, Sheraton, and Lanesborough) cooking modern French haute cuisine. Then I taught for a while at Le Cordon Bleu, also in London.
But I wanted to work for myself. I thought it would be much easier with a business partner, and I had a friend who was on the same wavelength. London was just too expensive but Stéphane’s uncle, Jacques, happened to be selling his tearoom and restaurant business in Sudbury, Suffolk. The location was a bit random for us, but the business ticked a lot of boxes, and the rest, as they say, is history.
wscf: You’ve said that: “We don’t look at The Secret Garden as a workplace only and value the quality of time we spend here. This, we believe, allows our personality to mould the business rather than the other way around.” Tell me more about how and why you take this approach.
Alain: I have been an employee myself. So I’ve had to put up with other people’s concept of what a workplace should be (or their lack of concept).
When we took on the Secret Garden, Stéphane and I wanted a feeling of friendliness with our staff and with our customers. We want our staff to want to come to work, to help them embrace wellbeing, and to do things with pleasure. Customers sense this, and it ripples out very far.
wscf: Why is it so important to you to use your purchasing power in favour of local, organic, seasonal products?
Alain: I don’t want to be blind about what my money can achieve. Markets are created by the people buying, not the people selling. Recognising the power we have, and using it rather than denying it, has many benefits. It’s important to limit the use of chemicals, to protect soil and water systems. By refusing to buy products we’re not interested in, and by purchasing natural, local products, we can help to shape the market.
It’s the wrong way round that we label some food ‘organic’ and don’t label the rest. We should label non-organic food ‘chemical’ and the rest should be organic by default.
Putting money into the local economy increases the wealth of the locality, particularly if we cut out middlemen and buy directly from local producers. And ultimately some of that flow of money will come back to us via our customers. It’s a positive dynamic.
wscf: You serve delicious bread; I understand you use a very special method.
Alain: We serve freshly-baked artisanal sourdough bread. Modern bread-making techniques using commercial yeast can’t achieve the same flavour as loaves using a home-prepared ‘mother’ (a starter which makes bread rise). Mothers are maintained and nurtured over many, many years to achieve unique characteristics of flavour. Ours dates back to around 1983-1984.
wscf: You and Stéphane are both French, but you’ve lived and worked in England for a long time. Did the referendum and vote for Brexit come as a surprise?
Alain: The EU has always been part of my life. Had I been eligible to vote, I would have voted for Britain to remain. But there are aspects of the EU I don’t agree with; globalisation in particular. I’m happy with the idea of big markets. But they don’t have to be regulated by a small bunch of people. There are parallels historically with the way England and France controlled large areas of the world. And then superpowers evolve to counterbalance that influence.
A different form of common market is possible. Freedom of movement can be very healthy for countries. But everything is described in a fearful manner, which focuses entirely on immigration into the UK and ignores emigration out of the UK. Why are people so fearful? What do they think will happen?
wscf: The restaurant trade gets some bad press for employment practices such as zero hours contracts, payment below minimum wage levels, and use of tips to top up low wages. How do you manage wages and customer tips?
We provide a constantly changing menu using fresh, seasonal ingredients. Which means our expenditure on ingredients is much higher than, say, a fast food chain. It requires a huge amount of time, effort and staff training to maintain quality.
Wages are a tricky issue. Unlike many other countries, in the UK you’re not necessarily expected to have any training to work in the catering industry. A lot of people start off with no experience and few relevant practical skills. There are training grants in other sectors of enterprise but not in catering. As a consequence, employers have to provide ‘on the job’ learning, and this has profound implications for the salary they can afford to pay.
London is buzzing; cafes and restaurants in the capital will always have customers. So you can add on a fixed percentage service charge. It’s different in the countryside; customers will make their own decision whether to tip or not. At the Secret Garden tips aren’t used to make up salaries; they’re a bonus for good work. And they’re shared between the front of house team and the staff behind the scenes.
wscf: What are your plans for the future?
We’re aiming to put Sudbury on the map. We recently acquired Buzzards Hall, a Grade II listed timbered building next door to the Secret Garden, and we’re fitting it out to create a new wine bar and gourmet dining restaurant.
When it comes to food, we don’t try to second-guess what customers will like. It’s important to do what you love, and to stand up for that.
I believe you get what you want by doing the simple things daily. It’s these simple things that send a signal about what works, that more sustainable and meaningful ways of running a café or restaurant are viable. We’re contributing in many different ways to the local region and we’re happy to do it, because we know how to do it.