Elaine and Malcolm Routledge reflect on how the rise and fall of their bed and breakfast business has been tied in with the fate of a cocky young Liverpudlian chef; by Bruce Harris
'In the processed pub food wasteland of ploughman's lunch, flabby lasagnes, microwaved scampi and chicken nuggets, Robbie has appeared like an avenging Scouse angel, waving his cuisine sword and shouting 'it doesn't have to be like this, or-right?' And it doesn't.' (The Mail)
My wife and I, Elaine and Malcolm Routledge, run one of our county's less renowned establishments, an eight-bedroomed guest house called Harrington House, converted from the original abode of the merchant Thomas Harrington, who represented our area in Parliament and instigated various measures concerning trading and working conditions nationally. Charts, pictures and documents adorn our walls, tracking this fascinating segment of English history and its central charismatic protagonist. Does this matter to our clientele? Well, with one or two honourable heritage tourist exceptions, no, it doesn't. Not a jot. What we should be displaying, apparently, is a four foot high photo of Robbie from the latest series of 'Robbie's Scoff,' grinning his pie-faced grin and holding towards the camera yet another newly created delight from his fertile young imagination. I have sometimes felt that it would need only one more customer to ask me whether we plagiarise items from Robbie's Scoff for our menus to send me berserk with a meat cleaver and add yet another interesting tourist distinction to our village. 'Oh, yes, that's where Mad Malc Routledge, the Cleaver King, sliced his first few victims apart, you know.'
'Gruesome, but sociologically and culturally fascinating.' (The Express)
As salt to the wound, Elaine and I did once own the King's Head. Harrington House was our first purchase in the village, a mutual decision motivated by weariness with commuting and City life, lucrative but always precarious. A new and more settled existence, we thought. We didn't fool ourselves that it wouldn't have problems of its own, making sure some fastidious old so and so's morning egg is done just as he or she likes it, coming to terms with various dietary weirdnesses, living equably with the occasional maniac, alcoholic or imbecile under our roof.
A slower pace of life, we thought, a bucolic routine amongst the birds, the flowers and the tourists; this is what we sought and, to begin with, it is what we got. Elaine's role was essentially the firm but fair matron, smiling and buxom but always with a glint in the eye for any nonsense, and I did my geezer next door thing, as at home with lending my jump leads as whispering a hot tip for the 3.30 at Sandown or tacitly seeming to agree with political axes to grind. Our venture flourished and was blessed; we even managed one AA star and a few little reviews of our own:
'Comfortable and well-run; a hostelry with a history, right in the heart of the village.' (Drive Britain)
When the tortured King's Arms regime of Henry and Daphne Sharpe came to an end, as it was always going to given Henry's enthusiastic alcoholism and Daphne's desperately inept culinary efforts, we were confident enough to try to make ourselves village supremos, combining catering and accommodation services into one bold and highly profitable concern. As banks, at the time, were begging on their knees for people to borrow pots full of money from them, we found enough finance to buy the place and have a little left over to restore it to something like respectability - Henry and Daphne had rather let things go, I'm afraid. Then we faced up to the reality that a sous chef would have to be engaged. Elaine has no equal, in my opinion, in the art of the Full English Breakfast, but taking more ambitious and far-reaching menus to the now obligatory rosette-winning heights presented her with a challenge which she was not prepared to meet without assistance.
'Service should be art more than drudgery.' (E. Routledge)
We interviewed a limited number of applicants - the wages offered were not, to be honest, particularly generous, but then why would they be? The Savoy Grill we were not. One of them was a terrifyingly young, permanently grinning Robbie Syerson, sent from some mysterious agency and fresh out of catering school.
We were, I insist, as fair-minded about it as we could be, bearing in mind that we were unable to understand more than two consecutive words of what he was saying and were incredulous about his stated age. We focused on his references from catering college, which were quite sensational: 'Robert has an astonishingly creative, mature approach to preparing and presenting food; his results have consistently proved successful in competition and function catering.' (Mannerton F.E. College); and he had rosettes and certificates to prove it. We took him on and he seemed suitably grateful:
'Fantastic. Great. I'm, like, really chuffed, you know warra mean?' (R. Syerson, aged 21)
For a couple of years, not only did all go well, all went fabulously. Continuing in our fair-minded and encouraging way, Elaine let Robbie have his head with a few mains occasionally, with spectacular results, and over time, the roles adapted, with Elaine increasingly confining herself to her Full English heartlands. Custom flooded in, and Robbie was made chef with a new assistant under him. A modest increase in wages was agreed, with more promised if the success continued. And then, a snake in the grass reared its ugly head. All unbeknown to us, disaster struck.
Two thirty-something gentlemen in suits dining together did not excite any great remark, and even when they asked if they could speak to the chef and thank him personally, no great suspicions were aroused - it was far from the first time Robbie had had to take a bow. However, when Robbie actually sat down with them and had a lengthy and animated conversation, alarm bells finally rang, and they rang even louder when Robbie enlightened us as to who they were. They represented a large and successful hotel in Bath and they were poaching on our turf.
'I told them how much I was getting 'ere and they said 'yer wha'?' and then nearly, like, weed themselves.' (R. Syerson, aged 23)
We tried. We promised extra money, more staff, new menus, but then he told us how much he was being offered as a basic wage and Elaine and I looked at each other and knew we were competing in a higher league than we could afford.
So, there you are, we thought, bye bye Robbie, obviously too big a fish for our little backwater pond, and we struggled on as best we could with the restaurant falling rapidly away and the old King's Head darts and dominoes stalwarts dying slowly off. In less than three years, we realised that our modest profit on Harrington House was being outdone by our accelerating losses on the King's Head, whose costs for fuel etc. on top of all its maintenance issues as a very old building meant that quite high revenues had always been needed for it to break even.
Elaine and I jumped reluctantly aboard the reality express. Whatever pride had to be left behind, we would have to retreat to the B and B from whence we came and unload the resource-sapping millstone of the King's Head, though times had become harder by then and we didn't hold out much hope. Then Mr. Syerson appeared in our lives all over again, and this time it was Robbie in a suit, with lawyers and bankers in tow. Having recovered from the hilarious pittance we appeared to have been paying him, he seemed to have done very well for himself. He apologised with all his most engaging profuseness for offering us a sum somewhat lower than the asking price, though his entourage were not necessarily entirely responsible for this, as he so graphically conceded:
'Like, I know these are money men and tha', and I'm still young, and tha', but I'm not Tinkerbell the Fairy, you know warra mean? You wouldn't get that for the place if you covered it all over in proper dark chocolate and shoved a naffin' cherry in the middle.' (R. Syerson, aged 26)
So we sold out, in several senses of the term, I suppose, and watched with mounting amazement as the Robbie bandwagon rolled on. It seemed some of his investors were the people who owned the hotel he'd been working for, and their technique for advancing his interests was very painstaking and very thorough. One after the other, generously illuminated features started appearing in local and then national newspapers and magazines:
'Into the not generously extensive elite pub grub list steps a young Northerner, Robbie Syerson, full of energy, panache and invention.' (Courier); 'As full of beans as his delightful cassoulet, young Robbie is tearing up the gastro pub rule book.' (Sentinel); 'The wok and microwave brigade will have to move on; Robbie's taste adventure show has just marched into town.' (Recorder) And so on.
And, of course, then cameth the telly in all its glory, to great local euphoria and fascination, Robbie's photogenic features, snub-nosed and bright-eyed, debunking all cheffy pretentiousness with his native Scouse wit and perspicacity.
It was on one of our periodic visits to worship at the temple of Robbieness, duly deducted 20% for counting amongst the 'good guys' home team,' lucky us, that I conceived my theory of Robbie the conjuror, hands and wit directing the mind to places faster than eyes and reason can follow. We discovered that Robbie had knocked down a wall and turned it to window, thereby allowing the customers to actually watch the food being prepared wherever they happened to be sitting.
'Well, like, if I was paying what I'm charging, I'd want to see people, see what they're doing to me food before I have to eat it, you know warra mean?' (R. Syerson, aged 27)
Except, of course, it wasn't. Very impressive, very up front, but often the kitchen was too steamy to see anything in detail, and even when actions were visible, most of the watchers were none the wiser. It's a conjuror's smoke and mirrors, sustaining an illusion, and that's true of a lot of media stuff, I think, and not just about food. It seems characteristic of expensive restaurants that you pay about twice as much for about half as much food, but you're not supposed to notice you've only got about seven chips or only three square inches of meat, because you're in a place belonging to a celebrity chef and it's terrific and you can see him doing it (if he happens to be there that day). So you buy into what you're being told, pay up and go home to tell everyone where you've been. And only after a day or two do you think, 'Hang on, that cost me an arm and a leg and I could have eaten another two of them,' just like, when you've watched a magic trick, you wake up one night a few days afterwards and think 'oh, yes, I can see how he did that now.' All an illusion, and people buy into it because that's what the media tells them to do.
But perhaps that's all sour grapes; perhaps people like us choose to B and B because we're not much good at anything else. Maybe we should all just accept our roles in life with resignation and true admiration for the media-savvy of the Robbies of this world, for practical as well as humble reasons.
Elaine and I were thinking long and hard about hanging on in our modest B and B in the shadow of the King's Arms and worrying about what future we had when we realised that, oddly enough, we were picking up a lot of referred trade, from people who wanted to visit Robbie's restaurant but didn't care for the hotel bit's accommodation prices, or people following up on curiosity about the area from the TV or the King's Arms website. So we used it on our website, with Robbie's blessing, and the trade flows on, teeth gritting as it may be at times. I will allow myself the last word and express it in quotable form:
'Being a hanger on is better than being hanged.' (M. Routledge)