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Prepared for bake off

Tuesday 9 October 2012 12:00

Yorkshire dales pub owner Charles Cody thinks good kitchens should work like air traffic control towers. His success suggests he may have a point, writes Peter Baber.

Think of how a restaurant kitchen – at least an efficiently functioning restaurant kitchen – should work.

Orders come in, dishes are made in a regular process that everyone understands, then when they are ready they get lined up in an orderly queue to be taken off, one by one, to the big dining area outside.

Does this system remind you of anything? No? How about if you consider that the operation is being controlled by someone at the centre who has devised all this schedule days in advance? Still nothing?

Well, now just remember just occasionally there is a problem. Just occasionally the waiter or waitress has to bring back a dish that has failed to meet customer expectations, and emergency reparations go into place. Is all this seamless planning not a little akin to an air traffic control system?

You might still be scratching your head, but that’s what Charles Cody thinks. He says the two systems are very similar.

And, he tells me, he uses the lessons he learned about air traffic control while he was a fighter pilot in the RAF in the 1970s as a benchmark when he is managing the operations at the kitchens in the series of pubs with rooms he has renovated in the Yorkshire Dales over the past decade and a half.

Such thinking, if obscure, must be working, because the first two of these pubs – the CB Inn in Arkengarthdale, and the Punchbowl in Reeth – have both been transformed to great success in the process. And now his third venture, the Kings Arms in Askrigg, is a tie-up with the Holiday Property Bond (HPB), a timeshare-style club based in Newmarket.

Cody claims the organisation was recommended to seek him out for help when its original plans for running the pub as part of its development in the town fell through.

“I have always loved organisation of cooking,” he says. “It really is very similar to air traffic control. In a properly run kitchen you use standard phraseology to get things in sequence.

"And if you say the same words over and over again after a time people hear the phrase and they react spontaneously without working out what the words mean. Conversations about what is going on, which often hamper the process, disappear. Then if I walk into kitchen I shouldn’t have to talk to anybody, just go to the board. The worst thing is to say: ‘What’s going on?’ because someone then has to tell you.

“It’s the same with air traffic control. People don’t realise but procedural air traffic doesn’t actually rely on radar. You have procedural systems, with all the relevant up-to-date information laid out on small flight strips on a board. When you are taking over from somebody, you have to see the picture, and that is how they do it. That way they can still land all the planes even if the radar failed. That is what we do here. And we have a system where each dish is only signed off when someone has gone to the table to check it is okay. As someone working in the kitchen you certainly don’t pass it out to the waiting staff in front and expect them to deal with it. I have worked in some places where there has been serious trouble when people do that.”

It is perhaps because of this attention to systems and discipline that he is a big admirer of Gordon Ramsay. In fact, he thinks people who don’t like the TV chef’s abrasive style don’t really understand what a professional kitchen is all about.

“People go on about Gordon, and particular his effing and blinding, but he is a great manager,” he says. “I probably act the same as him sometimes in the kitchen, but it is about timing. You have only got so long to get a dish out, and then it’s gone. That is why it is intense. If the food is not good enough, you need to get it back with great urgency.” It may be intense, but don’t ever say such an atmosphere sounds stressful.

“Yes, stress is a terrible thing when it’s uncontrolled,” he says, “but controlled stress is exhilarating because you are in control. It’s only when you lose control that things go wrong.”

If that sounds like something you might learn on a leadership course, it could well have been. Charles’s time in the RAF included a stint in Oman in the 1970s, when the SAS were also part of a much under-reported but remarkably successful action against insurgents. He waxes lyrical about some of the leadership training he was put through there.

Exactly the same training programme popped up years later when he had joined civvy street and was working in management for a leadership company. He thinks it is directly relevant to life in the kitchen.

“The idea is that they exhaust you, so you are reacting realistically. That is when people should react as leaders regardless of what they are doing. You have almost forgotten it is an exercise, so it becomes real training. But the key thing is keeping balance – between the task, your team, and you as an individual. You have to keep all three in balance to succeed.”

Charles currently leads a team of 50 at his three outlets, although this has taken time to build. He went into food after leaving the RAF because he says he had developed a passion for it.

“When I first started the focus was still very much on formal restaurants,“ he says. “People would go out for a meal, wearing clothes that they don’t feel comfortable in. It was over-formalised. My blue sky scenario was to own my own business, and serve fine food in a very self-effacing way.”

So although he did initially work for the catering company and in consultancy to gain experience, he knew that owning your own business in the catering trade is really the only way to ensure you get to work where you want to work. And by this time he and his wife had already bought a cottage in the Dales, not far from the region Charles grew up in. So he was aware of the CB, or Charles Bathurst as it used be called, from long before he bought it in 1996.

“This place had been bust pretty much throughout its history,” he says. Its original owner had started trying to liven up the venue by doing dinner dances. When he had to retire because of ill health, the next owners expanded this out to include a disco, only continuing to serve what Charles says was pretty awful food because in those days that was the only way you could keep your late licence.

“It became notorious for drink and drugs,” says Charles, “and eventually a fire officer closed it down.”

His last experience of being a customer at the place came after he went on a glorious early morning run that ended up at the pub which was then in some dilapidation. “I came in at 8am, and the landlord was just pulling himself a pint of cider. I also had a terrible breakfast. So later when I saw it was closed down, I went to see the bank. I knew I could do better.”

Indeed he could, even if that meant starting off cooking in the kitchen entirely on his own. The Punchbowl, which Charles bought towards the end of the last decade, had had a similarly troubled history.

“One of guys who had run it previously had run it almost like an Outward Bound centre,” he says. “He had 56 bunks in there, in dormitory style, including 18 beds in a room we now have as a double. Apparently cavers would arrive en masse, and would be charged £5 a night. He never closed the bar.

"Theakstons are on record as saying they had the highest sales of any independent pub anywhere at the Punchbowl under his management. But I used to have a young girl working for me who did breakfast over there as well, and when she came in to start at 7.30am, there would still be people in the bar, some asleep in what was supposed to be a restaurant, and it stank of men. “We had to pretty much strip everything out when we started.”

It’s hard to believe such history when you look around both places now. They would match most people’s definition of what comfortable, informal eating should be. But don’t for a moment call them gastropubs. Charles isn’t too keen on that expression.

“So many gastropubs give you the impression their food is fresh, when it is not,” he says. “I hate the term ‘gastro’. Such places are usually run by people who can’t cook, and who use blackboards that are designed to look as if they have been written up every day, when they haven’t been. It shows, even in the large ones.

"Their food is all formalised. That is not what we are. If, for example, we do a duck confit, then we cook duck legs in goose fat. You can buy confits in ready prepared - loads of companies do that - but it doesn’t taste as good. We do fine cuisine, unfortunately at pub prices, which is a bit of a hedge, but that is what I wanted to do.”

Although he has always wanted all his businesses to major on food, Charles was quick to realise that for pubs to be successful in such remote locations as Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, much else was needed. “The population of Arkengarthdale is 400,” he says.

“That is not going to support a business like mine on its own. But on top of that physical geography will limit the number of people who come from further afield, except in high season. So accommodation is important.”

Both pubs now come with their own rooms, which Charles has been keen to fit out in as comfortable but individual a way as possible – sometimes including furniture bought from the famous Tennants auction house in Leyburn. At the CB Inn in recent years such attention to detail has led to room occupancy rates of 95% in recent years, with hunting parties from the nearby Duke of Norfolk’s estate extending the busy period into the autumn. Charles has been particular about staff too.

“We probably have more staff because of where we are located,” he says. “The management team is larger than it would be in an urban area. But I make an effort in trying to recruit local staff. They may not be the most professional but they are genuine.”

As you might expect, however, he is particular about chefs. “I need to be careful how I say this,” he says, “but I find with some chefs that they are interested in food, but they don’t have an appreciation of having eaten it. So when it comes to really feeling food, they tend to overcomplicate. That is just not what I am about. An analogy would be like when someone wears perfume for the first time, and they wear too much. As they become more sophisticated they wear less and less.”

Still, at the same time he is keen to make sure staff are treated well. He never uses any of his venues as a social venue for himself, for example, because he believes such a situation would be unfair on his employees. But they clearly all rally around him.

The nearest the whole venture came to closing was when foot and mouth struck in 2001. All staff agreed to take a 25% pay cut until the crisis averted and that saw them through – as did Charles ringing up the Treasury to claim interest-free VAT deferral on the day then Chancellor Gordon Brown announced that all affected businesses would be able to do so.

He thus got the company onto the scheme before the government changed its minds four days later.

Now his focus is on the new venture of tying up with the HPB at the King’s Arms. The pub was featured in the long-running James Herriot TV series “All Creatures Great and Small”, which brings back memories for Charles – when he was a boy James Herriot was actually their vet, and he went to school with the author’s daughter.

He says he was initially reluctant to take on another pub. “My wife joked that if I took another place on she would leave me,” he says. “But the idea of increasing turnover without outlay is attractive. Other places would require a £1m refurbishment.”

After a few teething issues, such as getting used to the idea of being party to a management agreement, instead of being a tenant, he says they are now “on the climb” at the venue.

Another success, then, But for the moment at least, there is unlikely to be any further expansion of the empire. Charles says he is not interested at all in getting outside investment to do so.

“I couldn’t be involved in something I am not proud of,” he says, “and I probably won’t expand outside the dales. Over expansion is a big risk, and I have seen so many places gone wrong because of it.”