‘Stretch limos and hummers just not us’
The wait is ﬁnally over: Parker’s Tavern, the restaurant and bar at the fully restored University Arms Hotel on Parker’s Piece, opens today. Dedicated head chef Tristan Welch tells Adrian Peel what he has planned for the eatery and why the last thing he wants is a grand opening ceremony.
Good things come to those who wait. The flamboyant and beautifully designed University Arms Hotel officially opens to the public today following an extensive renovation. In it is housed the exquisite Parker’s Tavern restaurant.
Having first opened in 1834, the transformation of the hotel building is the result of a collaboration between architect John Simpson and interior designer Martin Brudnizki. The 192-room hotel has undergone a major refurbishment costing more than £80 million.
Cambridge chef Tristan Welch has worked under Michel Roux Jr and headed Gordon Ramsay’s Pétrus in London. The restaurant caters for 132 covers and there is a 61-seat bar, as well as another 30 seats located in the building’s library. Tristan is very pleased with his team, who he says have come on “leaps and bounds.” “They’ve relished the soft opening period; they’ve refined their technique and honed their skills ready for our [official] opening,” he adds. Having grown up near Cambridge – in Ashwell, and played on Parker’s Piece as a child – the enthusiastic and charismatic chef is finding the whole thing very exciting. “My role’s really been three phases,” he explains, “and we’re just about to enter the third phase, which is the official opening and the operation. The first stage was the planning, the design, conception. The second stage was building it and creating it – filling it with furniture, getting the team trained, getting them cooking and serving – and now we’re on the third stage of my role, which is the operational side of it.”
Tristan has been putting in extremely long hours – from around 7am to 1am – for more than a month now in order to get the restaurant up and running. “I took the day off yesterday, and I feel horrendous for it today!” he laughs. “Your body and your mind set get so used to that [the long hours] so I feel a bit like I’ve been drinking 30 pints of beer or something the night before. It’s what comes with the territory – teaches me for taking a day off !”
Tristan thinks it may be a while, therefore, before he considers taking another rest day. “It’s such a big deal to so many people here in Cambridge.” he says, “that I really want to make sure that the man behind it is there, so I can talk to people and get their feedback and guide the team along, support them. “When a restaurant opens, it’s at its absolute weakest. The first day, when you officially open your doors, you will never be at a weaker point again – because every day with a restaurant, you’ll just get better and better and you’ll learn from your mistakes.”
The reaction so far has been positive from those who have already eaten at Parker’s Tavern. “I’ve been a bit of a monster trying to get feedback off everybody,” says Tristan. “We’ve got quite a long feedback form because I want as much information from our guests as possible, because essentially this is a restaurant for the Cambridge people and that’s been our focus this whole time. “It’s been really important for us to listen to our guests to tailor this restaurant to what everybody in Cambridge likes and how everyone feels about it. In general, I think we’ve got it 80 per cent right – and the other 20 per cent, we’re tweaking that.”
This writer was lucky enough to sample a wonderful spaghetti bolognese with chips on the side at the restaurant a couple of weeks ago and also tried the Parker’s Tavern (PT) sauce, a brown sauce ideal for having with chips. “Oh brilliant, I’m completely passionate about it!” enthuses Tristan. “It just comes from my absolute hatred for tomato ketchup and brown sauce – I can’t stand them; they’re overly sweet and acidic. It [the PT sauce] started as one little item on the menu, but maybe it’s going to grow into something bigger. We make it fresh with apples and tomatoes and a touch of cider vinegar. There’s two things I hate in life, and that’s white sliced bread and tomato ketchup.”
Tristan reveals that the impressive menu at Parker’s Tavern has been a “work in progress” for years. “The menu will never ever be a finished product,” he states. “It’s an evolution of seasonal dishes with local ingredients.” On the subject of locally sourced ingredients, he says they use local products wherever possible. “Unfortunately we can’t dredge scallops from the River Cam,” he notes, “but they’re British and they’re from the west coast of Scotland and they’re just sensational quality. Where we can’t get local, we get British. I’ve kind of balanced the menu, so it’s got great vegan dishes, great fish dishes, great vegetarian dishes and great meat dishes. Hopefully it’s a menu that reflects the demography of Cambridge, with a price point that matches too.”
As well as celebrating Cambridge through its produce, Tristan is also investing in people from within the region by employing students from Cambridge Regional College. “We are completely committed to training and development – it’s so important to us,” he says. “For two reasons: one, I’m passionate about the de-skilling of the industry and how I feel the industry’s been completely de-skilled by chain restaurants. I want to put those skills back into the industry because those are the reasons why people fell in love with it in the first place... “I’ve had senior managers who don’t know how to give a proper silver service and sous chefs who don’t know how to cut up a pig. These are people on high salaries who don’t have the skill set to match. If I want to dine out in lovely restaurants when I retire, I’m going to have to start doing something about it – so that’s the second reason!”
Tristan continues: “We’ll be replaced by machines in 20 years time if we’re not careful because it’s becoming that simple to open a packet, reheat and serve – where actually food is a million miles away from that. What we are, we are great food with great quality ingredients, and to do that we have to have a skilled, trained and focused team.” There will be no grand launch taking place tonight, and Tristan would have it no other way. “One thing I would feel horrendous about is having a big, showy opening party,” he says. “It would set the tone for something we are not. We’re a modest, mid-range-price brasserie. We’ve got great, quality luxury surroundings, yes, but we’re a high volume place where people can sit down and relax and feel comfortable. “So to have a red carpet and stretch limos and hummers and all this sort of stuff is just not us.”