The Cock in Hemingford Grey didn’t need me to become the Good Pub Guide’s National Dining Pub of the Year. My best work had been done before then. It’s entirely accurate, I think, to say that by the time I left, round about the time the award was confirmed, I was no longer the driving force. Never, at any point, did I stop caring; I had far too much respect for my employers and was too attuned to the fact that, outwardly, my performance reflected on us both. But I’d long ceased to be energised by the job, not only exhausted but increasingly temperamental, and that’s surely when you know it’s time to go. In the end I’m not sure I wasn’t carried, pissed, over the finish line.
Anyone who knows me and, more particularly, my state of mind recently, may reasonably regard this admission as part of an ongoing assault on my own self-esteem. They’re probably right. As I’ve said previously, though, I’ve never really regarded being nice to people as a skill. Any success or popularity I might have enjoyed while I was in charge (and please note the word “might”, since it’s used as deliberately as I’ll ever use any word) I’m sure had less to do with being a good manager, being organised, or anything predictable like that, than it did with being possessed of a few manners. You couldn’t please everyone of course – you never will, eh, Don? – and there were those that eyed me with suspicion until the very last. Here I console myself with the notion that an ingrained professionalism and a healthy conscience form an agenda with which not everyone can identify. For them - and by “them” I mean the certain indisposable ”characters” required to lend a pub or restaurant its local colour - there invariably has to be something else going on, something more deep-rooted or unpleasant. At the heart of it, though, hospitality really is that simple; people will forgive anything if you’re nice to them. Giving them as few things as possible to forgive you for is the other half of the battle. It is, on reflection, the satisfaction of this half that I’ll consent to regard as a genuine achievement and the reason I won’t entirely absolve myself of responsibility for any resulting decoration.
For the large majority of my tenure as manager I had, as my Head Chef, possibly the most odious, unpleasant bastard I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. He was a shit. The closest I got to figuring out why, I think, was to consider his privileged background and the fact that he’d fallen in love with someone not only from the wrong side of the tracks, but the wrong side of the Atlantic. He was, quite tragically, stuck here and he resented it. But he was the worst manager of people I’ve ever seen. The way in which he’d persistently throw his weight around, talk to and about my staff – one of whom was traumatised to the extent that I was obliged to rota tactically – the way he’d belligerently contrive to handicap or undermine a sitting depending on which side of bed he’d rolled out of, and the way he’d generally behave like a three-year-old girl, meant that losing already elusive sleep over his psychological make-up was a categorical waste of time. (What made-up his physical constitution, by the way, was much more apparent…) What with me being about as natural a confrontationalist as George from Rainbow, and resolutely refusing to issue my bosses an ultimatum along the lines that it was to be him or me - and beyond painting us all white -the challenge then was how to deflect the blast and prevent it reverberating across the restaurant floor.
You might argue that the method of least resistance employed was perhaps what made for such hard work. Again, you’d probably be right. What I haven’t mentioned, however, is that the prick could cook. And, while I’m as confident as ever that people would return time and again specifically to be served by my team, you don’t garner public-nominated ”dining pub” recognition on a national level if you don’t offer good food. So, how to deliver consistently good, cheerily presented output without customers getting wind that its creator was hell-bent on making life as difficult as possible for everybody concerned?
Oddly, I was able to talk him into shouting mostly at me. One thing of which I was keenly aware which my waiting staff weren’t necessarily – nor, I imagine, would they have been prepared to entertain at less than £6 per hour - was that in a high-pressure environment like a busy kitchen the issue is very rarely personal. Post-service, we would ’have out’ the fact that he’d essentially just had to work a bit faster for the three hours that constitutes the crux of a Saturday night, after which he’d usually talk himself round to acknowledging he had overreacted. We got into a habit also of holding meetings roughly every five months to retrace our steps from the previous one, the upshot of which would invariably be that, in all the excitement of the day-to-day, he’d overlooked the fact his brain was just wired wrong. Everyone could breathe a bit easier, for that afternoon at least, and regardless of the sense with which it was done the situation was duly managed. We wouldn’t proceed without incident of course, and as time drew on there would be as much give on my part as there was take - ”you’re a fucking baby”, I recall once being quite pleased with - but the carnage was regulated. Privately and behind closed doors.
Happily for the guys that continue to work at The Cock, Chef was summarily canned not long after we’d parted ways. Secretly I like to think the inevitable came after I left because I was the only one braced to deal with his horse shit. Of course, this isn’t true. I know that the owners, who will always be good friends, are conscious that it took as long as it did to oust him. As far as I’m concerned they needn’t be. On the face of it such solid reputations don’t stick to places that struggle to operate coherently from one day to the next. Also, in overseeing an expanding business and therefore being unable to be on site on a daily basis, they would rely heavily on me for informed and responsible updates that things behind the scenes were running as smoothly as they ought to be. Mindful as I was of a messy fall-out and loathe to give them a problem to deal with if it was one I thought I could handle, I was arbitrarily inclined to put these concerns ahead of those of an excellent staff and a better working atmosphere. In this I can’t help feeling I came up short. For that, and the treatment which for too long certain individuals may have had to endure, I’m really quite sorry. The truth, nevertheless, is that the same staff continued to work there just the same. More than that, they continued to work hard for me. Why? Because I’m a good leader? I doubt it. Because The Cock, as a deserving “National Dining Pub of the Year”, is owned by two of life’s true gentlemen? Probably. Perhaps it was just their turn. Could it have had anything to do with my being a decent bloke? Because I’d settle for that…