In 2007, with plans for her own place firmly in mind, she moved to Gloucestershire. Her sister, who lives in Kingham, tipped her off that the local pub was on the market. Enthused by the location and ready access to top-quality suppliers, she opened the doors to her own eatery – The Kingham Plough – aged only 28.
Assisted only by a commis chef, she was soon overwhelmed by the public’s zest for her enterprise and found herself single-handedly managing a daily changing menu, in the kitchen every day from 7am to midnight. Her then boyfriend jumped in to help and a year later they had bought out her business partner and got married – now the proud owners of a truly family business. She told The Telegraph: “When it’s your own place there is no work-life balance. You don’t have a life! But in the nicest possible way: the Plough is everything I ever dreamed of.”
Aiming to create a dining pub that they themselves would like to visit – excellent modern British food in a warm and relaxed environment – the signs are there that this ambition has been realised. On visiting the Plough, A.A. Gill wrote: “Anyone thinking of opening a local pub restaurant should come here and see the gold standard.” The pub has also received a Michelin Bib Gourmand (awarded to establishments with particularly good-value menus) for three years running, it holds two AA rosettes and is one of the Good Food Guide’s top 50 pubs.
Inspired by her historical research into old Cotswolds recipes, Emily Watkins’ inventive modern British cuisine is still centred on traditional cooking using contemporary methods. The menu often features very well-known British dishes – a Wellington, for example – but brought up-to-date with sophisticated technique and inspired reinterpretation. Eschewing the traditional beef of this classic recipe, her versions instead utilise chicken, pheasant, duck, venison, lamb, rabbit, pigeon or pork – as in her Pork loin and black pudding Wellington with Grandpa’s cabbage – showcasing both the skill and creativity of the kitchen, as well as the impeccably sourced meats produced by local specialist breeders.
As part of her motivation for choosing this location was the ready access to remarkable artisan produce, it is unsurprising that Emily Watkins’ seasonal menus are peppered with references to her valued suppliers: Windrush Valley goat cheese, Lower Swell pork, Daylesford salad and Evesham asparagus, for example, are all sourced from the surrounding counties. A very alluring cheese selection from local farms is also a highlight of the menu. She told the Good Food Guide: “Local – everything local, which is great and something we have been doing from the word go here. The flavour of a freshly cut vegetable direct from garden to plate cannot be compared to.”
Dessert at the Kingham Plough is held in particularly high regard, with her Baked custard with rhubarb granita and shortbread, and her Sticky toffee brioche with caramel sauce and caramelised pecan ice cream garnering particular praise. Jay Rayner commented: “There is lusciousness in those desserts, an in-yer-face magnificence … Dessert here felt like a posh girl dragging you behind the bedroom door.” House-made ice creams are a speciality (she has plans to produce them on a larger scale for retail supply) and flavours encompass both the familiar and the more unusual, with delights such as wood sorrel, roly poly, caramelised walnut and apple, and chocolate sorbet making an appearance.
In the 2014 series of Great British Menu, Emily Watkins won a place in the final banquet at St. Paul’s Cathedral with her fish dish, “Fight them on the Beaches”. Inspired by her grandfathers, who both fought in the Second World War, it featured ingredients that can be foraged on the beaches of Normandy: griddled scallops, smoked cockle broth, a variety of sea greens, braised morels and dehydrated nori seaweed served like tobacco in a tin. She says this year’s brief captured well the essence of her food at the Kingham Plough: “It was much more typical of what we do here,” she told us, “we always use the whole beast; we use local ingredients, a lot of foraged ingredients.”
This enthusiasm for the craft of cooking, and for the seasonal bounty that her local region offers, remains undimmed – as can be heard in a recent interview: “I am always so excited by what is coming up and what each season brings in terms of fresh produce. That's the joy of cooking, there is always something coming into season that you can be creative with.”