Combe House Hotel was at that time owned by Terry Boswall, a wealthy ex-cook and model, and it was Laurie Gear’s first experience of the French partie system. He says of his six years there: “It was just another world, and of course, the produce was just a level up from what I was used to. It really opened my eyes – Terry was a mentor. They had more sections, you had a pastry section, a larder, a sauce section – it was much more organised than what I was used to. It was an amazing experience.” It was also here that he met his future wife and business partner, Jackie.
A spell working at Gee’s Brasserie in Oxford followed, a busy restaurant serving modern European food of the era. He told us: “There was a head chef there called Graham Corbet. He taught me a lot, you had to be fast, you had to listen and work quickly and cleanly. That excited me. They would get things like crayfish that had been taken from the local rivers. It was interesting, it was super busy and I learnt a lot there.”
By this time they were very much preparing for their own restaurant – a dream of Jackie’s “right from being a little girl”. For the next few years they catered for Pinewood Film Studios, providing meals for actors and film crews while they saved money for their planned venture. Any free time they had went into researching their future restaurant, with Jackie working part time at The Fat Duck, and Laurie taking shifts at Clarke’s in Notting Hill which he describes as “nice simplistic food that was done very sharply”.
In 2002, Jackie and Laurie Gear finally opened the doors of their own restaurant, The Artichoke, located in the market town of Amersham in Buckinghamshire. Over the next six years they worked as hard as they could to build their perfect neighbourhood restaurant – the kind of place that they would want to eat in – a place that you could dress up and celebrate in as well as have a casual weekday lunch. Just as they had begun to establish themselves, building a good reputation along with a trusted kitchen brigade, tragedy struck. A fire that started next door ripped through the building, gutting the entire restaurant. He told us: “It was a huge setback. It is very cavalier to say that every cloud has a silver lining, because it was such a heinous experience. Given the choice, even with all we’ve achieved now, I would never want to go through that again. I could have been sleeping there – I was lucky to escape with my life.”
A long wrangle with the insurance company followed, during which time Laurie Gear took up a stage at Noma. He says: “It was a real eye opener. At the time it wasn’t known throughout the world, but it was a forward thinking restaurant all those years ago. It was just a refresh. I definitely gleaned a lot of ideas and different ways of thinking about things, really. Rene Redzepi isn’t just a chef, he is a restaurateur as well – it is not just about his food, but the whole experience.”
In 2010 The Artichoke reopened – a celebration hosted by long-time fan, Raymond Blanc. The next year it won the Good Food Guide’s “Best New Entry”, followed by a Michelin “Rising Star”. Describing his food at The Artichoke, Laurie Gear says: “We always cook for the seasons – that is our priority.” With the seasons comes foraged edibles and these make a regular appearance on his menus, but only for the individual qualities they bring, never just for show: “For me foraging is me as a little boy going out walking with my mum and dad and picking up hazelnuts that had fallen from a tree and maybe going out with my best mate from school as a youngster scrumping apples, picking wild mushrooms while I was a kid working up at the golf club. That is foraging to me – if there is food that is seasonal, tasty and useful then we put it on the plate. But picking a leaf, albeit edible, and chucking it on a plate – I don’t agree with that. That is foraging for the sake of it.”
When describing his food he says: “I think fundamentally our cuisine is rooted in the classics – we don’t mess around with molecular gastronomy, but we are forward thinking. We are a learning restaurant.” And it is this skill that has come to the attention of the critics, with The Guardian describing his kitchen as “one that's on top of contemporary trends and executing them with command, precision and a degree of relaxedness.” The Good Food Guide – which awarded Laurie Gear a fantastic 7/10 for cooking – describes his food as: “Exhilarating seasonal adventures … This is big-city cooking, full of impact, complexity, razor-sharp detailing and clear, clean flavours.”
The menu changes regularly, as you would expect with a kitchen that looks to the seasons for inspiration, but there are some dishes that demand regular space on the menu. Laurie Gear told us about his popular hop-smoked trout dish, cured using hops from the local Chiltern Brewery. The dish has evolved over the years, with various different accompaniments, but it remains in some form. Its current incarnation comes atop a crisp, rye bread biscuit with little mounds of cucumber and lime panna cotta, ribbons of pickled cucumber and fresh broad beans. The Telegraph says of this dish: “There was a whole lot happening on the plate – tender, smoky fish; crunchy, sour rye; creamy, sharp panna cotta; fresh beans; crisp pickle – and the assured combination of textures and strong tastes was well balanced.”
One thing that Laurie Gear is keen to stress is how much of a team effort The Artichoke is: “We really are a team – that is the important thing about the Artichoke. We just all work closely together and we are all very focused as to where we want to see the restaurant going. Ben Jenkins is by my side every single day in the kitchen. That is important. I think it is important that your team get credit as well. Key people are so important, especially because we are losing some of our skill set in this industry and young chefs need to be nurtured. We’ve got a young lad who has come from Aylesbury and a young girl who is just up the road actually, and started off like myself washing the dishes. She is now a commis in pastry. We are all about giving our team an opportunity and I think it is important that as the restaurant grows, everyone has a lick of that growth.” But it is his wife that he saves the most praise for. He told us: “Jackie is vital – she keeps the whole thing together. She stands shoulder to shoulder with me and makes the whole thing a success.”