Emily Watkins

Emily Watkins

Emily Watkins

Mother of three and previously chef-owner at The Kingham Plough, Oxfordshire, Emily Watkins has a lot on her proverbial plate. But it didn't stop her from becoming one of Britain’s leading chefs.

Emily Watkins came from a family where people had to fight for the kitchen – her mother and two sisters were all keen cooks. She remembers her childhood as one filled with experimentation and culinary disaster, telling the Good Food Guide she was always trying to cook, but 'would never listen to instructions – this is from age six or seven'. Her own passion for cooking was born out of greed: 'I always loved eating,' she says. Her mother manages a country house hotel in their home county of Dorset, so they were all roped into helping out in the kitchen. However, her family tried to dissuade her from pursuing a career as a chef, unsure of the realistic possibilities such a path offered – particularly for females. They instead steered her towards university and a degree in business, but her original aspirations never went away and post-graduation, after a torturous six months working in an office, she upped sticks for Italy.

Armed with only a Michelin guide and an empty CV, she went from restaurant to restaurant looking for work experience, until Ristorante Beccofino in Florence offered her a front of house position, with two days a week in the kitchen. Two months later, she was offered a full-time, salaried kitchen contract. Starting out completely from scratch, with no Italian language skills (a surprising advantage when being shouted at), two years later she was fluent and held the position of junior sous chef. Inspired by the passion and energy the Italians poured into their food, she had learnt everything she could, developing a particular respect for ingredients and their provenance, but a new challenge beckoned.

Emily joined Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in 2002, working on the sauce section as it was awarded its third Michelin star and the accolade 'Best Restaurant in the World'. Loving every second of her time there, she relished the encouragement to think beyond the classical methods of cooking and found her lack of formal culinary education an unexpected boon. This restaurant could not have been more different to the traditional Italian kitchen she had worked in previously and she soaked up this new modernist education, inspired by the positivity, enthusiasm and questioning environment she found there.

A hip injury forced her to leave this role after three years and in 2005 she moved to London, working as a private chef while she took up stages in restaurants around the world. During this time she was able to consolidate her own style of cooking – blending the traditional and the cutting edge – drawing on her markedly different professional experiences, as well as those she was collecting during her international stages.

In 2007, with plans for her own place firmly in mind, Emily 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 twenty-eight.

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.

Emily and her husband set out to create a dining pub that they themselves would like to visit – excellent modern British food in a warm and relaxed environment. 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 also received a Michelin Bib Gourmand (awarded to establishments with particularly good-value menus), as well as two AA rosettes, and was 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 was centred on traditional cooking using contemporary methods. The menu often featured 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 utilised 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.

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 said the 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.'

In early 2019, Emily and her husband decided the time was right to sell up at The Kingham Plough. She is now a food writer, recipe developer and consultant.