Will Devlin

Will Devlin

After investing everything he had into an old pub with a humble plot of land, Will Devlin's restaurant The Small Holding has become a true champion of farm-to-fork eating.

Wherever you live in the country, you’ll have come across the farm-to-fork moniker at some point. It started as something humble – a reassurance that everything on your plate has specific provenance – but it has grown into an essential cornerstone of credibility for restaurants everywhere. Do all of these restaurants practice what they preach? Probably not. Farm-to-fork was never meant to be about ego, so it’s refreshing when you come across someone like Will Devlin who is cultivating vegetables, rearing animals and foraging mushrooms to cook at his Kent restaurant The Small Holding simply because he finds immense joy in doing so.

After a brief sojourn as a mechanic, Will’s kitchen career started by the sink, as a kitchen porter in his local pub. ‘It was in this really busy pub,’ he says. ‘The dishwasher was tiny, it only had room for about six coffee cups – you had to wash everything else by hand. I’d come in and there’d be stacks of plates on the floor all around the sink, so I’d smash through them all, go on my break, and they’d all be back again when I came back.’ It wasn’t exactly glamorous, but it opened the door to something he enjoyed – certainly more than changing tyres. ‘I’ve changed a thousand tyres,’ he laughs, ‘but I don’t like doing it. I’d rather peel a sack of onions. I don’t know why!’

After attending West Kent College, Will was toiling away in pubs and hotels before a visit to a Michelin-starred restaurant changed the course of his life. ‘I didn’t know what a Michelin star was,’ he grins. ‘I just knew Michelin tyres from when I was a mechanic! We went for a meal and it hit me like a train. It was so intimate and detailed, so much better than what we were doing at the hotel. So I thought, why can’t I do this?’ Will wrote letters to a host of the best restaurants in the country, such as Midsummer House, Royal Hospital Road, Le Gavroche and Restaurant Nathan Outlaw. ‘I basically got the Michelin Guide out and wrote letters to all of them,’ he laughs. A few replied to say they didn’t have any opportunities, but one restaurant offered him a stage for a week. ‘That’s how I got to Pétrus,’ says Will. ‘I was there for a week and it nearly killed me.’

As a fresh-faced nineteen-year-old, Will suddenly found himself working eighteen-hour shifts in one of the busiest kitchens in the country. Pétrus had just opened as Gordon Ramsay’s second restaurant, and the pace was frenetic. 'The kitchen wasn't really big enough for the number of covers we were doing,' Will explains. 'We were full for lunch and dinner almost every day, doing nearly 700 covers a week.'

Will survived his first week and ended up staying for the next year. It was Pétrus that gave him a good grounding technically – he learnt to be fast and gained a foundation in classical cookery – but the biggest lesson of all was how attached he felt to his home county. ‘I missed Kent like hell,’ he says. ‘I’d get the train back on my days off, and I’d be nervous to go back. I felt sick. It was stressful. I started thinking, 'Why am I doing this?' It was pretty miserable.’

Will returned to Tunbridge Wells and took a job at Thackeray’s with chef Richard Phillips. Immediately, he felt the stress lift from his shoulders. ‘There was a lady that used to bring in fresh eggs every morning, because she had some chickens nearby,’ says Will. ‘It just felt real to me. This isn’t someone ordering all the specific things they need from all over the world, we were using the great produce that we had around us.’ In hindsight, that moment was the genesis of The Small Holding. Will spent the next seven years working with Richard, at Pearson’s Arms in Whitstable, Chapel Down Vineyard and then The Windmill in Hollingbourne, where he was head chef at just twenty-three years old. ‘I could pick what was on the menu, reach out to local farmers, go and forage for wild garlic and mushrooms and stuff,’ he explains. ‘It was a game changer for me.’

The next logical step was actually being able to grow it all himself. In the spring of 2018, Will discovered an old pub in nearby Kilndown that was on the market, with space for an allotment and a small restaurant. He invested everything he had in the quaint roadside pub and named it The Small Holding, in reference to the small plot of land opposite.

The plot quickly grew. Today, two polytunnels house myriad tomato varieties, as well as peppers, aubergines and a host of other vegetables, whilst courgettes, marrows, squashes and more grow outside. A small wildflower meadow fills the air with perfume, and provides ample nectar for Will’s two beehives. Pigs grunt cheerfully from the pig pen by the main entrance; next to them, ducks and chickens roam around in their own little enclosure. Two large plastic tubes stuffed with straw hang from the rafters of a nearby shed – synthetic tree logs brimming with oyster, shiitake and enoki mushrooms. And that's only a taste of all the things Will and his team grow and nurture themselves.

The effort that goes into the produce is matched by the industriousness and attention to detail of the kitchen, too. ‘It’s important that we pay as much attention to what we’re making in the kitchen as we do on the farm,’ Will explains. ‘I don’t want to be riding on the back of the fact that we grew it. That’s not a restaurant. There has to be a wow factor to everything – the food, the wine, the service, everything.’

The Small Holding started from very humble beginnings – but it quickly built a nationwide reputation. The Good Food Guide named Will its Chef to Watch for 2020, and he’s since taken over The Curlew, his second restaurant eight miles down the road in Bodiam, Sussex. To top it all off, The Small Holding won a Green Michelin Star in 2021, which is awarded to restaurants with an exceptional focus on sustainability. Will is making a serious name for himself, and whether you see him in the kitchen or on the farm, you can tell he’s having a great time doing it too.