Ones to watch: Charlotte Vincent

by Henry Coldstream 15 February 2022

Beginning her career training with the army, Charlotte Vincent went on to work alongside Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park. After then taking ten years out of the industry to become a scientist, in 2019 she returned to the kitchen as head chef of The Five Bells in Devon, where she’s currently winning plaudits for her exciting menu.

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Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

The concept of a gastropub has changed dramatically over the past few decades. The expectation used to be that whilst your average pub would have nuts, crisps and maybe the odd ominous sandwich or pie, anything beyond that moved it into gastropub territory. Today, gastropubs have evolved with the rest of the UK's food scene, becoming something far more interesting and often rivalling more traditional restaurants. They’re constantly pushing each other to be better and better, making it an exciting time to be leading a gastropub kitchen. Since taking over as head chef of Devon’s The Five Bells Inn in 2019, Charlotte Vincent has strived to make her food stand out and has been rewarded with accolades, including a place in the Top 50 Gastropubs.

‘When you look at other people’s menus, you realise you have to go above and beyond to make a mark these days,’ says Charlotte. ‘It’s all about tweaking what you’re doing to make yourself different from other places; doing little things like using ex-dairy beef in our burgers and using lamb fat pastry in our ox cheek pies helps us stand out. That’s what I’ve been doing from day one, and we’ve been noticed.’ It’s this element of being able to take the food to a whole new level whilst maintaining a level of informality which particularly appeals to Charlotte about cooking at a gastropub. ‘I just love how cosy and inviting pubs can be,’ she explains. ‘But you can still come and have a Michelin star standard meal.’

Cured and scorched mackerel served with pickled Russet apple, cucumber ceviche, mustard seed caviar, sheep's milk yoghurt and chive oil
Buttermilk set cream, honey bath, maple and Cornish sea salt tuile and blossom honeycomb

By no means has Charlotte always been a pub chef; in fact, her position at The Five Bells was the first time she’d worked in a non-restaurant kitchen, and up until that point her career as a chef had been far from traditional. Growing up in Devon, she ended up joining the army and worked her way up to rank of corporal whilst training to be a chef, before leaving to work for Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park. ‘I had it on paper that I was a chef when I came out of the army but initially, I didn’t feel like I could deliver the food that Michael required,’ explains Charlotte. ‘So I decided to go back to square one, going in as a commis and learning as much as I possibly could from Michael and his team.’ Working her way up the ranks at Gidleigh Park, she eventually moved to The Royal Clarence with Caines spending a decade as one his pastry chefs, but in her mid-twenties Charlotte took the decision to quit the industry.

Tired of the stress of the professional kitchen, for the next ten years she instead pursued a career as a scientist. ‘I wanted to do something completely different,’ says Charlotte. ‘So, I went and did two degrees and started working for a drugs company. At first it was fine but after about five years I really started to miss being a chef and how great it felt to make people happy with my food. One day I was walking back down to my lab and I saw everyone doing the same, monotonous thing. I just thought ‘I hate this, I’m going to go back into cheffing’.’ Within weeks Charlotte found and was offered the position at The Five Bells and her second career as a chef began.

Working in a lab and cooking in a kitchen may seem like polar opposites, but Charlotte has come to realise that they’re not as different as one might think. ‘In many ways even as a chef, I’m still a scientist,’ she muses. ‘That part of me will never die. I love experimenting with gels and powders but I’m also trying to create reactions when people eat at the pub.’ Charlotte’s food meanwhile is by no means conventional British pub grub. Taking influence both from her Nordic heritage and a period of time she lived in Japan, her style is all about elevating local produce. ‘I’ve got a lot of little flavour bombs going on in my food which often surprises people,’ explains Charlotte. ‘For example, I’ve recently created a dish where I flatten out some lemon sole and roll it in toasted seaweed to make a roulade but then it’s served with a sushi wine vinegar gel, so there's a real mix of influences.’

Poached and salt-baked beetroot, goat's curd, white birch syrup, pomegranate molasses and barbecued glazed radicchio
Saffron and lemon posset with finger lime, grapefruit gel and buttermilk shortbread

Charlotte has further elevated the food at The Five Bells to compete with the best gastropubs in the country by putting a real emphasis on showcasing local fresh produce. ‘Everything we serve is super local,’ she explains. ‘I don’t get anything out of county if I can help it; our eggs are from two miles down the road, our milk and cream is from a nearby farm, and even our scallops are hand-dived off Exmouth, around fifteen miles from here, and that’s the furthest away I tend to go.’ Touches like these have helped The Five Bells rank in the Top 50 Gastropubs for the last three years running (most recently at number 35) and it's achieved numerous other accolades.

It’s been just three years since Charlotte decided to quit her job in science to return to the professional kitchen, yet she’s now at the helm of one of Devon’s most exciting gastropubs. That takes a particular type of determination after ten years out of the game and begs the question of where she’ll be in another three years. Her immediate aim is clearly to continue breaking new ground at The Five Bells, both in terms of the food and winning accolades, but you get the feeling that we may be hearing Charlotte’s name a lot more over the next few years.