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Ones to watch: Will Devlin

Ones to watch: Will Devlin

by Pete Dreyer 01 October 2019

Will Devlin has been causing a stir at his self-sustaining restaurant, The Small Holding, in leafy Kent. With fruit, vegetables and meat all farmed or foraged on-site, Will’s restaurant is a shining beacon for the joy of farm-to-fork dining, and the chef’s star is firmly on the rise. Photography: Food Story Media


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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. Farm-to-fork has been fantastic for consumers and for the industry at large, but it seems to have grown a bit of an ego. There’s a certain degree of bravado to the idea of being ‘farm-to-fork’ now – restaurants battle it out constantly to be the most ethically trustworthy, shouting over each other about the provenance of their grass-fed beef and heritage vegetables.

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 simply because he finds immense joy in doing so.

Will’s restaurant, The Small Holding, is a welcome outpost in an idyllic part of Kent, in the village of Kilndown just a short drive from Tunbridge Wells. Kent feels slightly forgotten in the midst of the farm-to-fork revolution, but the Garden of England has found a champion in Will – someone who is truly making the most of the county’s fantastic climate and agriculture. ‘We grow over 200 different varieties of fruit and vegetables here now,’ Will enthuses. ‘Loads of different things. For lots of fruits and vegetables – strawberries, cherries, apples, pears – there really isn’t anywhere better in the country to be.’ He’s not wrong – as we walk through the woods over the road from the restaurant, he points out all sorts of intriguing things – mushrooms hidden in tree trunks, wild strawberries peeking out from hedgerows, a field of elder trees with nearly ripe berries hanging in dense clusters from the branches. Will and his chefs look after their own little small holding (hence the name) in front of the restaurant, which you’re welcome to explore when you visit, but the whole area contributes to the amazing things that Will does in his kitchen.

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Will goes out into the countryside around The Small Holding almost everyday to forage for ingredients. Photo: Joe Josland
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The kitchen uses fresh foraged ingredients in their menus, then preserves the rest for use throughout the year. Photo: Joe Josland
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Meanwhile, Will and his team grow over 200 different types of fruits and vegetables in their allotment
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The farm is also home to pigs, ducks and chickens, with sheep and cows living further down the road

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 Petrus,’ 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. Petrus 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 Petrus 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.

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Will worked at Petrus in London for a short while, before his love for Kent brought him back to his home county
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The Small Holding champions Kentish produce from the kitchen to the bar, including Kentish sparkling wines from Squerryes, gins from Chapel Down and Greensand Ridge and mutton and hogget from The Pure Meat Company

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.

See that small plot of land now and you wouldn’t know The Small Holding had only been open for a year and a half. 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 that will soon be brimming with oyster, shiitake and enoki mushrooms. Between this small plot and the cows and sheep that live in a field just down the road, The Small Holding is almost completely self-sufficient.

Will and his chefs are involved with the growing side of things every day. He starts every day in the kitchen, but inevitably ends up stooped in one of the polytunnels, or trudging his way through the woods looking for mushrooms. Because The Small Holding is such a pleasant place to work, Will and his staff will often come in on their days off to test new dishes or spend an afternoon picking fruit. ‘And then they’ll inevitably end up at the local pub,’ he chuckles. ‘It’s more like a hub for all of us, which is great. I don’t want it to feel like work.’

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The Small Holding has only been open for eighteen months, but it is already building a nationwide reputation
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Guests can enjoy lunch, dinner or just come in for a drink at the bar, and enjoy a wander around the farm whilst they do so
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The quality of the cooking at The Small Holding matches the quality of produce – Will was recently named Chef to Watch in 2020 by The Good Food Guide
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There are two choices of menu when you arrive – the six-course 'half acre' menu, or the eleven-course 'full acre' menu

The effort that goes into the growth of all 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.’

Depending on whether you choose the half- or full-acre menu, you’ll receive six or eleven courses (including a cheese course), all immaculately presented and cooked using a mixture of fresh ingredients from the farm and preserved goodies from the pantry. It becomes pretty clear early on that the kitchen team knows what it’s doing – bread is a ubiquitous benchmark for restaurants all over the country, and The Small Holding bakes an exemplary loaf. A beautiful courgette fritter emerges in a shallow bath of chilli oil, with a healthy dose of coriander waking up the taste buds. That’s followed by a crispy oyster, a slow-cooked egg yolk with sweetcorn and chanterelles, and a pearlescent slab of monkfish, which gleams in the late summer sun. The main course dish of mutton pie, slow-cooked mutton leg, loin and peas is a stunner, and a perfect encapsulation of the restaurant – it's a delicate plate of wonderful things, but the flavours are robust and homely.

The Small Holding started from very humble beginnings – Will invested almost everything he had into the restaurant to get it up and running – but it’s quickly building a nationwide reputation. The Good Food Guide recently named Will its Chef to Watch for 2020, Grace Dent gave it a shining review in The Guardian and The Small Holding shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. ‘We’ve learnt so much in a year,’ he says. ‘It’s amazing to think where we could be in five years, or ten years.’ The near future holds lots of possibilities – Will has plans to start distilling his own gin, as well as planting a vineyard nearby. A barn up the road may soon become a set of rooms for overnight guests. Even after just one year, The Small Holding already produces so much fruit and veg every week, Will has considered whether they could start their own farm shop or weekly veg box. ‘All I ever wanted was a little restaurant where we could grow our own food,’ says Will, grinning. What he’s created is far more than that – a farm-to-fork operation that is quickly outgrowing its humble beginnings.

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Ones to watch: Will Devlin

 
 

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