Five minutes with: Will Devlin

Head chef and founder of The Small Holding on receiving a green Michelin star, championing seasonal produce and surviving the pandemic

Food and Drink 6 Apr 2021

Can you explain the concept of The Small Holding?
The Small Holding is a kitchen and farm on a country lane in the village of Kilndown on the Kent and East Sussex borders. We have an acre of land, which is less than 10ft from the kitchen, where there are two poly tunnels, 20 raised beds, pigs, chickens, ducks, beehives and a wild-flower bed. We grow 180 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruits including tomatoes, salad leaves, cucumbers, beans, brassiccas, fennel, courgettes, squash, blackcurrants, gooseberries, loganberries and strawberries. The farm overlooks the Weald of Kent and is surrounded by trees and hedgerows. In the woods around Kilndown there is wild garlic, wild mushrooms, elderflower and other edible wild plants. We make use of all seasonal gluts and have a seemingly never-ending supply of ferments, preserves, mustards, pickles and vinegars. We also make our own breads, butter, kombucha and kimchi. Knowing exactly where every ingredient comes from is really important to us. If we don’t produce it ourselves, we work with trusted suppliers who have the same beliefs and values that we do.

You work with ingredients directly from your farm and other local growers. What impact does this have on your menus and why is it important?
When I worked in London it was the norm to call a supplier and the next day a box of perfect ingredients would arrive. This isn’t reality. If the peas and strawberries aren’t ready, then they’re not ready and I don’t want them shipped in from France or Italy. The kitchen used to dictate the menu, but as I’ve learnt more about growing it is now the farm that dictates the menu. This means in high summer when we’re racing to keep up with the bounty of harvest, the majority of the menu will be vegetables and very little meat or fish. Celebrating ingredients when they are in season, just picked and taste incredible is the best feeling. We need to relish the anticipation of waiting and rediscover the excitement of seasonality, and really celebrate an ingredient when we have it, as we know once it’s gone, that’s it for year. It’s hard to get truly excited about something if it’s available all the time.

What is your vision for The Small Holding post-lockdown and can you share any exciting menu developments with us?
We went into the first lockdown in 2020 just as the growing season was starting. The farm had a full year of production even when the restaurant was closed so we were just as busy looking after the farm and the animals. Going into lockdown three, still closed, gave us some time to redecorate and reconfigure the restaurant. We’ve changed the entrance and bar area and added in more tables for an additional 10-12 covers.

Congratulations on being awarded a green Michelin star, what does this mean for you and what impact will it have on the restaurant?
The Michelin Green Star encompasses everything about The Small Holding and our drive for sustainability. Being recognised alongside chefs and restaurants such as L’Enclume is an incredible feeling. The award is for everyone on the team, in the kitchen, on the floor and on the farm who all work so hard and really deserve this, I’m so proud.

What are your favourite vegetables and dishes to prepare and why?
It’s impossible to choose a favourite vegetable as it depends on the season and I don’t have a signature dish. The first peas in May are always a highlight and they’re so sweet we often simply open the pod and serve them to guests as part of vegetable plate at the start of a meal. The farm is less than 10ft from the kitchen and it gives us a unique approach to vegetables as we can taste how the sugars and starches change. Celeriac in late autumn and into winter is another favourite. I think it’s an under-appreciated vegetable but it’s so versatile and can be eaten raw, pickled, roasted and baked. One of my favourite ways with celeriac is to bake it under a salt crust and then gratinate thick slices of it with a cheese and cider topping, almost like a celeriac rarebit.

How has the stop-start uncertainty of the past year changed the way you approach your work?
It’s been a horrendous time for everyone, but the hospitality industry was hit particularly hard. Being shut and on the edge of losing everything has made me appreciate everything we have and not take anything for granted. Life was so busy before lockdown that it was easy for things to become blurred. Lockdown has clarified what I want to achieve at The Small Holding

What are the biggest lessons you have earned from the uncertain nature of the past year?
One of the poly tunnels came down in a storm and then came down again after we’d repaired it. I must remember to save the poly tunnel repairs until Spring!

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given in your career and why?
Ask questions, keep learning and share the knowledge. You’re always stronger in a team than you can ever be by yourself.

Who is your role model and how have they influenced you in your work?
The American chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Farm in upstate New York is a huge inspiration to me and everything we do at the restaurants and the farm. He has been influential in so many ways but at the foremost he champions flavour. We were early adopters of Row 7 Seeds, Dan’s seed company, and trialled snow peas, koginut squash and flame beetroot. I don’t think anyone else in the world is doing what Row 7 Seeds is doing so it’s great to be growing these varieties at The Small Holding. Dan’s book The Third Plate should be required reading for all chefs and those interested in food.

What ingredient can you not live without and why?
Salt. Without it there would be no preserving and curing.

What item, apart from your passport, can you not travel without?
My phone!

What do you like to do on a day off?
Go out to eat at someone else’s restaurant and spend time with my wife and young daughter.

What, apart from food, are your biggest passions?
Farming. I love growing and rearing my own animals.

If you could choose anyone from today or history, who would be your ideal dinner party guest and why?
Get drunk with Anthony Bourdain and listen to all his stories from restaurants and travelling.

The Small Holding, Ranters Lane, Kilndown, Kent, TN17 2SG;; @the_small_holding_