If you were searching for premises from which to launch a dining and hospitality venue capable of hosting everything from wedding parties to tourists wanting afternoon tea, a former post office building might not be the first location that springs to mind.
But The Post House Stafford has proved that looks can be deceiving after revitalising the local eating scene with a restaurant concept housed in a building that in the past was the workplace of postmen rather than chefs.
The operation is the brainchild of Dennis Foster, a local entrepreneur who sold his garden centre business to fund the venture after spotting an opportunity to create an innovative culinary and leisure offering in the area. When it came to designing the kitchen, he got in touch with independent catering consultancy Radford Chancellor in London and it provided demographic reports, menus and advice on the kitchen lay-out.
With The Post House anxious to open in time to capture some of the Christmas trade, distributor Gratte Brothers was then brought on board and given just a month to deliver the equipment and get the catering facilities in place.
While the time constraints naturally presented their own challenge, it wasn’t the only obstacle the Stevenage-based dealer needed to contend with.
John Thomas, key accounts manager at Gratte Brothers, has overseen dozens of projects, but realised immediately that one of the biggest tasks was going to be overcoming the quirks of the building itself.
“The building is a collection of four or five buildings that have been cobbled together and part of it dates back to the 18th century, so architecturally and structurally it was a challenging project,” he explains. “The end result of this is that because of the nature of the building and the complexity of the operational brief, there were severe restrictions on space.”
The crux of that operational brief involved installing a kitchen facility capable of serving the wildly contrasting catering needs and cooking styles of the different menus offered within the premises.
The first floor houses a fine dining restaurant with Michelin Star ambitions called Pillar, as well as a private function room, while elsewhere on the site is a Bistro, cocktail lounge and the Red Bar & Club. “It is a very wide ranging and diverse menu offer — you are talking about anything from morning coffee and croissants to brasserie-style lunches and seven-course meals that are near enough Michelin-standard.”
As it is purely an eating and leisure venue, and does not offer accommodation, The Post House is judged entirely on its ambience and cuisine, which meant here was no room for error when the kitchen set-up was being planned and designed.
There are actually two kitchens within the premises — one on the ground floor and one on the first floor — but both have very separate functions.
The first floor kitchen largely serves the flagship Pillar Restaurant, but it also houses all the bulk storage, cold rooms and main preparation areas despite the fact that the highest volume of covers are served on the ground floor.
Thomas says there were some simple reasons for that. “As well as the space and access issues, some of the building dated back to the 18th century and English Heritage was not keen on too many changes being made. There is also the fact that The Post House wanted to maximise retail space on the ground floor for the bar areas.”
Given the space restrictions, one product that was used extensively throughout the job was Adande’s refrigerated drawers. Almost a dozen were installed, reveals Thomas. “They retain the temperature when the drawers are open and you have got the flexibility of being able to use the same drawers for a variety of different temperatures,” he says.
A bespoke island suite supplied by Mareno, chosen to meet the client’s budget and operational needs, penetrates the first floor kitchen, while an adjacent pastry kitchen allows the site to produce its own bakery and patisserie products. Food prepped upstairs is sent down by mechanical lifts.
The ground floor kitchen is much smaller, but the work carried out upstairs reduces the burden on it. “It covers an area of 60 square metres and has to turn out several hundred covers, which is a bit of a challenge,” says Thomas. “But part of that issue is addressed by having preparation areas upstairs, so basically it is final prep, production cooking, plating and a wash-up facility.”
The downstairs kitchen sparkles with Imperial Range kit, including a chargrill, solid top range and deep fat fryer with filter system, supplemented by Lainox combi ovens. “We selected some real workhorse equipment from Imperial,” says Thomas. “It is built like the traditional brick outhouse — it is robust and it will go all day — whereas upstairs on the first floor, with the fine dining, they needed something with a little bit more refinement.”
Both kitchens predominantly run on gas, with only a tiny amount of induction used to issues with electrical loadings on site. “Although induction hobs are low on overall energy usage, they require a high connected load and that just wasn’t available, so the only induction in the place is in the pastry kitchen. There would have been more but there just wasn’t the power there for it,” says Thomas.
The decision to use different prime cooking equipment brands in the two kitchens to reflect the distinct functions of each facility is also repeated in the deployment of warewashing equipment. The upstairs kitchen contains a Winterhalter model, while downstairs is Hobart.
Thomas says budget and features were the two main considerations when selecting which brands to use. “The Winterhalter [machine] has got a lot of features that are particularly useful if you are using crystal glass and things like that. You have got an adjustable wash pressure, so if you are putting fine stemmed glassware in there it isn’t bouncing off the roof. The emphasis on the equipment downstairs was less about sophisticated design features and more on something that would be a real workhorse.”
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One unusual aspect of the project was that Gratte Brothers specified and fitted the equipment before The Post House had even appointed Matt Pickop as its executive chef. Given Pickop’s background working at Teatro and Claridges in London, and more recently as head chef at Verre by Gordon Ramsay in Dubai, Thomas admits the dealer was “extremely nervous” about how the new chef would view the equipment.
“Although it had to happen that way to meet the programme and get the place open when The Post House wanted it to, it was not something we were comfortable with, but fortunately we can’t have done too much wrong because when Matt came on board he was very happy with everything and made only minor adjustments to what we had proposed.”
Having seen the kitchen transformed from a heap of dust into a bank of shining stainless steel in the space of a month, Thomas admits that getting the head chef’s approval was one of his project highlights: “There is a real sense of achievement from actually coming up with a design and equipment spec that meets such a varied and challenging range of requirements and, at the same time, satisfies a chef of Matt’s standard when he comes to view what has already been decided for him.”
With a kitchen capable of churning out a diversity of meals all day long and The Post House happy with the kit installed, you could say it is a classic case of ‘signed, sealed and delivered’.
See pictures of the project in our exclusive online photo gallery here.
View from the kitchen
Matt Pickop, executive chef at The Post House Stafford, explains how the venue is getting the most out of its new equipment.
When The Post House initially began thinking about how the kitchen would be laid out, what were the main considerations?
The main considerations of the kitchen lay-out were based on the head chef being able to see every section in the kitchen from the pass. The consideration that everything must pass the head chef prior to going out to guests’ tables was an important factor for quality control, as well as ensuring that high standards are maintained throughout the kitchen.
Were there any items of kitchen equipment that The Post House specifically requested?
We specifically requested items like the ice cream machine, which is used on a daily basis to make fresh ice creams and sorbets. Other items requested were the flat top stoves for ease of cooking during service. The flat tops provide a multitude of different cooking temperatures as the heat is based in the centre of the unit. This enables the chefs to control their cooking depending on where they place the pans on the stove.
The Post House offers everything from breakfast to evening meals and cocktails. What sort of demands does this put on the kitchen and catering facilities?
Our small brigade of chefs work together very closely across two kitchens and they each prepare different items on the menus on a daily basis. The main kitchen upstairs supports the satellite kitchen downstairs, and we have a large amount of refrigerated storage for each restaurant. The satellite kitchen can send on average 100 to 150 meals per day, which means the menus have to be designed around a speedy, organised service. We also have a small banquet kitchen which is used to serve functions in The Post House Suite, where we have catered for up to 80 people. It is a small kitchen, but again supported by the main kitchen.
What pleases you most about the new kitchen?
We are most pleased with our open kitchen hot pass, as it enables guests to see what is happening behind the scenes and forms part of the experience our guests have with us.
What role does the kitchen play when it comes to helping The Post House stand out as a unique regional dining venue?
The kitchen is always on show for all of our guests to see, so it was important to us that guests could be brought into the world of cooking. It enables them to talk to the chef and have a look at the work going into their meals, as well as enjoy their experience in the dining room.
Equipment used in the installation of The Post House Stafford kitchens includes:
Adande: Refrigerated drawers
Imperial: Cooking range
Lainox: Combination ovens and bakery ovens
Mareno: Cooking range
Precision: Freestanding refrigeration cabinets
Robertsons: Stainless steel fabrication