Nestled in rural Kent, master of field to fork dining Chef Will Devlin is serving up award-winning food
that reinstates the connection between farm and table and keeps sustainability at its heart.
The Small Holding is based around a working kitchen garden in Kilndown, complete with rare Berkshire pigs, geese, chickens and ducks. From growing and foraging to cooking and serving the team offer a true celebration of rural life and British agriculture that showcases the freshest organic produce, both for city dwellers looking to escape and those who already call the countryside home.
Will’s journey to The Small Holding began alongside his brother, Matt, with a series of pop-up restaurant openings across London. Looking to bring meaning to his cooking, Will explains that until then, the hospitality and cooking industry seemed to be ‘without a heart when it came to sourcing produce. It was as if they lacked the desire to connect with food and it all felt more a style over substance scene.’ By working directly with the farmers and suppliers Will set about changing that, ‘to bring back that meaning.’
Before the doors to The Small Holding first opened in spring 2018, with no fixed abode the brothers would ‘Blag space in cafés, breweries and bakeries!’ It was through these varied experiences that they were able to meet like-minded suppliers and producers and the sustainability side of the business was born: ‘We met some of the most incredibly talented cheese producers, vineries, and meat suppliers. I saw them as unsung heroes, who were already doing great things, but I felt there was more to be done.’
After a year or so of working from borrowed space, the brothers were determined to ‘go it alone,’ and when they stumbled across an old semi-rundown pub in an acre of land in Kent, they knew it was the ideal fit. Talented chefs, the brothers still wanted to better understand how the produce they used got to the plate.
Almost two years on the kitchen garden now includes perfectly managed poly-tunnels, raised beds, as well as the aforementioned livestock roaming around the grounds of the restaurant. With over 200 varieties of fruit and vegetables grown on site; seasonal organic produce is at the heart of The Small Holding. Come May, spring will be in full throttle with carpets of wild garlic and fennel, wood sorrel, yarrow, nettles, sweet cicely, dandelion, chickweed, garlic mustard and maybe some morel mushrooms if they’re lucky.
Talking about the seasonality of British produce, Will shares with me how in the beginning, he was surprise by the amount of ‘stuff ’ that’s available naturally in abundance. It was Miles Irving, founder of Forager, he tells me, who initially inspired his passion for the field-to-fork ethos: ‘Living and working rurally, spending time in nature, you become immersed in the seasons as things change in front of you. It’s fascinating.’
‘We cook what we grow with a unique dining experience, but we do work with local producers as well when it comes to sourcing things like raspberries or asparagus.’
Offering guests a truly immersive, one-of-a-kind experience, The Small Holding offers a Full Acre and 1/2 Acre menu, showcasing the best, fresh seasonal produce available. For those looking to really indulge there is also a 10-course set menu, which changes throughout the year: ‘I felt passionately that I didn’t want to waste produce that we’d grown or bought-in locally, hence the 10 course set menu!’ Will enthuses, ‘For us, the dining experience is much more about bringing people on the journey, as opposed to shoving an immense plate of freshly cooked food under their nose.’
With the incredible success of The Small Holding, Will is embarking on a new venture with a second restaurant; The Curlew. Designed around bringing people together its focus is on social dining through sharing plates. The concept of social dining where you get together with friends or family, ordered a variety of dishes and take your time sharing the food amidst great conversation with drinks flowing is not new for towns and cities but isn’t always commonplace in rural communities, so this is an exciting step.
Using some of the home-grown produce from The Small Holding they also have patch of land the brothers farm down the road, known as May Farm, which enables them to meet the increased demand by upping their growing space. With no prior experience in growing food or raising livestock the bold decision to embark on such a creative and all-consuming adventure is am impressive one. ‘We keep the growing process as natural as possible that means no chemical sprays for example, we are growing for flavour, not for yield. I have flicked off a slug or two as I walk round the garden, but that’s nature.’
I was curious to know how the local farmers and suppliers had taken to his idea, ‘we make the effort to go directly to the dairies, veg and meat farmers, farming has changed massively over the last 60 years. Back then, farmers would grow enough to sustain them throughout the year but now, they grow to meet wholesale demands. We’ve found that younger generations are more willing and enthusiastic to get involved with us, perhaps that’s just a generational attitude difference… farmers are renowned for being set in their ways!’
Hungry by this point I ask Will what is on the menu for this season. ‘Wild garlic will be used lots throughout the summer months; mutton that has finished on the spring grass is fantastic and will certainly appear along with cabbages, fennel and chard. You can expect imaginative dishes showcasing the vibrant colours of spring.’
With Autumn being one of my favourite seasons, and our known passion for game I wanted a flavour of what I could expect later on in the year? Because let’s be honest, we won’t be venturing out to restaurants before Autumn…
Explaining that the restaurant is nestled in between two fantastic country estates, Will reassures me sourcing superb game is easy, with venison also sourced from a nearby 40-acre farm. ‘As a chef, there is always something special about every season, from mackerel in the spring when the fish start schooling, to scollops or lobsters in winter when water is really cold. The whole year, is exciting for us. I don’t think I could pick a favourite season.
This Spring the brothers had planned to launch Farm & Forage, an initiative born out of the dozens of requests from restaurant guests wanting to know more and have a look around for themselves. From May, when everything is at its most verdant, the idea was that guests would be greeted with a glass of awarding-winning Squerryes’ English sparkling wine, before being seated for a tasting lunch. Afterwards they would be invited to discover the rich bounty of nature’s larder – from elderflower and wild strawberries in early summer through to damsons, sloe berries, chanterelles and cobnuts in Autumn. ‘The countryside is full of edible delights,’ Will chuckles, ‘you just need to know when and where to look’
Obviously, given the current pandemic and lockdown regulations, Will has had to put his restaurants and the Farm & Forage initiative on hold. Named as one of the best restaurants in Kent, we very much hope that the doors of The Small Holding will reopen very soon, and we’ll make the trip down to enjoy the delights of this unique, organic dining experience.