BY KATIE - MYGREENPOD, 02 Apr '15

Is this the best staff restaurant in the world?

Yeo Valley has decided to fling open the doors of what is ‘possibly the best staff restaurant in the world’. No pressure on the chef, then – but having met him we’re pretty confi dent he’s not easily flustered.

Paul Collins has worked in a string of high-profile kitchens; in his first head chef role he was awarded three AA rosettes, which launched The Royal Oak in Yattendon into the top 10% of the country’s restaurants. Since then Paul has helped to launch Daylesford Organic (where he was executive head chef for seven years), been a finalist on ITV’s Chef of the Year and been named Rural Scottish Chef of the Year.

Paul’s latest accolades have been earned at Yeo Valley Canteen, the staff restaurant at Yeo Valley’s HQ in Blagdon, North Somerset, where Paul is executive chef. Along with the rest of the team – chefs Jason and Rob plus Sheik, the KP – Paul has earned Yeo Valley Canteen a three-star rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association and a Gold Standard from the Soil Association. Not bad considering the restaurant’s doors weren’t even fully open at the time.

Opening up

On top of providing staff meals, Yeo Valley Canteen recently started to take limited bookings for Fishy Fridays and Roast Wednesdays. They’ve been going down a storm and staff continue to eat at the restaurant every working day; subsidies aside, it’s very, very easy to see why.

The restaurant has a full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that provide absolutely stunning views across the valley and Blagdon Lake – an Area of Outstanding National Beauty at the foot of the Mendip Hills. However, two things about Yeo Valley Canteen are arguably more important than its views: the first is the wealth of local produce at the restaurant’s disposal and the second is Yeo Valley’s determination to make the most of it.

The family farm

The Mead family started farming in Somerset in the 1400s and, over the last 50 years, Yeo Valley has grown from a smallholding with just 30 cows to the UK’s number one organic dairy brand. Despite this colossal growth, the independent family business has retained a deep appreciation of the land and all it provides. The restaurant has a relaxed country kitchen feel, but it’s just one arm of a brilliant family farming business.

It’s hard to take life too seriously when you’re at Yeo Valley HQ; puns abound – check out the YeoTube channel – and the entire business revolves around good honest family fun. But beyond this, the Meads are extremely serious about food and provenance. It wouldn’t be easy to work at Yeo Valley if you didn’t love food and didn’t have massive respect for where it comes from.

Sourcing produce

Paul shares Tim and Sarah Mead’s view that the UK’s strong seasonal identity should be reflected in all the restaurant’s food. You won’t find mange tout in the restaurant in February – organic or otherwise.

‘I enjoy talking to local people about being self-sufficient and eating seasonally’, Paul said. ‘Some people say that cooking seasonally becomes boring in the winter, because at that time all you have are brassicas, parsnips and swedes. You can actually do some really lovely things with those ingredients, as long as you treat them with respect.’

Meat and fish

Respect extends to all areas of Yeo Valley Canteen’s menu; meat – even when it’s from Yeo Valley’s own organic animals – doesn’t form the centre of every meal because it’s valued as a precious commodity.

No fish that’s on the endangered list will have a place on the menu and the restaurant wants all its suppliers to be accountable and responsible in their sourcing. Fortunately, Blagdon Lake is an angler’s paradise – you should expect to see a lot of trout on the menu.

Veg and dairy

The only dairy products used are, obviously, Yeo Valley Organic’s own, and only British cheese from artisan producers who share Yeo Valley’s core beliefs will find its way into the kitchen. The chefs take time out to visit and build relationships with all the restaurant’s producers and suppliers.

The veg is sourced from local community growing initiatives as well as Yeo Valley’s own organic garden; no food is sourced elsewhere if it’s grown well at HQ.

Yeo Valley takes pride in offering good value in the shops, and items on Yeo Valley Canteen’s menu and wine list follow the same principle. Not every dish served will be 100% certified organic, but all its ingredients are appropriately considered and fairly priced.

Go and have a look

As you can probably tell, everyone at Yeo Valley feels strongly about the food at Yeo Valley Canteen – and Sarah Mead felt it was time to share the experience more widely. This isn’t the first time Sarah’s invited the public to take a closer look at how Yeo Valley operates. She and her team spent 18 years transforming 6.5 acres of land into one of only a handful of ornamental gardens in Britain to be certified organic by the Soil Association. It’s now regularly open to the public and everyone’s welcome to take a stroll around, enjoy a cuppa in the on-site tea room and chat to the gardeners.

As with the Organic Garden, Sarah recognised that there’s something special about Yeo Valley Canteen that everyone should be able to enjoy. ‘The lights were on’, she told PQ, ‘so we wanted to make sure there was somebody home! There’s loads of space in the restaurant and it seemed a waste not to fill it, so we’re taking the plunge and throwing open the doors.’

The added advantage is that you get to see what a successful, family-run business looks like from the inside; the farm is a real place with real staff who all eat real food – and it’s blooming good food at that.

Yeo Valley Canteen is open for lunch Monday-Friday, 12.30-14.00. Booking is essential, so call Jill on 01761 461425 to get a table.