Words by Lucy Cornes
Serving supremely fresh seafood, in a humble setting.
Ben Tunnicliffe was one of the first chefs in Cornwall to hold a Michelin Star, and was headhunted to launch the food offering at gourmet bolthole, the Scarlet Hotel. Yet in 2012 he eschewed the fine-dining label and opened his own pub.
It’s 2pm on a wet and grey Wednesday in Newlyn. The sea beyond the wall – just a few metres from where we are sitting – is relatively calm, but its restless power and ominous greyness holds the threat of the first of the winter’s storms. However, by the roaring wood burner in The Tolcarne Inn, all is warmth and comfort. It’s lunchtime and the pub’s rustic wooden tables are playing host to dog walkers, real ale drinkers and food-lovers, all soaking up the atmosphere of this historic maritime inn.
I’m enjoying the company of chef and restaurateur, Ben Tunnicliffe; a pioneer of the Cornish restaurant scene, Ben is passionate about local produce – seafood in particular – and his enthusiasm is infectious. Ben is open and outspoken. In the past he has voiced his concerns about the lack of chefs coming into the industry and the proliferation of ‘meaningless’ food and drink award schemes. But he’s also honest and down-to-earth, gregarious and personable, and very proud of the food he and his team put on the tables at The Tolcarne.
When Ben announced he was taking on the pub back in 2012 it came as something of a surprise. Having previously held a Michelin star at The Abbey in Penzance in the early 2000s, and been involved with several high-profile launches, a slick and exclusive hotel or restaurant might have been anticipated as a first solo-venture. Yet Ben was adamant that he wanted to invest his time and energy in a pub – where good food could be served without pretension and enjoyed wholeheartedly.
At the time Newlyn lacked a strong draw for the foodie crowd, but the town’s raw beauty and industrious vibe appealed to Ben. Newlyn has for long been one of the busiest and most important fishing ports in the UK and over 50 species are landed here. Ben wasn’t the only one who saw that Newlyn’s stock would rise, and the town now boasts an acclaimed filmhouse, a neighbourhood wine bar, an artisan cheese shop and numerous other successful eateries and galleries. Newlyn Art Gallery, which was originally built to house the work of the Newlyn School – a rural-naturalist art movement, which depicted the lives of the fishing community – is just around the corner. Alongside its sister site, The Exchange in Penzance, the gallery now brings national and international contemporary artists to Cornwall.
Set within this now diverse and thriving coastal enclave, The Tolcarne Inn is a 300-year-old listed building, believed to have started life as a farmhouse. It later became a maritime inn and a focal point for eating, drinking and revelry for miners, fishermen and artists. Ben recalls: “We had been looking for a pub for some time, and as soon as we heard that The Tolcarne was on the market it just felt right. These walls have seen so much life over the years – we know this because we did a lot of research for the pub’s 300th birthday, we unearthed some great stories - it’s a real honour to be the current custodian.”
That sense of the pub as a community institution is important to Ben and his mum Anne, who has helped in the running of The Tolcarne since he took over. Nursing a pint at the bar is encouraged, whilst local musicians make regular appearances and the Newlyn Knitters still meet there every week. Ben tells me that his aim was to create the kind of place where he and his family would want to spend a long and leisurely Sunday lunch; somewhere they could enjoy great food, where the service was friendly rather than stuffy, and everyone felt at home.
Seven years on, and Ben has firmly established The Tolcarne Inn as one of the most respected dining destinations in Cornwall, and one of the best places to enjoy fresh fish in the whole of the UK. His menus are inspired by an early morning conversation with his fishmonger, Stevensons, before being chalked up on the board. He also sources fish direct from day boats; these small vessels go in and out with the tides, fish immediately offshore, and use traditional and sustainable fishing techniques to catch their low-impact quotas. The fishing industry is an ever-present influence at The Tolcarne. Just along the seafront stands Tom Leaper’s powerful monument to fishermen lost at sea; a life-size bronze statue looks searchingly out to sea in a silent tribute to those who never returned - more than twenty local men since 1980. This is still a community very much reliant upon seafaring and Ben feels that keenly. He is a long-time supporter of The Fishermen’s Mission, and was featured in the first of a series of short films by the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation uncovering the journey of the Cornish catch. “I’ve got so much respect for fishermen who go out in all weathers. It’s one of the toughest, most dangerous jobs in the world,” says Ben. “I’m really proud that we’ve created a seafood dining destination right here, where it all happens. It’s a local, sustainable food chain in action!”
Fish and shellfish are partnered with fresh produce from market gardens and community farms, hence the menu naturally evolves with the seasons. Ben’s ethos is to combine flavours simply and instinctively, letting the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves.
It’s an approach he shares with his new Head Chef, Matt Smith, who also joins us at our table, post lunch-shift. Ben and Matt worked together during the launch of The Scarlet Hotel in Mawgan Porth in 2009; they found they had very similar approaches to food and kept in touch ever since. Matt joined the team at the start of the summer and has now taken day-to-day operational charge, working with Ben to develop menus and take the offering at the pub to the next level.
Ben with Head Chef, Matt Smith
Matt, who is measured and quietly eloquent, explains why The Tolcarne Inn is such a natural fit for him: “Ben and I think in the same way about food, especially how to construct dishes. Simple dishes, which highlight excellent ingredients – this is the best description of how we both like to cook. I spend more time removing components from dishes than adding them!”
Matt and Ben also agree that the casual pub setting is the perfect vehicle for their food, as Ben explains: “Good food served in relaxed surroundings is always enjoyable. Fine-dining has its place, but the humble pub is where myself and my food are most at home”
Matt, who studied Hospitality Management in Derby and moved to Cornwall fifteen years ago, agrees. “Cornwall was definitely having a moment when I first came to work here,” recalls Matt. “The destination dining thing was really taking off – people were coming from far and wide just to eat at the top restaurants.”
Matt explains that he stuck around because the grassroots food scene kept on getting better and better. “Michelin stars and fine-dining restaurants are great, but most people can only afford to go and spend £100+ per head very occasionally. What Cornwall now has in bucket loads is fantastic local pubs, amazing bakeries by the side of the road, quirky cafés and canteens on industrial estates, and cellar doors and breweries knocking out platters of delicious produce. It’s diverse, it’s exciting and most importantly it’s alive and kicking all year round.”
Ben is happy to have found someone with Matt’s levels of both creativity and consistency to take day-to-day charge. At Matt’s instigation, The Tolcarne introduced a ‘small plates’ menu this summer, with great success. The new menu format encourages diners to try a selection of smaller dishes starting at around £5, and to build their own seafood feast.
Next on the horizon is the return of the popular Winter Warmer Wine Suppers, which will run throughout November 2019 and January 2020, and a turkey-free Christmas Menu throughout December for groups of six or more. Beyond that, this ambitious duo are exploring other opportunities. “We’d definitely like to open another pub, or a pub with rooms,” says Ben. “It would be great to take what we do at The Tolcarne and replicate it elsewhere.” And that is certainly something to look forward to...
Ben and Anne have given The Tolcarne Inn a new lease of life, creating a magnet for food lovers. Despite enjoying a reputation in the upper echelons of the Cornish dining scene, The Tolcarne is still a humble pub, welcoming drinkers and remaining at the heart of the local community – as it has done for 300 years.