Frontin': Birch's Beccy Leach
24 May 2017
"Mum will really enjoy feeding people and making them happy. And that’s what I like about owning a restaurant – that we can cook and people can come and enjoy it.”
With so many restaurants being opened by couples and pairs of friends, two’s a company, it seems. In this new series, Joanna Clifford talks to the front-of-house half of these dream teams about running their business…
As the Bristol food scene continues to strengthen, gaining widespread praise in the media, there has developed a signature Bristolian style: small, owner-run restaurants that focus on seasonal, local produce, balancing traditional cooking with risk-taking.
Many of these restaurants are owned and run by a pair – with one heading up the kitchen and one handling front of house. Birch on Raleigh Road in Bristol, opened by Beccy and Sam Leach, is a prime example.
When I arrive at the restaurant on a Wednesday lunchtime, Beccy has just returned from what she calls their ‘garden’: the third-acre of field just south of Bristol where the kitchen’s produce is grown. There are crates of cabbage, red Russian kale, brassica sprouts, sorrel and nettles being handed through to the kitchen for Sam (her husband, co-owner and chef) to transform into something delicious for the evening menu.
“It’s the best buzz,” Becky tells me as we take a seat in the small, white dining room, where light floods in through the windows that wrap around the front. “Today it was easy to be inspired because it was sunny, but even in the rain, I love it! You’re picking stuff and thinking, I’m going to be serving this on a plate tonight. You don’t get much fresher than that.”
If you’re local to Bristol, or have read the reviews, you may know the story of Beccy and Sam: they set up a supper club while working at various restaurants in Bristol, moved to London to train at the capital’s best establishments, then returned to the West to set up Birch. But Beccy’s interest in running her own place began long before she met Sam. When she was 13 she got a job at a local café in her hometown of Liskeard, Cornwall...
“I really enjoyed working front of house, so at first I wanted to open my own café, but it was always something I would do in the future, when I was ‘grown up’.”
After uni, Sam was already working as a chef when Beccy began moonlighting as a waitress at Culinaria (the site where Wilks sits today). She was so inspired by owners Judy and Stephen Markwick that she quit her office job to work at several other Bristol stalwarts – Corks of Cotham and Flinty Red among them. Yet, she says, “Sam and I were very realistic that we needed more experience. So we moved to London and I had the intention to work in as many places as possible and learn as much as possible within 18 months”. She started off at Hawksmoor in Spitalfields, then moved on to Bubble Dogs and the Quality Chop House.
“I was attracted to independent places where the owner is present,” she says. I wanted to learn a lot, and those people with the most vested interest and the most knowledge are probably the owners. When I was an employee, I found that people stayed longer working in those places, too.”
Now Beccy is that very owner, and is ever-present at her restaurant, carrying out the eclectic list of jobs that comes with running her own place with Sam. In the morning she is picking vegetables; in the afternoon she is answering emails, paying bills and cleaning (“nobody ever talks about the totally unglamorous side of running a restaurant!”); in the evening she is a server; at the weekend they are both planting, growing, weeding.
Beccy also takes charge of their wine list, which was initially shaped by a three-month trip to visit independent wine producers in France and Italy, just before they opened Birch. “We thought, ‘this is going to be the last opportunity to take three months off!’ so we went with a car, a tent and a couple of rucksacks. It was blissful – I can’t think too hard about it now!”
Since then, the wine list has evolved with the seasons so it naturally complements what is on the menu. That said, Beccy isn’t too preoccupied about matching wine with the food. “Obviously that’s important, but it’s nice to have a choice; if somebody has a preference for a particular style of wine then that’s there for them. Ultimately, if we think it doesn’t go with the food, it doesn’t matter – they’re enjoying it, and that’s the main thing.”
This desire to make guests comfortable is something else that Beccy brings to the restaurant – with great ease. “My family always used to come over to mum and dad’s house, because mum was definitely the best cook,” she says. “She’ll really enjoy feeding people and making them happy. And that’s what I like about owning a restaurant – that we can cook and people can come and enjoy it.”
Although you’ll always find Beccy in the dining area as opposed to the kitchen, she’s big on cooking too.
“I crave cooking at the weekend, because I don’t cook during the week. This weekend, what did we cook? Risotto, because I wanted to have some asparagus. Venison casserole, baked potatoes and Red Russian kale, because we had loads of that. I picked rhubarb from the garden and made a rhubarb eve’s pudding. But we do also live off egg on toast sometimes!”
It’s clear that, for Beccy, pleasure isn’t only found in the cooking and eating of food, but also in what goes before. Her enthusiasm for that is infectious: she describes lifting up the wheelie bin beneath which they force rhubarb, and discovering the vibrant fruit hiding beneath, with its electric pink stalks and bright yellow leaves.
“Generally most food brings me joy, to be honest. Bread. And butter. Sam’s bread, Sam’s butter."