It’s just celebrated its sixth birthday, but Simpsons Fish and Chips has a lot to show for its handful of years. Jessica Carter visits the proprietors at their Cheltenham home for lunch, and learns how they’re bringing new meaning to the word ‘fresh’ when it comes to fish. (No prizes for guessing what they cooked her, mind)
Running a restaurant might not have been what sculpture students Bonny and James Ritchie thought they would be doing after graduation, but once you get the story behind this award-winning chippie, you start to understand that its success is really anything but an accident.
For a start, the family have been in the biz for 40 years, with Bonny’s parents running chippies since before she was born. Both of them have experience working in these joints too, with James having “no choice” in getting stuck in, Bonny’s parents having laid down the conditions of his moving in when the couple got together at 17. So, the fresh-faced, just-graduated, just-married couple were more than equipped to take over the family’s newly acquired café when they were offered the opportunity at 23.
Now, six years, two children, and one launch of an outside catering arm later, and Simpsons is a nationally recognised restaurant, running successful gluten-free nights and earning several gongs from the esteemed National Fish and Chip Awards. (Yep, we’re trying not to focus on how much these two have achieved before 30 as well; it’s a triumph if we manage to find matching socks in the morning.)
Speaking of age, there’s no doubt that having a new, modern approach to a historically conservative industry, dominated by well-seasoned pros, has played a massive part in this indie’s success. And Bonny and James are determined to get people on board with their fresh approach.
“People think this is all just about fish and chips,” says Bonny, peeling muddy potatoes under the kitchen tap, “but it’s really not.”
Indeed, everything from ethics to skill sets, education to economy – and even the science behind ingredients – are major focuses of the business.
Next, the potatoes – which we learn, surprisingly, come from Cambridgeshire – are chopped.
“The Gloucestershire soil is too clay-like for growing them,” explains James, retrieving a white fleshy fillet from the fridge. “Cambridgeshire has a far darker, richer soil that allows the potatoes to breathe.”
“I won’t pretend we cut the chips by hand in the shop,” Bonny interjects, as she slices them into chunky strips. “There would just be no way – we get through so many!”
That said, all the ingredients for Simpsons do come into the kitchen in a raw state – even the 32oz cod comes whole for the fryers to fillet – meaning the kitchen is basically a “mini production line,” as the pair put it.
The chips are dropped into the pool of rapeseed oil that’s bubbling in the fryer. Meanwhile, James cracks on with the batter by whisking Cotswold 3.8 Lager, brewed in Bourton-on-the-Water, into a bowl of flour. “This is room temperature,” he says, pouring in the beer, “but if you’re using water, like we do in the shop, then it needs to be as cold as possible to get the best results.”
They might be cooking this up at home, with ingredients straight from the store cupboard, but every dish at the shop has a similarly minimalist list of ingredients, we learn. “We won’t serve anything we wouldn’t feed our children,” Bonny explains. “And we definitely never want them hyper on additives!”
In fact, the kids have played their part in inspiring a number of aspects of the business, including its educational work. As well as having produced a Scholastic book for children, the kitchen is also hosting more and more school trips of late, teaching pupils about where food comes from and how it is made. This is hugely important work because, as James points out, “Children don’t really get a chance to see it. So many of them don’t even know where potatoes come from; some tell us they think they grow on trees.”
The chips are lifted out of the fryer, but they’re not quite ready yet.
“They were only in at a low temperature there, because we’re going to double cook them,” James explains. “We usually fry them just once, in really hot oil. That way they soak up less of it, which obviously means they’re a bit better for you. When you double cook, the lower temperature allows them to take on far more oil, which means, when you put them back in at a hotter temperature, they crisp right up.”
Sounds good to us.
The fish is dipped into the batter and fried before the chips go back in for their second round, emerging golden and, as promised, extra crisp. As James plates up, Bonny produces a bowl of own-recipe jalapeño tartare sauce. It has a definite kick, but the extra flavour is more than apparent too, and not overpowered by heat; this is definitely how we’ll be making ours from now on.
“We’re so passionate about what we do,” says Bonny. “We want people to know that this kind of food can be really good. It’s all about trying to make fish and chips sexy. And that’s quite difficult – although it really shouldn’t be.”
Fancy cooking up the dish that James and Bonny made for us? Get the recipe here.