Andrew Birch built his reputation in Ludlow, although he was already an accomplished chef before arriving in the south Shropshire market town.
He’d developed a passion for cooking when he was a schoolboy in Swansea before going onto rain in South Wales and then in Stratford on Avon.
Andrew worked for the Tanner brothers in the South West for four years and developed a passion for cooking seafood, something he developed further under Michelin-starred chef Kenny Atkinson at his restaurant on the Isle of Scilly.
After working for three years as senior sous chef at the 3 AA rosette and Michelin-starred Montagu Arms, under Matthew Tomkinson, he became head chef at Fishmore Hall, in Ludlow.
There, he achieved three AA rosettes and built his profile by appearing on BBC 2’s Great British Menu.
It’s fitting, therefore, that he’s making the transition to restaurant ownership in this region. Andrew and his wife, Rachel, have bought The Checkers, at Montgomery, which was formerly Michelin-starred under previous owner, Stephane Borie. It reopens tonight.
It is from there that he plans to put into place the dreams he’s harboured throughout his career, to be his own boss, to serve his own food and to work towards the accolades that all good chefs covet.
"At The Checkers, Rachel and I would like to build on the amazing reputation that it had under its former owners, Stephane, along with Katherine and Sarah. The plan is to use the two front rooms as a restaurant and run it as a 30-cover fine-dining restaurant. There’s a staff room and there were five letting rooms and as a family, we’re staying in two of the letting rooms."
Rachel is a highly talented chef with an incredible CV. She will, however, be running the front of house as the venue’s restaurant manager. “It’s all hands on deck,” says Andrew.
He achieved considerable success during his tenure in south Shropshire, helping to make Fishmore Hall one of the region’s best restaurants. After leaving, he broadened his experience by working in a variety of venues, learning more about business and managing large teams. South Shropshire, however, remained dear to him and Rachel, and so both are thrilled to have returned to its border with Mid Wales.
Andrew says: “When I left Fishmore Hall, I went to a big five-star hotel down in Winchester, at Lainston House, and I was there for two years. It was very much a non-cooking role. It was about meetings, being office based and I wasn’t cooking.”
He didn’t enjoy the role as much as he’d enjoyed his time at Fishmore Hall, however.
“Fishmore was much more enjoyable. At Winchester, I gained three AA rosettes, as I’d done at Fishmore, but it was a much, much bigger operation. There were big weddings and a cookery school as well as the restaurant so it was completely different. We had 17 chefs and five kitchen porters, so it was a management role more than a cooking role.”
Andrew moved to Ellenborough Park Hotel and Spa, in Cheltenham, after two years in Winchester. It was a similar challenge and he was tasked to improve the business. Ellenborough Park was a massive, 15th century county estate that was home to The Horsebox, The Restaurant and an afternoon tea experience in the Great Hall.
“It was a slightly bigger property with extra bedrooms and things were looking good,” he said.
Then Covid hit and Andrew was made redundant. He found himself out of work after six months and was unsure of what he should do next. With the hospitality sector virtually closed and with jobs hard to come by, he took a driving job with Amazon.
“No one was recruiting. I was very fortunate that I’d put myself in a good position where I had savings. I could literally take 18 months off and not do anything and we were fine. The Amazon delivery was about getting me out of the house and doing something.
"A lot of things were kicking off with depression around that time and for chefs, they were asking themselves how they were supposed to fill their time when they were used to doing 70-80 hours per week. So I was doing Amazon runs, a few hours here and there.”
It was during that Covid crisis that Andrew made contact with The Checkers. The venue had been up for sale for some time, before being taken off the market and turned into a holiday let. He’d long admired the venue and having harboured the ambition to follow in the footsteps of such cooks as Shaun Hill, Phil Howard and David Everitt-Matthias, he hoped that post-Covid he could relaunch the venue as its owner.
“The Checkers had been up for sale so I contacted Stephane’s partner, Katherine. She told me they’d taken it off the market and it was being run as a holiday let.
“I’d visited it as far back as 2016, when I was at Fishmore Hall, in Ludlow. I fell in love with the place around the same time that I was filming Great British Menu. So for Rachel and I, looking for our first restaurant, it was the ideal place.”
Stephane and Katherine, and Katherine’s sister, Sarah, were the three, co-owners of The Checkers. Stephane was private cheffing around the world while Katherine and Sarah had moved on and were doing other things. Andrew had to be at his persuasive best to seal the deal.
“I said to Katherine ‘You have to let me take it on’. So she invited us up for a chat. We came up and they told us how they’d invested quite a bit of money turning it into a holiday let and they had bookings for the next year, all the way up to December 2021.”
Eventually, the two parties settled on a deal – but only on the proviso that Andrew and Rachel didn’t complete their sale before January 2022.
He says: “The discussion started in April 2021, so we had to be very patient. But as the months ticked on, things progressed and it got more and more serious.
“We spoke to Katherine every four or six weeks. Basically, we were waiting for them to get the last guests out so we could take it over.”
In the meantime, Andrew got back into the kitchen. A good chef friend of his, Matt Worswick, who had previously cooked at The Latymer, at Pennyhill Park, knew that he might have six months free. He invited Andrew to ditch his Amazon delivery job and get back in the kitchen.
Andrew says: “We got to the position with The Checkers were we knew we were going to buy it but we also knew we’d have to wait half a year to get the keys. So Rachel and I put our house up for sale and Matt Worswick asked me if I wanted to run the kitchen at The Savoy Grill for six months.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to move into London but Matt persuaded me. He was opening two other restaurants in the hotel and he needed to step away. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Andrew went to work at The Savoy Grill while his house was being sold, with that job helping him to save more of the money he’d need to invest in his new restaurant.
“Thankfully, it all went to plan. We sold our house and we took on The Checkers on January 10 this year,” he says.
Andrew and Rachel have big plans, the first of which is to get the restaurant to the standard that he’s cooked at in recent years.
“For six or seven years, I’ve been keeping, earning and retaining three AA rosettes. I’d love to get it up to that level and more. But with Covid, Brexit and everything else going on, the most important thing is that it become a profitable business. It needs to survive. We will put things in place and hopefully accolades will follow.”
He expects the experience to be very different to Fishmore Hall, where he made his name.
“At Fishmore, it was seven days a week. It was a bit of something for everyone. It was sandwiches and weddings. At Checkers, we have the ability to simply focus on great food. I’ve always had in my head I wanted my own restaurant by 40," he says.
“I wanted to be a head chef by 28 and I wanted my own place by 40.”
He’s 38 now, so beat his target by two years.
Andrew knows he has to thank unexpected twists of fate for taking him to The Checkers.
“If I hadn’t been made redundant from Ellenborough Park, I’d probably still be there.
“I’ve had some great experiences and my favourite job of all time was at the Montagu Arms, in the New Forest, where I was cooking at one Michelin star level and doing amazing food. I loved it. after that, the next best was Fishmore Hall. I cooked every day. I absolutely loved every day.”
He’s hoping that The Checkers will be the best of all. His days of desk jobs are gone and he’s back in the kitchen, which is where he’s happiest.
The Checkers reopens tonight and will run from Wednesday night to Sunday lunch.