Still shouting to the Rafters



My review soon after Rafters opened in 1989

THE chef didn’t cook with onions and garlic, the waiter started a discussion about Adolf Hitler within minutes of us sitting down and we had no idea this odd little restaurant would become such a shining star in Sheffield’s culinary story.

 But by the end of the evening we knew we’d had a damn good meal at Rafters even though we had the whole place to ourselves.

 The other day Alistair Myers, the current owner (along with head chef Tom Lawson) posted on Facebook that the Good Food Guide-listed place was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Great news in an industry where even the best places can be short-lived but it is not the whole story. It may be 25 years since the Bosworth brothers, Wayne and Jamie, put the restaurant on the map but the roots go back even further, to 1989.

 The establishment of the restaurant, the naming and its ambition was the work of three enthusiastic amateurs in the hospitality business although they were not new to another branch of catering.

 They were June Hall , a former bakery worker and mother of six, George Taylor, her partner, financier and, on our night, the rookie waiter, and baker Steve Sanderson, with June, the chef at Rafters.

 Between them they had a burning ambition to run a posh restaurant. So do a lot of other people but it was the way they went about it that impressed. The two chefs honed up their cooking skills at evening classes at Earl Marshall, where June even found the time to learn upholstery to recover antique dining chairs they’d bought on Abbeydale Road.

The upstairs restaurant had previously been the Carriageway café and before that it was known as the Lord Mayor’s Parlour.

 She was determined to get the look of the place right. There was white linen, cut glass, Wedgwood plates and Sheffield cutlery underneath the black rafters which spidered across the ceiling and which gave the place its name.


Wayne Bosworth in the Rafters van in the Nineties

 We paid £51.50 for our meal, big money back then, which is why, perhaps, we were the only customers that night. They had opened in February and we went in April. But the food was good.

 We began with prawn gratinee (£3.25) and smoked salmon and egg roll (£4), followed by soup and sorbet, the country house fashion at the time. There were 14 main courses, half of them steaks, but we had duck with Cumberland sauce (£12) and veal with a watercress and almond sauce (£12.75). Steve was responsible for the mains. “I cook without onions and garlic and I keep asking myself if I’m doing wrong,” he said afterwards.

20180303_155317 A youthful Jamie and Wayne 03-03-2018 15-47-11

A youthful Jamie and Wayne Bosworth

 It’s fascinating looking back on menus from 30 years ago. There was crab and avocado among the starters and a main called chicken mango, rubbed with sesame seeds and cooked with a mango and cream sauce.

 “I’ll shout it to the rafters . . . that we know something Sheffield doesn’t. They serve a memorable meal” I wrote after we finished off with petit pot of chocolate and a frozen Grand Marnier orange, a sweet from the era of Abigail’s Party, if ever there was.

 Despite my praise it did not thrive. By the time the Bosworths took over Rafters was closed more times than it was open. “They were just opening Saturdays and using the restaurant as a base for outside catering,” recalls Jamie.

He and Wayne, who had come from working at the Chantry, Dronfield, were innocents abroad in those days and set about running it without the restaurant licence they required. To cover themselves either June or Steve sat in the kitchen with them until the licence came through. It was then they saw the quick cheffy techniques which had taken them ages!

Meanwhile the brothers were agonising whether to change the name but they couldn’t come up with anything both agreed on. “It’s not easy. Eventually we settled on Bosworth Brothers @ Rafters for a while,” says Jamie, who is glad they didn’t change it.

The Bosworths put Rafters into the guides and made it one of the city’s leading restaurants. After Wayne’s death in 2000 Marcus Layne joined the partnership, eventually buying the business and running it until, beset by ill-health, he sold it on in 2013 to Alistair and Tom. At 14 years, his has been the longest tenure at Oakbrook Road.

.So while Rafters is right to celebrate those 25 years we shouldn’t forget those brave pioneers who laid the groundwork.


Tom Lawson and Alistair Myers





The King who came to dinner


The Charnwood Hotel

 CHRIS King, the man who restored an historic building into Sheffield’s first boutique hotel and was a driving force behind the city’s culinary renaissance, has died. He had Parkinson’s Disease. He was 81.


WHENEVER Chris King passed the crumbling Georgian mansion at the corner of Sharrow Lane and London Road he knew the best way to bring it back to life was as a hotel. The Grade II listed building had been built around 1780 by Master Cutler and scissorsmith John Henfrey on a site then on the outskirts of the city.

Chris didn’t start out as a hotelier, he was a structural engineer. So he knew if a building could be saved. However, as with so much of what happens in Sheffield, he had to battle with a city council which lacked imagination. It took over two years for him and his wife Val to get planning permission for the Charnwood, Sheffield’s first boutique hotel. It lasted for almost 20 years as a popular wedding venue and the focus of much of the city’s good cooking.

The 22-bed Charnwood opened in 1985. Its guests included stars from the World Snooker Championship and comedians Victoria Wood and Mike Harding. It also became the home of two top restaurants, Brasserie Leo and the smaller more upmarket Henfrey’s. Chris was not a man to cut corners. He employed celebrity chef and local lad Kevin Woodford as catering consultant. The Woodford Suite was named after him.

“Chris told me he wanted to do things right,” says Cary Brown, whom he appointed the hotel’s (and the country’s) youngest head chef at 21. He had dropped by to do a two day shift after leaving Claridges and was on his way out when he was offered the head chef’s job, provided he passed a three month’s trial.

Chris sent Cary to Paris to see how things were done there before opening Brasserie Leo. When Cary left, Wayne Bosworth and his sous Marcus Lane made similar trips. The restaurant was designed with banquettes, alcoves, gleaming brass, big mirrors and a splendid bar. Even the coat stands were authentic. And in the kitchen were a dozen copper pans.

The hotel aimed high. A lobster, truffle and veal sweetbread starter was on the menu for £17.95, a fortune, then as now, for Sheffield in the Eighties. Even Cary was worried about the price. “Chris said if it’s worth that, charge it,” he recalls.

He enjoyed his new life. Always impeccably dressed, he and Val could often be seen dining quietly in a corner checking the quality of the food and the reactions of customers.

Other chefs who made a name in the kitchen included Wayne, Murray Chapman and Stephen Hall as head chefs while others including Marcus and Jamie Bosworth, who would both later run Rafters, and Richard Irving also cooked.

While the cooking got the Charnwood into the guides the hotel ran smoothly with Chris and Val at the helm and her sister Ann Sommerfield as duty manager. There were good years then bad as business was hit by a slowdown at the turn of the century. “The economics did not stack up, the economics of a small hotel against a big one,” he said then. Chris tried unsuccessfully to sell the hotel, on the market for £1.3 million.


Chris King presents an award at a hospitality event

It closed on Christmas Eve, 2004. The 16 staff were all found jobs, according to Anne. If Chris couldn’t sell the place as a hotel he would turn it into apartments. He supervised the work himself. “I do not want to pay people for what I already know,” he said. The project opened the following year renamed Wisteria Gardens, after the striking mauve and blue flowers which covered the walls. He had planted them a quarter century before.

Val, who predeceased him, died from cancer. Chris also had it but recovered and went to run a smallholding near Lincoln where he planted 2,000 walnut trees. However he returned to Sheffield later and died at Beauchief.

Cary Brown said: “He was a legend and pioneer in the hotel and catering industry. What he brought to Sheffield wasn’t realised until later. If it wasn’t for that hotel Sheffield would not have got on the culinary map until years later.”

#Chris King died on Thursday, 16 November, 2017. Details of the funeral will be announced here shortly.

Picture of Chris King sourced courtesy of Craig Harris.

*The funeral will be held at Hutcliffe Wood Crematorium at 1.15pm on Thursday,7 December, followed by a wake at the Double Tree Hilton, Meadowhead.

Foie gras, faux pas?


Foie gras from Fortnum & Mason

The news the other week that animal rights activists had targeted a Norfolk restaurant for including foie gras on its menu seemed all too familiar. They won the day. After menacing phone calls and fake bookings owner-chef Mark Dixon backed down.

I say all too familiar because we had a spate of that in the Sheffield area a few years back. In 2006 a group of vegan activists picketed Rafters on Oakbrook Road, then run by Marcus Lane. Unmoved, he was quite content to let them be: after all, everyone has a right to protest but he sent down a bar of soap so, he said, they could at least be clean and tidy outside his restaurant.

The following year I reported in the Sheffield Star that the Blue Room Brasserie, under Christian Kent, was in the line of fire. He felt discretion was the better part of valour.

In 2008 the Showroom’s restaurant was in the group’s sights but the explanation seemed to be that it had been a menu drawn up for a private party and left as an example on the website. This group was busy Googling ‘Sheffield’ and ‘foie gras’ because Moran’s, on Abbeydale Road South, also got a call. It had, said owner Bryan Moran, been on an old menu and wasn’t now and he refused to sign an undertaking not to serve it again.

As The Star’s food writer and restaurant critic I documented all this. My last story on the subject, before I retired, was about the now deceased Kitchen on Ecclesall Road which, in 2010, scored a double whammy as far as vegans were concerned: on the menu was a veal burger topped with foie gras. The owner worriedly took it off when the calls started coming.

What happened in some cases was that foie gras went ‘under the counter’ and did not appear on menus.

I have not heard of anything untoward since from the people I dubbed the Foie Gras Liberation Front but I do know of several restaurants in the area which serve it from time to time. In at least one case, it is ethically sourced. If you do buy it, don’t get it from Eastern Europe. This article is not the place for the pros and cons of enlarged goose or duck liver but it can be produced humanely. The livers don’t grow as big because the birds are left to eat naturally and greedily. And, of course, it’s much more expensive.

Of course, for vegans, all meat is murder. They are entitled to their view but they are not entitled to impose it on others. And their tactics are cowardly: threatening letters and phone calls, fake bookings and vague threats of worse to come. On one of their websites one contributor pointed out menacingly that the Nottinghamshire restaurant under threat was down an ill-lit county road. Restaurants are easy targets. Foie gras is served up in restaurants where ‘posh people’ go so, and posh people are fair game. In fact, they’re probably Tories.

I note they do not picket Indian restaurants for there are many of us uneasy about the production of halal meat. If they did they would almost certainly get beaten up.

Everyone must make their choice. I eat foie gras (when I get the chance). I try and eat halal meat as little as possible. I won’t eat frog’s legs because they might come from Indonesia where they are still alive when sliced in half then tossed on a pile, taking ages to die.

Selling and serving foie gras is legal in this country (and again in California). So is halal meat. And frog’s legs. Some people will eat it, others won’t. These activists can make their point but anything else is just plain nasty.

A star has fallen

Tessa Bramley, chef-patron of the Old Vicarage

Tessa Bramley, chef-patron of the Old Vicarage

So the Old Vicarage at Ridgeway is one of the unlucky 13 in Britain which has lost the Michelin star, held since 1998 and the only one in Sheffield. It made front page news in the Sheffield Telegraph. But how much does it really matter?

True, it must be a bitter disappointment to chef-patron Tessa Bramley and her long-term chef Nathan Smith, who has been there for every starry year. They are most probably the victim of changing fashions rather than falling standards because reviews of the food have been mostly good or excellent although service is reportedly wobbly.

Chefs at the top of their profession crave stars but they probably mean more in terms of kudos with their fellow chefs than to the average diner. Relatively few people read the Michelin Guide, certainly not in comparison to the Good Food Guide and Hardens, compiled from public reports rather than food inspectors.

It may be difficult to the public to appreciate how much stars mean to chefs and how they feel when they lose them. French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself in 2003 when he thought, wrongly, he had lost one of his three stars at the Cote d’Or in Saulieu. I have eaten there, sat next to his widow Dominique, and enjoyed the signature dish of frogs legs, garlic and parsley. Gordon Ramsay is said to have wept when he lost two stars at his New York restaurant, The London.

On the other hand, Skye Gyngell handed back her star at her café in a garden centre, Petersham Nurseries, because diners drawn there by the publicity expected glitzier surroundings. And in Sheffield Marcus Lane, who then owned Rafters, felt his Bib Gourmand (just below a star) put undue pressure on the kitchen and asked not to be considered the following year.

There is no doubt that winning a star brings customers. But that can mean more staff and more costs in keeping up the standards – and pricier food to match. Conversely, losing can cost. Forbes magazine quotes studies showing that dropping a star can halve sales. More than one restaurant has won a star and gone bust. There’s another factor. Michelin stars tend to turn restaurants into pricy, over-formal, reverential temples of food where people speak in hushed voices when eating should be a lively, gregarious, convivial and sensuous experience.

It is some years since I have eaten at the Old Vic, and then we had the night to ourselves, for my editor at the Sheffield Star felt few readers would be tempted by £40 a head lunches and £75 dinners. But it has been consistently good since I first went there (just six meals into my reviewing career!) shortly after it entered the Good Food Guide 27 years ago.

I have even cooked there. Once, for a story, I was a commis chef for the night (the lowest of the low) cooking samphire and vegetables to go with an amuse of cods cheeks. Tessa, on the pass, sent one of my plates back three times before judging it good enough. She was a kind but strict taskmistress. I was terrified there might be a food critic in that night!

Like any good restaurant, stories about the Old Vic abound. In the early days Tessa’s son Andrew, nicknamed ‘Lurch,’ would open the restaurant door (you rang the bell) and look you up and down as if to judge your worth. There is the story, probably apocryphal, of the loud pub landlord out dining who asked for a bitter to which the reply was: “Would that be bitter lemon or Angostura, sir?”

My favourite is of the late Michael Winner, reviewing for the Sunday Times, who on visiting the gents noticed a bowl of strawberries. He reached to pick one then wondered about the personal hygiene of previous visitors and desisted. Winner wickedly made much of this in his report, taking the wee-wee so to speak, but gave a favourable review.

For the Old Vic, losing that star may be the end of an era but it is not the end of the world.

The Old Vicarage

The Old Vicarage

The Odd Couple

Cary Brown and Marcus Lane at the Royal Oak

Cary Brown and Marcus Lane at the Royal Oak

Do you ever wonder ‘What happened next?’ when a chapter in the life of a restaurant ends? Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me begin.

When Cary Brown, former enfant terrible of the Sheffield restaurant scene, closed the doors of his ill-fated steak and fish London Club in Surrey Street for the last time in 2012 it was the latest in a series of eateries he had either owned or run: the Charnwood Hotel, Carriages, Browns, The Limes, the Mini Bar, Slammers, the Supper Club (and I may have missed out a few).

Then, strangely for a man who was never out of the newspapers and who inspired a generation of young chefs, silence.

Rib and chicken but where do we start?

Rib and chicken but where do we start?

A year and a bit later, beset by ill health, Marcus Lane decided to sell Rafters on Oakbrook Road, his culinary home for more than a decade. Quiet, modest, he was the man who told Michelin not to bother awarding him any more Bib Gourmands because he wanted to concentrate on the food, not the fripperies which ensure an entry. He’s the chef’s chef and got a gong from his peers for just that in the Eat Sheffield awards. But now he was taking it easy.

So it’s a lovely sunny Sunday in the Derbyshire village of Millthorpe, down the road from Owler Bar, and here’s Cary, pulling a pint of Seafarers Ale behind the bar of the Royal Oak, the little pub saved by villagers when there were plans to turn it into a house.

And who’s that in the kitchen, peeling the carrots and checking that the rib of beef in the poky little oven is progressing nicely? Why, it’s Marcus. He’s helping out his old mate, the pub’s landlord.

I think of two brilliant chefs in one tiny kitchen and wonder about the dynamics. Who’s in charge? “No one. We do whatever’s needed. Marcus doesn’t work for me, he works with me. The only time we fall out is over who’s going to have the ‘oyster’ of the chicken,” says Cary.

They make an odd couple but food in the pub is only part of the story. They do outside catering. The snug, which can seat 14 at a pinch, had been hired by a christening party. They are planning afternoon teas on the lawn.

“This is a community pub still used by drinkers so food will not take over,” says landlord Cary.

The Royal Oak only does food on Saturday and Sundays. On Saturday it’s whatever they feel like cooking – a Scotch egg, pizzette, pork scratchings – but it’s unlikely you’d get a three course meal out of it.

Sundays are traditional. “We cook the stuff we’d want to eat, a proper roast. You won’t find a water bath on these premises,” says Cary darkly. There is no starter, unless you count Marcus’s beautifully soft bread rolls, served in an upturned flowerpot, or choice of main. At £16.50 a head you share a big wooden platter piled with thick, pink slices of rib and hunks of chicken. Honestly, it was so good I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.

The meats were very tasty and tender and the flavours were first class. Massive roast potatoes were golden and crunchy, soft inside. A pair of Yorkshire puddings towered upwards. There were little cubes of exquisite stuffing. Cary’s partner Shelley brought dishes of greens and cauliflower cheese. And there was a big jug of rich gravy.

It was the sort of meal you have dreams about on Saturday night but then are so often disappointed with the next day’s reality. This is probably the best traditional roast you’re ever going to eat. We followed it with very probably the best Bakewell tart, so light it could almost have floated in the air, and lemon posset (£5 each).

I ate as much as I could and took the rest home in a doggy bag. But I was ruined for the rest of the day.


Royal Oak, Cordwell Lane, Millthorpe, Sheffield. Tel: 0114 289 0870.

(This meal was paid for)

I've got a plateful!

I’ve got a plateful!

My Bakewell tart was so light it could have floated away

My Bakewell tart was so light it could have floated away

The Royal Oak at Millthorpe

The Royal Oak at Millthorpe