This article first appeared in the September/October 2022 edition of Style of Wight magazine. Words by James Rayner. Photography by Julian Winslow.
Today we’re in Freshwater, Church Place to be exact, outside the historic Red Lion pub, drawn to it by the whispers of Parmesan doughnuts with whipped Marmite butter. Legend has it, there are over 600 pubs called the Red Lion up and down the UK, but this one is a little different – especially with Head Chef Sean Jeffers in the kitchen.
Ducking under the trailing vines that hang above the door, we enter, discovering a bright and rustic interior, as well as one of the smoothest old flagstone floors ever known to man. Fresh from lunch service, chef Sean appears offering a wide smile and a firm handshake.
Considering he’s only been here for twelve months so far, the changes to the food offering are immense (and incredibly exciting too). Menus have been completely revamped (changing with the seasons) and, in another development, specials are out – as the team prefer to focus on ensuring each item on the menu is worked upon with the utmost care and consideration, without the distraction of a specials board.
Swinging through a door behind the bar you’ll find the Lion’s compact kitchen, where Sean creates his top-notch dishes alongside chefs Shane, Matt, Kayleigh and (for the summer) apprentice Ellie. Here the team make everything from scratch, including their apple and onion sausage rolls (which Sean brands ‘an absolute stunner’), Parmesan doughnuts (which we might’ve mentioned before) and the pastry for their famous pies – in such high demand they have to make up to 300 a week to keep pace!
Suppliers are overwhelmingly local, with high-class ingredients including beef from Steyne Farm in Bembridge, scallops from P&W fisheries in Cowes and goat’s cheese from Green Barn near Yarmouth. The pub also has its own kitchen garden where rhubarb, artichokes and Cavolo Nero grow, just yards from a decades-old plum tree that often provides fruit for dessert.
Back inside we’re seated on a settle and ready to order. Part of the excitement of choosing here is that the menu doesn’t give much away. Opting for the ‘Blowtorched Mackerel / Beetroot / Apple / Cucumber / Yoghurt’ for instance, it’s only when the dish reaches the table that you see the cucumber is a jelly, the apple is chopped into sticks and also made into an apple and tapioca crisp that perches on top.
Asked about his cooking style Sean explains ‘I like to focus on the main ingredient, before adding different tastes and textures to create that wow factor without overcomplicating it. Now people are really starting to understand what we do here and the quality of what we offer. I’m really proud of the menu and it’s great to see diners come back again and again’
Before the Red Lion, Sean’s culinary career took him from an apprenticeship at Mojac’s in Cowes back in 2005, to stints aboard the Queen Mary (doing 22 trans-Atlantic crossings). More recently, he made a name for himself as Head Chef of Ventnor’s Ale & Oyster, earning it a spot in the Michelin Guide for four years running thanks to his skills at the stove. ‘I absolutely loved it there, that place was my baby but ultimately I needed to leave for a better work-life balance’.
Skip to 2021 and Sean gets a call from Mark, owner of the Red Lion, offering him the opportunity to come and put his stamp on the food and turn the pub into a foodie destination – something that seems to be happening quicker than anyone expected.
Finally, before we get distracted by the cauliflower arancini, there’s one more thing to mention, and it’s a big one. Only days before our visit Sean had been in Oxford taking part in a cook-off for the Great British Pub Awards. One of just six finalists (out of 1,000 entries), he’s the only pub chef from the South represented, up against Michelin-starred and AA Rosette-awarded competitors, including chefs from The Unruly Pig in Suffolk and Oyster Shed in London. The wait is now on until 4th October when the winner is announced but we have every faith Sean might just clinch the title.
Editorial Note: Whilst Sean didn’t win the 2022 Great British Pub Awards it seems he was a very close runner-up!