In September 2018, a Welsh restaurant hit the news by announcing they’d handed back their coveted Michelin star. Family run restaurant, The Checkers in Montgomery, reined in their service to day time only and returned their Michelin star of seven years.
Speaking from The Checkers Pantry, a former coaching inn, set on the high street of Powys county town, Montgomery, Chef Sarah Francis says, “It was a huge decision for us but at the same time, I can only say that I feel liberated.” Along with her sister, Kathryn Francis and partner, Stephane Borie, Sarah co-ran the restaurant which achieved its first Michelin star in 2011, just six months after opening.
“It was an amazing accolade,” says Sarah “But now I have the freedom to cook what I want, read the recipe books I choose and still serve amazing food.”
We took it in turns to have our children
Running a Michelin restaurant came at a personal cost to the trio. “I fell pregnant within six weeks of opening,” says Kathryn, who led front of house, “Luckily, Sarah was able to step in to lead the team during my maternity leave and thereafter, we took it in turns to have our children.”
Both parents, Kathryn has two children and Sarah three. “We now have regular bedtimes and are much more organised at home,” says Kathryn, referring to the many benefits of their new business model.
The tale of Checkers is one of the personal costs behind fine dining and the courage it takes to step away.
“I’ve always loved kitchen life,” says Sarah, “My early influence came from Sebastians, an amazing French restaurant in Oswestry where I worked as a teenager in my home town. I loved it – the banter, the smell of food. I remember the cheese trolley with Roquefort and Tete De Moine, it all seemed so new.”
Sarah went on to train at catering college, “I studied at Blackpool and enjoyed the pastry side of things,” says Sarah, “But I did feel a bit intimated because I hadn’t taken the A ‘level equivalent entrance exam prior to getting in.”
Finesse in the kitchen
Questions of confidence reoccur time and again in my discussions with women in food. Further consideration may well shed light on the predominance of male chefs still at the top of the industry. “At college,” recalls Sarah, “There was a 50:50 gender split. I should have been far more confident because I was actually ahead in my skills with everything I’d learnt at Sebastians. In my experience, women have incredible finesse in the kitchen and are better in so many ways with their palette and attention to detail.”
Sarah went on to work at the revered Waterside Inn, a Michelin three star restaurant founded by brothers, Michel and Albert Roux, before setting up The Checkers with Stephan and Kathryn.
“Having the children changed things,” says Sarah, “Running our own restaurant meant that during my maternity leave, I could flit in and out of the kitchen and still have a massive input. However, I’d always feel like I was letting someone down. It’s the hardest thing in the world to leave a poorly child at home in the evening, no matter how well they are cared for in your absence.”
With the new menu at Checkers stripped back and simplified for day time service, Sarah says, “It feels like I have a new creative outlet and can look to new cookery books for inspiration. Whereas before I’d only read the classics, such as Marco Pierre-White or Michelle Roux Snr, now I’m looking at Nigel Slater and Nigella. My passion for cooking has been reignited.”
Considering the bustle of a kitchen achieving Michelin status, Sarah says, “It’s all about kitchen organisation. Before, there would be list after list of mis en place to prepare. The kitchen was more rigid and tightly organised. Now, it’s more like, we’ve got this ingredient so what can we do with it. We’re using our skills in a simpler way and it’s more free flowing.”
Of family life and their new routine, Sarah says “If you’re in fine dining and have a family, it is hard and you need a very strong team around you. For us, this works so much better. I can get to school for pick-up, I don’t have to go work twice a day. Split shifts are bad for us and for family life. You should never have to choose between a career and kids. Our decision was based on what’s right for us now and looking forward to the next challenge.”
There are no regrets. Laughing, Sarah says, “It was such a high to receive the star. I still love Michelin but I wouldn’t return now. I remember Stephane saying, if we ever win a star, I’m going to buy a convertible car. And you know what he bought? A walk-in fridge.”
For chefs and cooks new to the industry, Sarah says, “Always work in the best places and don’t waste your time on mediocrity. Go to the best restaurant you can and keep moving up the ladder. And never think that the boys are better than you. Think of them as your equals.” Kathryn adds, as she reflects on her experience, “Give 110% to the things you love but never lose sight of looking after yourself.”
Quick Fire Questions with Sarah
Who inspired you to become a chef?
Combination. I suppose my nan was a brilliant home cook. I also had a part-time job at a local restaurant called Sebastians. It was the best by far in the area and I learnt lots and absolutely loved it.
What did you have for dinner last night?
I’ve broken my knee so we had an Indian takeaway. Delicious!
Your favourite sports team
I’m a bit sad. I don’t have one.
The best book you’ve ever read
I love reading nothing too intense. I love Jojo Moyes at the moment. I also love ‘Desserts’ by Michael Roux.
Your favourite chef
See above. He’s always been bit of a hero for me and still is.
Have you ever dated a chef? How did it end or are you still together?
Yes and yes!
Your favourite meal to cook for yourself
I absolutely love Sunday roasts although Stephane has never seen the appeal!
How many hours sleep do you get?
In my three-star cooking days, very little. It’s a lot more reasonable now, probably seven hours.
Your best meal ever
The Waterside Inn with my little sis and now business partner. Stephane was cooking in the kitchen and the food and service were exemplary.
Your favourite clothes to cook in
Traditional kitchen jacket but I never wear the elasticated trousers! I prefer to wear black fitted trousers.
Your most treasured kitchen tool
Timer and Victorinox knives.
What would your superpower be?
To be indefatigable!