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Published:  23 July, 2008

Ian McKerracher, Owner, The Helyar Arms, Somerset. Interview: Josie Butchart

The Helyar Arms, Moor Lane, East Coker, Yeovil, Somerset BA22 9JR Tel: 01935 862 332

Australian Ian McKerracher moved to the UK in 1983 and since then has worked as an inspector for the Egon Ronay guides, a manager and proprietor of several London restaurants, an editor, a restaurant critic and feature writer, director of The Carlton London Restaurant Awards and chief executive of The Restaurant Association. Two years ago he left the big smoke and moved to Somerset, where he soon felt compelled to take over and revamp the local village pub. His passions include steamships, Tuscany and the Scottish Highlands. Main supplier: Berkmann Wine Cellars, Chippenham.

You gave up the top job at The Restaurant Association to run this country pub. Why? My former life, if you like, up until two years ago, was as chief executive of The Restaurant Association. I did that for about four years. But when we had children, my wife and I decided to sell up and go and find a nice big house in the country, where the children could run about and we could smell country air. We fell in love with East Coker village and bought the thatched farmhouse beside the pub. We had a lovely rural idyll all mapped out and no plans to do this at all. We just thought how nice it was to be just a few doors away from the pub. Then, when we moved we had a bit of a drama, just one of those things you can never plan for, that has a major impact on your life.

What happened? We had all our possessions - everything we owned - packed up by the removals firm the night before we moved. That night they had a fire at the depot and we lost everything. So moving here was a real start-again moment. Very shocking, but at the same time very freeing. People were very kind and generous, and we found that this really is the quintessential English village, the sort of place you don't think exists any more.

Why did you get involved with the pub? The village pub had had four or five different owners in the last four years and was kind of deserted. No one really supported it any more, and the food offering was pretty grim. It was just such a shame that this lovely pub had been let go. Then six months after we moved here it became available and we thought, What the hell, this is a worth a go'. It definitely wasn't something we had planned to do; it just seemed such a great opportunity.

What did you change? Because my background is very much food-led, I knew that a village pub could not survive by just being a quaint little boozer. Nice as the locals might be, they are not enough to support a business. You need something that draws people from further afield to your business. And that had to be food. For partly selfish reasons I thought it would be really good to have a pub serving food based on first principles, rather than freezer to microwave to table. I understand why pubs do that - the margins in this industry are horrible compared to, say, the restaurant trade: the cost of labour is high and it is terribly difficult to get good labour for the kitchen. But equally, I knew that wasn't something I wanted to be doing. So we went about creating what I suppose you would call a gastropub, although I'm not really fond of that term. We didn't make any very dramatic changes to the place; we wanted to keep it full of its agricultural and historical bric-a-brac and keep that rustic and traditional feel. But where we really wanted to exceed expectations was in the food and wine.

What inspired your interest in wine? Funnily enough, and very tragically, about a month ago a very dear friend of mine died. He was a guy called Anders Ousback and he was absolutely my mentor - one of the gods in this industry. He had an astonishing palate and he is entirely responsible for me being in this industry. He gave me my very first job, when I was 18, at a restaurant in Melbourne called The Two Faces. I was lucky enough to work behind the dispense bar in this very good restaurant - probably the best in Australia at that time, although I wasn't aware of that. It had a wine list of some 200 bins, with an extraordinary collection of truly great German Rieslings, first growth Clarets and great Australian wines. Anders, who had a great passion for wine, sensed that I was a sponge and wanted to learn. He would come back from tables that had ordered great bottles ensuring that, probably unfairly for the customer, there was a bit left in the bottle. That's how I started to learn about wine, and to this day I have a great affection and passion for great German Rieslings. I just adore them.

You take great care to use local producers for the food. What about the wine? Well, that's a very funny thing. I don't have any local wine, and there are some decent producers who make some reasonable wine. But I have to tell you, I have yet to taste an English wine that is of an equivalent quality, for the price and for the consistency, that you can get from the New World at the moment, or from the rest of Europe.

You have a good selection of wines by the glass. That was very deliberate. It was probably not commercially sensible, but I wouldn't budge from it and I was very keen to have a Riesling or a Viognier by the glass, rather than restricting people to Sauvignon. But there's still an ABC [anything but Chardonnay] attitude, so people will more often order Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay, and Shiraz rather than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Which country offers the best-value wines for a pub operation? Dare I say it, Australia. It has such good brand penetration that people will now ask for wine. If you offer them a choice of countries, I can guarantee that 90% will ask for Australia.