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Zack Deakins, chef patron of 1921 in Bury St Edmunds, has found new inspiration and a sense of freedom in his kitchen since re-opening. . . and he couldn’t be happier

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It has been a gruelling few weeks in the kitchen. Kitchens are hot places at the best of times, I mean the ambient temperature in ours is usually 10 degrees above outside air temperature, and then even higher when you stand next to the stove or hot lights. As you can imagine we have literally been poaching ourselves.

Just standing in temperatures like that is pretty draining, but when you are working at full tilt it can be pretty brutal. We have been so wonderfully busy though that full tilt is the only option, and thankfully that’s the perfect distraction.

‘Eat Out to Help Out’ has obviously contributed to this, and so far, from my experience and from what others in hospitality around the town are saying, it certainly seems to be a success! It has brought many new faces in to us, which is great, and I am sure we will see the majority of them again in the future, but it has also been a nice treat for our regulars to get a little something off their bill. Some of our regulars have wanted to make sure we know they are not eating with us for the deal, they just wanted to come see us that afternoon or evening, and that has been very touching.

Mosaic of quail, duck liver and cocoa (40829331)
Mosaic of quail, duck liver and cocoa (40829331)

Through all of this we have been getting our creativity on. The menu is ever so slightly shorter than it was pre-lockdown, but this makes it so much easier to change. We are putting new dishes on daily and I must say it’s a lot of fun. I have always been in charge of the menus at 1921, but I can’t ever remember a time I felt so free with it and it is so enjoyable. We put a Mosaic of Quail, duck liver and cocoa on the menu this evening, which I am very pleased with, it’s one of those rare dishes which actually comes out better than it was in your head and those give you such a buzz. Other recent highlights include halibut cured with mint, chilli and lime served with watermelon, or Suffolk beef sirloin with parsnip and snails.

1921 isn’t open on Mondays, but the scheme has meant we are fully booked Tuesdays and Wednesdays and it’s that way for the rest of the month. What has been really pleasing though is that it hasn’t affected our weekend trade, which is still booming. I must admit to being very unsure as to how busy we would be upon reopening, so I am just delighted it is going so well.

Talk of a second wave of Covid-19 and potentially another lockdown are a worry I have, I am not sure the industry would recover from being forced to close its doors again. I now find that I have to keep these thoughts out of my head as much as possible as I can feel them sucking the positive energy out of me.

Halibut dured with mint chilli and lime, served with watermelon (40829322)
Halibut dured with mint chilli and lime, served with watermelon (40829322)

That positive energy is what drives you through the heat and the pressure of a busy kitchen. No matter what level you are working at I have the utmost respect for anyone working in these furnaces the last couple of weeks.

There are times when you do almost question why are you doing it. Why do I feel the need to put my body through this 16 hours a day? For me the answer is happiness. . .

A chef I used to work with put a video on Instagram a couple of days ago. He put it up in response to a review which really hurt him. It is really hard when you put so much of yourself into something to have it criticised. We all know it goes with the territory, but that doesn’t stop it hurting. He also has a small little restaurant and he spoke about how tough it is to be judged on your imperfections, and what are they being judged against, what is perfect?

This little two-minute video really stuck with me and got me thinking, is there really such a thing as a perfect meal? A perfect restaurant? In most of the kitchens I worked my way through perfection has always been the goal, the perfect dish, the perfect ingredient, the perfect prep. When we started 1921, I was no different. I lost my cool at almost anything because I thought it had to be perfect. But now when I think how 1921 has evolved and indeed myself, this is no longer what we are looking for as personally I don’t believe it exists.

1921 has matured a lot in the now almost six years we have been here. Everyone that has worked here has contributed something to its personality. But now more than ever 1921 feels like it knows itself. It really feels like it has its own identity and is comfortable in its own skin.

So all this leads me back to happiness, because now I strive to create happiness for everyone that walks through that door. Guests, staff, delivery men. . . it doesn’t matter who you are when you walk through our front door, I want you to feel the happiness.

There is no better feeling than knowing the guests are happy – that is why we are here. I am sure my front of house staff get bored of me asking: “Is everyone happy”, but I never get tired of hearing that they are.

Don’t get me wrong, we still have our standards and we still give our absolute all to make things the best we physically can because there is no enjoyment to be found in knowing you could have done something better, there just feels there has been a subtle shift in goals.

The way I see it, being perfect is not possible, but if we can find joy in making other people happy and we are able to do it whilst being ourselves, that’s close enough for me.

Zack Deakins is chef patron of 1921 Angel Hill in Bury St Edmunds.

Call 01284 704870

See nineteen-twentyone.co.uk