It’s been seven years since 1921 opened its doors. Chef patron Zack Deakins reflects on what was a challenging start and how far its come
When Annie said happy anniversary to me the other morning I panicked. Surely I hadn’t missed our anniversary, what’s the date?. . . as I was trying to think of a response that would get me out of trouble, she said: “Seven years of 1921.” On the 26th of September it was seven years since we opened our doors.
With all the chaos of the last 18 months, and the fact that we have had such a busy summer, it’s easy to forget quite how far the restaurant has changed. How much we have improved.
On Saturday nights we will usually do around 50 covers, and although there are always exceptions, on the whole services go smoothly and we are always in control.
I cannot say the same of our first service, it was very ugly to say the least. It was just me and Stevie in the kitchen and if I remember correctly we did around 20 covers, but it felt like 100s. The kitchen was trashed and I remember the two of us looking at each afterwards as if to say “what the hell was that”.
We had no kitchen porter to do the washing up, so we were trying to do all of that at the same time as cooking and plating the food. Equipment was tight back then, we had nine saucepans to heat up the garnishes for each dish, which was nowhere near enough. I had this olive tapenade gnocchi dish on that used six pans, so you can imagine that we were having to stop after every one of these to wash pans to do the next dish. It was insanity really.
Stevie came with me from the Bildeston Crown when we opened 1921. He actually moved in upstairs where the family and I now live. He did so much to help me through the first few months. We were open seven days a week and he and I worked every day from 26th of September to the 23rd December when we closed for our Christmas break. It was a brutal baptism and we were both beyond exhausted when we got there.
Stevie worked on the stove and as well as not having enough pans, the pans we did have didn’t really fit the gas ring we had. So they would constantly be falling in the gap spilling whatever was in them. Stevie was constantly trying to catch them, which meant he was constantly burning himself. His hands and arms were always covered in wounds and I have no doubt he still carries some scars from those first few months today.
We have had all sorts of equipment issues over the years. The trouble with starting a restaurant on a miniscule budget is you just have to make do with what you have got or what you can get on the cheap. I bought an old Rational oven on eBay that me and the boys managed to get in the kitchen. It worked well for a while, but it then developed a rather annoying gremlin. Normally, when you shut the door on one of these ovens the fan will automatically kick in. It is quite an essential part of a convection oven. Ours, however, didn’t. Every time you shut the door you then had to slap the side of the oven, then push your ear up against it to hear if the fan had kicked in. Anyone new in the kitchen, or those looking in through the window, must have thought we were mad. I really should have filmed it.
Being open seven days a week proved to be unsustainable. So at first we closed Sundays and then eventually Mondays as well. Looking back, we probably should have done it sooner. Being closed does always make me feel uneasy, but that’s because I was brought up in kitchens where the attitude was always you would work as much, as often, as hard as the restaurant needed you to. No matter the situation, the restaurant's needs always came first. This meant that you missed out so much over the years. There was little to no work-life balance. So when we decided to close those days it was the first time I consciously decided to put life first for a couple days a week. I hope this means a happier, more balanced life for the whole 1921 team. As much as we love our jobs, there is always more to life than just work.
A lot has changed in seven years, and it’s only when you take a moment to think back that you realise how far we have come. The ethos of 1921 has always stayed the same though – to serve top quality fine food in a relaxed environment. We have had seven years of practice now so are delivering that better than ever!
Zack Deakins is chef patron of 1921 Angel Hill in Bury St Edmunds.
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