Catherine Butler - At the Chapel

Interview by Phil Simpson August 2014 | Photographs by Ben Taylor

From humble beginnings, Catherine Butler has brought her expertise to create a high quality but accessible restaurant, At the Chapel, in the heart of Bruton. The disused chapel, bought on impulse, was originally intended to be her and her partner’s home but has since flourished into a bakery, wine store, restaurant, club room and, most recently, bed and breakfast. Catherine Butler talks to Localeyez, about how she got started in the food industry, the importance of providing a place where everyone is welcome, and how Venice has come to Bruton via the pizza!

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Liverpool City Centre behind the Walker Art Gallery in the 1960s. My family had very little money at the time and there were no supermarkets, and very few people owned cars. Local food ethos wasn’t just a snazzy marketing term, it was a necessity of life. I then went on to study law and economics, and got a job in a restaurant to pay my way through college.

How did you end up in Bruton?
By 2000 I was running ten restaurants in London. At this point, I had one of those life changing moments where I thought, I want to do something else. I didn’t know what or how, but just had a gut feeling. Then a friend of ours invited us to her home in Charlton Musgrove for the day. As we were leaving my friend mentioned that there was a building for sale in Bruton. We drove through Bruton on the way back, and didn’t even realise we were passing through the centre of town. We finally found the building, took a look at it, and then put in an offer which was accepted. That building was later to become At the Chapel. We drove back to London thinking ‘what the hell have we done’!

When I told my business partners they all thought I was mad. I had no idea how I was going to survive as most of my money was tied up in the business. However, that very day, someone offered to buy the business. It was very much about trusting my instincts and adopting the philosophy of ask and you will receive. I moved to Bruton, took some time off to get to know the area, and visited lots of food suppliers. I was amazed at the quality and variety of food on offer.

At the Chapel - the main entrance
Photographed by Ben Taylor

What do you love about the Bruton community?
I think one of things I really love is the fact that it is a community. You can pop down the high street for a loaf of bread and it can take you two hours! There also doesn’t seem to be any sort of hierarchy, and instead there’s a natural mix of people from all walks of life. Bruton is also a very creative community, where there is inspiration and innovation everywhere.

How did you get started in the restaurant business?
I’ve always been passionate about food and grew up in an environment where being both resourceful and inventive with food was a priority. When I was growing up I often felt frustrated by the fact that good food seemed to be a middle class hobby, and was only available to those with money. This developed a strong sense in me that good food should be for everyone. Looking back, I’m really grateful that I got that sort of food education.

After I graduated from college, a friend whose family had a restaurant out in Corsica, invited me to spend the summer out there working. This started a theme of me working in different restaurants around the world and provided me with extensive training in different areas of the restaurant industry. By the time I was 26 my parents were asking me when I was going to get a proper job. At this point I realised that I already had ten years of experience in an industry I loved.

You and Ahmed Sidki are quite a team. How did you meet?
Don’t go there! [laughs] I was working in a restaurant and Ahmed was teaching at an art school. My best friend persuaded me to go to an end of term party. I was thinking, “I work in restaurants in the West End of London, why would I want to go to an art student party in the East End?. That’s where I met Ahmed. I thought he was nice but not for me. Ahmed trained as an architect and also studied at the London College of Furniture. When I opened my restaurant in Notting Hill he opened his own furniture gallery. Sometimes when he was holding a private view at his gallery I would do the catering for him. This was the beginning of our working partnership, and has formed our current philosophy of combining good food and design.

At the Chapel - the bakery and oven baked pizzas
Photographed by Ben Taylor

Tell us the story about At the Chapel and how it all started.
After I sold my business in London I took two years off, and I was going back to London to do consultancy work three days a week. By this stage, I was tiring of the travelling and realised that I really wanted to be in Bruton. I started looking at ways of earning a living. I thought the done thing, if you were living in the country and working in the food industry, was to open a pub. I started looking at various pubs that were coming up for sale in the area but I just wasn’t getting the emotional connection. So, I sat down and did a mind map to try and get to the bottom of it. I started looking at all the things that were important to me: lots of light, plenty of white space to hang artwork, and somewhere to bake bread. Suddenly, I had a eureka moment, and realised that I was already sitting in the very building I was describing in my mind map!

I also felt that apart from local pubs, there wasn’t really any other way to socialise. There wasn’t the cafe lounge culture that I had grown to love in the city, where you could just pop in for coffee, or sit and work and bump into friends. I saw At the Chapel as a wonderful opportunity to become a meeting point for the whole community. Somewhere that was accessible to everyone, open all the time – where you could have what you wanted and the answer was always yes!

What was the most challenging aspect of setting up At the Chapel?
All of it! Dealing with the conservation of the building and planning, all the consultations to see if people really wanted us here, not to mention the extensive building work. It’s been a massive undertaking. We removed five hundred tons of rubble from the undercroft to create the club room, and also had to shore up the whole building. The building project is still ongoing, and that’s thirteen years on!

Dining guests tucking in At the Chapel
Photographed by Ben Taylor

Your restaurant is at the heart of the community. Was this always your vision?
Yes, that was always the goal. I remember when we were first setting things up, some people thought that At the Chapel was just going to be an expensive London restaurant in a country town. That notion is the exact opposite to what I wanted to create. I didn’t see why making something affordable and accessible to everyone should mean bad design and low quality.

A big thing for me was that women could come here on their own. I noticed that there were a lot of single elderly women in Bruton, and wanted to create an environment where they would feel comfortable. A lot of them wouldn’t like the idea of going down the pub. In fact, I can guarantee that one lady who lives in Bruton will come in everyday for lunch on her own. All my girls know her, and if one day she doesn’t turn up everybody says “where is she, is she ok? We even had a situation where she didn’t show for a few days and one of my staff asked if she could pop over to her house to check she was OK. So, our philosophy extends beyond just being a restaurant.

“I saw At the Chapel as a wonderful opportunity to become a meeting point for the whole community. Somewhere that was accessible to everyone, open all the time, where you could have what you wanted and the answer was always yes!”

At the Chapel has already expanded from its original form. Was this always the grand plan?
We didn’t have a plan to expand from the original concept in the beginning, and the whole journey has been completely organic. I think that’s the best way for a business to grow.

What is your secret to your success?
I think it’s simple things like making the commitment to do something really well and working hard to achieve that. I also have a bit of a perfectionist streak, and often think ‘we could do better’. I wanted to create something that the Bruton community would be proud of, and that in itself is a huge motivator for me. It’s also a philosophy that my staff believe in, and we’re always collectively striving to make things better.

How do you keep your energy levels up?
Just by sheer bloody mindedness and riding on the adrenaline wave! It’s a bit like show business, and once you’re on, you’re on! I try to eat healthily and take time for plenty of walks in the Somerset countryside with my dogs. Walking the dogs is a good way of getting out of my head and into the present moment.

Photographed by Ben Taylor

How do you relax?
Believe it or not, I love to cook and I’m fascinated by food. The other thing that inspires me now, since moving to Bruton, is the whole connection between the community, the land, local food and local creatives and artists. I also like growing my own vegetables at home and follow the Charles Dowding “no dig” method.

What advice would you give a budding entrepreneur?
Make sure you do something that you really love, because it’s going to be hard work at times. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, it will keep you going during those challenging times. Also, good ethics means good business. If you follow that route then success is bound to follow.

What ingredients make a great restaurant?
That’s simple! Nice place, great food and good people.

What in your mind makes great food?
You’ve got to start with high quality food and the right ingredients. Then it’s all about having people who are not only skilled at what they do, but who also love and care about what they’re doing. I would never want my food cooked by an angry chef, and I would never want to eat a menu designed by a head office. We also source our ingredients locally, and most of our ingredients come from suppliers within five miles. There are not many restaurants that can say that.

I feel I’m living my dream. I’m a great believer in the fact that happiness comes from within and that you create your own happiness.
Photographed by Ben Taylor
"I feel I’m living my dream. I’m a great believer in the fact that happiness comes from within and that you create your own happiness."

How do you make such brilliant pizzas?
Well firstly, Ahmed had a passion for pizzas and designed the pizza oven using reclaimed materials that we found on site. Then we sent our chefs to a school in Venice. A very good friend of mine comes from Naples where allegedly they make the greatest pizzas. I asked him if there was somewhere in Naples where we could learn the art of pizza making. He said no, the best pizzas come from Venice! So he sent us to a friend of his who owned a flour mill just outside Venice. They have a laboratory there where they’ve been exploring different types of flour and water, baking temperatures, and even the mood of the pizza chefs. They found that the best water comes from Naples, and that the mood of the chef definitely impacts the taste.

What is your vision for the future?
To get some sleep! [laughs] I’d like to finish the building work at At the Chapel. I’d also like to carry on raising the standard of what we offer here. We’ve got an exciting programme of music and film events coming up. Mariella Frostrop is doing a session of “In conversation with” local celebrities like Don Mccullin and Cameron Mackintosh. We’re also working with Hauser & Wirth Somerset to provide the food and drink for the Roth Bar & Grill at their new arts centre in Bruton, which recently opened.

At The Chapel chandelier
Photographed by Ben Taylor

If all the tables are fully booked At the Chapel, where do you like to eat?
Because I work so much I don’t get to go out that often these days. I enjoy eating at home. I love Matt’s Kitchen in Bruton. When I’m travelling I like to explore the different restaurants in that area to get new ideas.

What is your favourite meal of the day and what would it be?
I like it all!

What inspires you in life?
People who follow their dreams, and people who give a damn.

When were you happiest?
Right now in this very moment! I feel I’m living my dream. I’m a great believer in the fact that happiness comes from within and that you create your own happiness.