“We want people to come in and go, ‘this isn’t normal’,” says Nick Mash, owner of The Mash Inn in Buckinghamshire, England. The six-room inn is located in a rural part of the town and has an interesting philosophy when it comes to food and service: keep it simple and break the traditional barriers that keep diners from fully engaging with their dining experience.
Mash and Jon Parry, executive chef at the inn, are working to create a dining experience where guests can have some of the most exciting food in the area that tells the story of the part of England that the inn is located in. As Mash puts it, “this is hospitality for grown ups” and it’s something that other restaurateurs can add to their existing hospitality programmes.
Dining out usually follows the same order of events: go to a restaurant, sit at a table, dine, pay and leave. Not at The Mash Inn, where diners are escorted into an open room where they find a wooden butcher’s block and wood fired grills, manned by Parry. At times, the layout of the restaurant is a little alarming for diners. “Sometimes guests don’t even realise that they’ve walked into the kitchen,” he laughs. “It’s really organic the way that it happens.” Guests can also have a drink in the gardens where they’ll see chefs harvesting herbs and vegetables prior to that night’s dinner service.
For Mash, designing the restaurant space was an opportunity to create an open atmosphere where not only can guests see the kitchen, they can also interact with the chefs making their meals. “The design of the space was really about simplicity and we wanted to bring down the walls between dining room and kitchen, front of the house and back of the house,” he says. “We want guests to be able to stand in the kitchen with a glass of locally made champagne and talk with Jon about their meal.”
There are two menus at The Mash Inn: a tasting menu and an a la carte menu. Both focus on local and seasonal ingredients and change on a daily basis. Giving diners choices was important to Mash and Parry and is an important part of their whole ‘grown up’ philosophy. “People can kind of choose their experience and make it however they want it to be,” Parry says. Whether they’re enjoying a tasting menu or just an item off of the a la carte menu, they can be sure that what they’re having is local. “Everything I put on the plate I try to make taste like the place. We just try to respect everything and waste nothing,” he says. Neighbours of the inn have even started giving him their game and vegetables. “Some of our neighbours are farmers and they’ll come by and say ‘I have a whole pig do you want it’,” Parry says. “Sometimes they’ll come by with partridges or whatever and it’ll become part of our menu,” Mash adds.
It’s not possible for every restaurant to take down all of its walls and make the dining room a completely open concept, but there are ways to create more of an open atmosphere using hospitality, Parry says. “Don’t be scared to talk to the guests,” he advises his fellow chefs. “It sounds small but it’s really a great way to break down that barrier between chef and diner.” When guests are able to hear how the meat that they’re eating is from a farmer that lives nearby, or they can hear the story of how a certain herb or vegetable was harvested, it makes that dining experience more special. “People love hearing that story of the food,” he continues.
He recommends other restaurant owners think about ways in which they can break down barriers between dining and cooking, including kitchen staff and servers. “There’s always this thing in restaurants about back of the house and front of the house,” he says. “It should be less about that and more about the whole house in general.” One of the best ways to show staff how to be more mindful of the whole house is to have back of the house staff do a shift in front of the house and vice versa, he says. “It makes it a lot less scary for a cook to go and talk to guest if they’ve seen how front of the house works,” he says.
Surprisingly, the inspiration that Mash used when opening and designing The Mash Inn is super traditional. “I really wanted it to be like a traditional house in the U.K.,” he says. The old-style lodges where guests would stay and have a meal that was cooked by the house staff served as the basis for what the inn is today. “We’ve really just refreshed that concept to a very reasonable place to come and have an honest experience.” Guests and diners often tell him that they love the restaurant because it’s ‘just so different,’ he says. For Parry that’s what he’s trying to create in the dining room. “I want guests to remember it and people to come back.”
Photos courtesy of The Mash Inn