Dan on the farm: what does it take to launch a hyper-seasonal, self-sufficient restaurant?
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Dan Cox is first and foremost a chef. In 2008 he won the Roux Scholarship and spent a couple of months working under Santi Santamaria at three-Michelin-starred Can Fabes in Cataluña. A stint at No 14 in Verbier followed. Then he joined Simon Rogan at L’Enclume in Cumbria and later Fera at Claridge’s, where he helped secure its Michelin star within three months of opening.
As well as a chef, though, Cox is also an autodidact who’s taught himself to be so many other things, too. As a kid growing up in Holloway, north London, he used to take things apart just to see how they worked. “I once dismantled an electric blanket and got myself electrocuted,” he tells me. It’s a gung-ho approach that has served him better at Crocadon, the 120-acre farm in St Mellion, Cornwall, which he took on in 2017 with dreams of growing vegetables, raising livestock and launching his own farm-to-table restaurant. “Eating seasonal homegrown produce and supporting small farms that are helping to make a positive change is key to building a better food system in the UK,” he says. Alongside prized artichokes and lazy housewife beans, his crop includes three varieties of turnips, Petrowski, Sweetbell and 80-day Milan, “all exceptionally sweet and tender enough to eat raw”.
Among the jobs he’s undertaken (often single-handed) since taking on the farm have been installing a microbrewery for organic beer and assembling a walk-in fridge to dry-age meat. He’s introduced rare- and heritage-breed sheep and cattle and helped restore the soil health through diverse planting. “I just bought a load of books on Amazon,” he says of how he mugged up on soil ecology. One of his purchases was The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms by Charles Darwin.
Cox’s decision to leave a prestige gig in Mayfair for a farm being advertised on Rightmove might seem bonkers. But the move was a long time coming. Working at Can Fabes, he says, “gave me a different perspective on how good produce could be”, especially when sourced straight from a farm. Verbier fuelled his love for beautiful natural settings. “Coming from London, that’s not how I grew up,” he admits. “But that’s what I really want.” At L’Enclume, he got his agricultural know-how running the restaurant farm. He also sourced ceramics for service. Watching potter Paul Mossman at work inspired him to invest in his own wheel and kiln, despite having no experience handling clay. “I was going to knock a hole through the wall of my rented flat and have an exhaust pipe,” he says of the kiln. But on discovering the vapour from glazes can be toxic at high temperatures, he built a shed outside instead. Now he runs a pottery studio at Crocadon and collaborates with emerging British ceramicists, experimenting with glazes made from waste products including lobster shells and sheep bones.
Five years later than intended, he is now in a position to launch the restaurant, which is also called Crocadon. Housed in a former barn, converted by Cox, with an open-plan kitchen at one end, the 25-cover dining room exudes cosy informality. It’s a vibe aided by the presence of a turntable and crate of LPs (mostly ’70s soul and folk), which Cox and his team take turns browsing and picking out albums from like kids in a record store.
On my visit in February, there isn’t much fresh farm produce to showcase. So the 10-course tasting menu (there’s also a six-course menu Thursday to Saturday and a three-course lunch menu on Sunday) is dominated by preserves and ferments. In Cox’s hands, this is only a blessing. One starter consists of slices of golden beetroot and cured pollack in rowanberry kombucha and melon vinegar (made from last year’s glut), a liquor so delicious I could sip it all night.
The chicken flan – essentially a chicken mousse – is nice enough (though perhaps too sparing on the cream). But it’s not a scratch on the accompanying side of BBQ leeks with chicken offal XO, which contains dried monkfish liver and pulsates with flavour. Then there’s the scallop with Ute Indian squash. This is dressed in a warm camomile pickle and emits a heady scent like raw mangos that stops me in my tracks. Each mouthful is sweet, bitter and buttery with the gentlest tingle of heat.
The main course is roasted sheep leg with liver and cabbage. This is sturdy and pleasing but a little upstaged by the currents of flavour Cox is able to stir up in a secondary plate of confit sheep. This features potato and butterbean miso and lovage oil among other ingredients. The combo strikes aniseedy, peppery and lemony notes – like mint sauce on steroids. Not every dish is a triumph. Some feel easier to admire than enjoy, like the whey caramel tart, with yoghurt, sorrel and caramelised apple. But the meal is lively in its wine pairings and often surprising. The final “Aha” moment comes when I’m sipping fresh chocolate-mint tea and the team digs out an LP that usually only gets an airing at the end of the night: ABBA’s “Voulez-Vous”. Well, I wasn’t expecting that. But I like it.