A Swansea-born chef who’s most recently headed up Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill in London is set to take over a former Welsh Michelin-starred restaurant.
Andrew Birch and his wife Rachel have bought the Checkers in Montgomery, a restaurant with rooms in Powys, which held a Michelin star from 2011 until 2018.
The previous owners, Stéphane Borie, Sarah Francis and Kathryn Francis, asked to return their star to the Michelin guide when their business changed direction from a fine dining restaurant to an informal daytime venue.
Andrew, who trained at catering college in Port Talbot, has been cooking for over 20 years and worked in Michelin-starred kitchens as well as been executive chef of a number of 5-star country hotels. Most recently, Andrew was head chef of Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill in London.
Rachel comes from a pastry chef background and has also worked in Michelin-starred kitchens, including Galvin at Windows in the London Hilton on Park Lane.
Andrew represented Wales on the BBC’s Great British Menu in 2016 and it was during a research trip for his appearance on TV that the couple first became aware of the Checkers.
“I was using a couple of products that come from Montgomery and that’s the first time we set eyes on the building and I was like, ‘I’d love to have a restaurant exactly like this one day in this exact type of location,’” said Andrew.
When the couple saw that the Checkers was up for sale in 2017, it was initially out of their grasp.
“It was well above what we could afford. So we just forgot about it and then we saw that the price kept dropping. And then we were in a position where we could acquire it,” said Andrew.
Andrew and Rachel made contact with the previous owners in November 2020, but they’d just signed a one-year lease on the building as a holiday let and so weren’t able to purchase the property immediately.
So, after more than a year of waiting patiently, Andrew and Rachel finally received the keys to the Checkers on Monday, January 10.
There’s a lot of work to be done to get the place ready in time for a target opening of the middle of March.
“Because it hasn’t been run as a restaurant for nearly five years there’s a lot of work that we need to do. There’s no till system in place, the website is set up for holiday lets and we need to invest money in the kitchen because it’s been run for outside catering events. We also need to spend money on furniture in the restaurant because there isn’t any and we need to redecorate the bedrooms,” said Andrew.
When the Checkers is ready for business, the 30 to 40-seater restaurant will be open for lunch and breakfast from Thursday to Sunday and dinner from Wednesday to Saturday.
Andrew’s cooking will focus on seasonal and local produce and the kind of dishes you can expect to find include Welsh lamb with ewe’s curd and broccoli and custard tart with rhubarb.
“We’re going to run it as a fine dining restaurant but we want to keep it as relaxed as possible. We want to cater for the locals and we’d like to turn it as much as we can into a destination,” said Andrew.
“Rachel and I have worked in some amazing places and we’d like to bring all of that here. I enjoy cooking food that I enjoy eating and that I believe that our guests will enjoy. I have no interest in cooking food for an ego.”
Andrew is already getting accustomed to being asked the question of whether he’s looking to regain the restaurant’s Michelin star.
“We’ve been asked that a million times. That is not our focus, our focus is to have a successful restaurant which can support me, my wife and my family and we can feed happy guests. If things come then great, but I’m certainly not accolade led.
“I’ve got two young kids and a wife and the whole industry has changed through covid. We’ve struggled to find staff, there’s lead times on equipment and ingredient prices have gone up. I’m not cooking for accolades, I’m cooking to have a successful restaurant.”
In a testament to the challenges of the pandemic, Andrew was made redundant from an executive chef job in July 2020 and worked as an Amazon delivery driver and agency chef before landing his most recent role as head chef of Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill.
It was always going to be a temporary job as the wheels were in motion for Andrew and Rachel to take over the Checkers. However, Gordon couldn’t have been more understanding.
“I was there for a couple of months when Gordon came into the kitchen and the first thing he said to me was he’d heard great things about me and that he’d heard that I was opening up a restaurant in the new year.
“We spoke about the restaurant for about half an hour. He offered to put me in contact with solicitors and he offered for me to go to their warehouse to see if there’s any kitchen equipment that I would need. He was very helpful and very supportive.”
Whilst Andrew is originally from Swansea, he’s spent much of his career working in England. To say he’s pleased to be opening his own restaurant in Wales is an understatement.
“I believe I am one of the proudest Welsh people you will ever meet. Whenever the Six Nations is on I always travel back home to Swansea and go and watch it in the pub with my brothers. So yeah, I’m very excited to move back to Wales.”