20 years ago, Piers Baker transformed The Sun Inn into one of Dedham’s top foodie destinations. We chat to him about how he did it
Pre-The Sun Inn, what were you involved in?
I was General Manager of four pubs in London from 1998-2002. I was part of the team opening rundown boozers and turning them into busy, food-led pubs with great wine lists and beer from independent brewers.
What can you tell us about the inn’s history?
As far as we can tell, the building has always been a resting post for travellers going back as far as the 17th century. It was known as Wards (due to the L shape layout of the building), The Sun Tavern, and Sun Hotel. The lower part of the restaurant is where the old stables were and there are pictures in the pub of horses and hay being thrown down from what is now the guest room Dovecot. Some say it was listed in the Doomsday Book, but I haven’t checked!
Before I owned it, Greene King operated it as a tenanted business and ran it into the ground. Prior to that it was owned at one time by Ronny Lancaster of Lancaster Cars and, funnily enough, his manager was also called Piers – Piers Chenevix-Trench
What was it about the inn that attracted you to taking it over?
I’d been looking at pubs in Essex and Suffolk for around a year. It was one of the first I looked at, but the price was too high for what needed doing to it. Dedham seemed a busy place with a strong community as well as good footfall from visitors, especially compared to other more rural spots in the Chelmsford-Ipswich A12 corridor.
The layout was perfect – space for people that just wanted to drink, a restaurant area, snug lounge and lovely garden with a car park. By the time I’d exhausted my search, it was still on the market, but the price had halved. So, I made an offer and eventually paid a nominal amount due to the extensive structural and refurbishment work required.
What did you offer from day one of it opening under your management 20 years ago?
A short menu of 10 dishes, no starters or puds really. The first menu was on blackboards with people ordering at the bar like our London pubs, but that didn’t last long due to the distance from the restaurant area to the pub. But what we offer now in 2023 is simply an extension of what was first offered in 2003 – robust, simple and seasonal food that changed regularly, great beer from independent brewers and eclectic wine from hands-on winemakers. And seven rather than four guest rooms.
What was the initial reaction like to what you offered?
There was a core of customers who got it immediately without much explanation – a lot of them are still customers today. Day visitors were a bit harder to crack, but pretty quickly we extended the menu to offer a good ploughman’s and a couple of sandwiches in our style. There were some that just couldn’t understand that chips weren’t available, a steak would be sliced as part of a Tuscan Style Salad called ‘Tagliata’ and fish was served whole with a head and tail on. There were some drinkers who thought we were a wine bar – it took about 2-3 years to work out we served real ale, and they’re now regulars. Some weren’t used to the music we played – a mix of Latin Jazz, Samba, American, but now we have many followers of our playlists that vary throughout the day. And some thought our non-black uniform was a bit odd!
How would you say you have evolved?
I’d say while we’ve broadened our offering, we’ve also become better and more consistent in our delivery of it. A lot of our evolution has been down to our team, many of whom have given 8-10 years of service and some returning from the very early days. They’ve helped us adapt to customer feedback without losing the core of what we believe in. And of course, as humans, we make mistakes, but we’re a lot more confident we can fix them if we know about them and learn from the feedback quickly.
How would you sum up the menu today?
Still seasonal led, simply executed, using as much local produce as possible. The menu offers something for most, whatever the time of day or occasion. There is a casual element to the menu of soup, burgers, seafood platters, mussels, but we also have a great main menu of starters, pasta, seafood and meat dishes as well as vegan and vegetarian which are integral in our menu. You can have a sandwich and a bowl of soup for lunch on Monday, a bowl of pasta on Wednesday evening, come for a slap up three course meal on Saturday and back for a roast on Sunday!
How would you describe Jack Levine’s cooking?
Jack is a brilliant chef, getting tonnes of flavour into a dish without overcrowding it with too many ingredients or techniques. Some dishes look deceptively simple, but a lot of work goes into them and they burst with flavour. He ensures the menus are exciting but balanced and are deliverable as we can serve up to 180 people in a service. His team of seven chefs – with combined service of about 35 years – contribute massively to this.
Does he make full use of the produce around you?
This has become more difficult as the years have gone by. Originally, we bought from around 20 growers of fruit and vegetables from within five miles of the pub. Now only two exist – baby vegetables from Remfresh in Ardleigh and strawberries from Lawford. Our fruit and veg supplier, Anglia Produce, work really hard in sourcing great produce from East Anglia. Our meat comes from Willshers’ in Marks Tey and Direct Meats in Earls Colne who get a lot of meat in from East Anglian farms. And our fish comes from The Little Fish Company who buy from East Coast and South Coast day boats. Our cheese comes from Hamish Johnston in Woodbridge who imports from Europe as well as the UK and Ireland. But certainly, anything we can get from around us, we use.
Do you have a favourite dish, or dishes, right now?
Right now, we have a Roman Style Lamb Stew on our 20 Year Menu. It might sound unseasonal and heavy, but it’s the opposite. Spring lamb, slowly cooked with white wine and a touch of vinegar. And then asparagus, baby turnups, peas, new potatoes and masses of mint added at the last minute. It is deeply delicious and bursting with freshness.
What can you tell us about the 20th anniversary set menu?
It began in March and changes each month. It features a starter, main course and pudding from dishes that appeared on some of our original menus back in 2003, all updated by Jack to reflect his style and skills!
And you also have an offer on overnight stays?
Yes, for £200.03 you can stay the night and enjoy this menu with a couple of glasses of wine. And have breakfast the next morning!
What can we expect at The Sun’s music and beer festival?
Al Festo is our annual event over 15 and 16 July. On Saturday we have six bands playing from 1.30pm with the last act on at 6.30pm. The music is Americana, a bit more rocky in the late afternoon. On Sunday we have three acts, a bit more chilled, finishing with Cable Street Collective hot off their Glastonbury appearance – upbeat rhythms with Congolese-influenced guitar sounds. The food will feature our legendary burger, loaded fries and a selection of tacos.
Finally, what’s next?
A very busy summer hopefully! No major plans on the horizon. Just consolidating business for our three sites in tricky economic times while still giving great value and ensuring all our guests are well looked after.