Charlie Hibbert is head chef of Ox Barn, the new destination restaurant at Thyme – a beautifully restored and family-run Cotswold Manor on a 150 acre farm on the borders of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Once derelict stables, The Ox Barn now serves produce from its kitchen gardens under soaring ceilings and to a backdrop of original Cotswold stone rubble walls and a state-of-the art seven-and-a-half-metre Charvet open kitchen.
How would you describe your cooking style?
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Our menu is based on the food I enjoy eating ؘ– probably best described as modern British. It’s very much ingredient led, which is the way all food is going.
Many of your ingredients, including your lamb, come from your kitchen gardens and farm at Thyme. What does that mean to you as a chef?
It makes you realise the effort that goes into growing good vegetables, all our chefs have done a stint in the garden. We go down and dig the vegetables ourselves rather than having them arrive beautifully cleaned and prepared. It takes time, but it gives you another level of appreciation for ingredients.
My ethos has evolved from the places I’ve worked. My first proper kitchen job was at winery Craggy Range in New Zealand. They were very protective of their terroir and that transferred to their restaurant. At Quo Vadis, Jeremy Lee is uncompromising when it comes to sourcing ingredients. It’s all about beautifully grown produce, respectfully prepared.
What produce are you most looking forward to in September?
We planted a new orchard and it’s really exciting to see all the stone fruits – damsons, medlars, sloes – ripening on the trees.
The garden here rolls on much later than you would think; I’m about ready to move on from kale and leeks now but I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of tomato salads.
Ox Barn is almost ready to celebrate its first birthday. How has the first year been?
Luckily, as expected! It’s a very big ship and it’s the first one I’ve been at the helm of properly, so getting it going in its own right has been my focus.
At weekends we’re completely full – on Saturday evening we had reservations for 89 people and 98 turned up. We just about fit them all in.
How does the food scene in the Cotswolds differ from London?
It used to be very different – the Cotwolds was all about the countryside boozer with burgers or sausage and mash on the menu.
But now there’s growing demand for destination restaurants because guests need a good reason to drive for half-an-hour to the middle of nowhere, or stay for a weekend, and eat with you.
I was worried about attracting good chefs, but people are becoming less enamoured with life in London and wanting to move out to cook, so the food scene is expanding. Dillion, my sous-chef comes from Peckham and he didn’t need to be asked twice.
How important is sustainability when it comes to devising you menus?
Incredibly important. Of course, out here we have minimal carbon footprint and endless room for composting. Now, I’m trying to really get rid of plastics. Cling film is the obvious devil and that was easy – but it’s also about things like biros. We’re nearly there.
Thyme is a family affair, what’s it like working with your mum, dad and sister?
I love it. For the most part it works brilliantly; we’ve each got our own responsibilities but everyone puts in their two cents and Thyme, as a whole, is better for it. Of course, we know how to push each other’s buttons but the challenges are negligible compared to what I thought they would be.
The bulk of the risk and biggest leap of faith was made by mum mum who bought some derelict buildings 15 years ago and learnt how to build and run a hotel and cookery school from scratch.
Do you ever teach at the Thyme cookery school?
I enjoy teaching the occasional class, like instinctive cooking and how to use your garden. But I enjoy the hands on aspect of being in the kitchen more. The three hours of prep each morning and evening is where my heart is. Service is where all your hard work comes together.
Who’s had the biggest influence on you?
Working with Jeremy was amazing – he has an encyclopedic knowledge of food. I remember when I arrived I had only been a chef for about a year but I was still expected to be able to cook; to open the fridge and make a meal from whatever was in there. It was trial by fire but that made me even keener to learn.
What’s your favourite thing to cook at home?
Simple salads, my wife’s vegetarian so we’re pretty much exclusively vegetarian at home.
We have the odd Lebanaese takeaway, if we’re in London.
You recently got married at Thyme – congratulations! What was your wedding meal?
Thank you. I have to say, it was amazing! Margot Henderson – the acclaimed food writer and author – cooked for us.
We had big tomato salads, globe artichokes and trout salads to start and grilled leg of lamb for main with lots of grilled aubergines for the veggies.
For dessert, we had a black currant terrarium cake made by Claire Ptak [who also created Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding cake].
Ox Barn is open for bookings from Wednesday evening to Sunday afternoon; Rooms at Thyme start from £325 a night