After years of working with the country’s best chefs, Jon and Beth Toovey founded Sauce Supper Club as a way to bring the finest of dining home to Lichfield. Amy Norbury discovers more
Like many of the best foodie experiences, it all started in Paris. Living between France and Lichfield and working to source the highest quality ingredients for clients including multi-Michelin star holders Heston Blumenthal and The Waterside at Bray, Jon Toovey spent much of his time immersed in the sights, sounds and gastronomic delights of the world famous Rungis market, the largest fresh produce market in the world. It was here that he would discover the suppliers and glorious fresh goods which made him an integral part of professional kitchens up and down the country.
After all, the best food needs the best ingredients, and Jon soon cemented a reputation as the man to go to, becoming many a top chef’s right hand man, if you were.
And it is this reputation and ethos which is the driving force behind Jon’s business, Sauce Fine Foods. Sauce is the collaboration of over 30 years knowledge and expertise of buying high quality produce, supplying high-end restaurants and hotels, with many Michelin starred establishments using their unique service across the Midlands and beyond.
“The quality is second to none, the standards are enormously high and only the best produce is acceptable at Rungis,” explains Jon.
Jon had spent close to a decade working in Paris for larger companies, making contact with chefs and building up business to become one of the most trusted suppliers of fine foods.
“I was commuting between Lichfield and Paris, going out on a Monday and back on a Thursday, and eight years went by like nothing,” explains Jon. “So it was time for a change.”
After a short-lived stint working in Dubai, importing ingredients from France into the UAE, Jon decided it was time to set up on his own. He and wife Beth were on a trip to Stockholm to support Midlands chef Adam Bennett, of The Cross in Kenilworth, at the European selection of the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition – the culinary Oscars, when inspiration struck.
“Sauce was born on the plane on the way home,” laughs Jon. The name is two-fold; Jon sources the very best produce for the chefs he works with, and the name also takes inspiration from a piece of advice given by Luke Tipping, executive chef at Michelin-starred Simpsons in Edgbaston.
“Luke told me years ago that the most important thing about a dish is the sauce,” explains Jon. “That’s why he always does the sauce, even now; the sauce ties everything together.”
Jon drew on his decades of experience of sourcing the very best fresh produce and ingredients and his contacts with top chefs to build Sauce into one of the best suppliers of quality goods.
“I’ve got a great connection with chefs locally,” says Jon. “We started with Adam Bennett, then we got Simpsons, then Luke at Simpsons would recommend me to someone and it’s gone from there. And when chefs leave restaurants I was working with to go elsewhere I supply their new ventures; so we do Cheal’s in Henley-in-Arden which Matt Cheal set up after leaving Simpsons, and now Nathan Eades has left Simpsons to go to The Wild Rabbit, so we’re supplying them.
“Chefs know that what we do, we do well, and we have a great relationship; I’m not the cheapest by any means but you have to pay for the best.
“We don’t hold any stock, everything is sourced to order so chefs place their orders on a Monday, we buy the produce on Tuesday morning and it comes over through the Tunnel for us to deliver on Tuesday night, ready for Wednesday morning, then we take orders on Wednesday for delivery on Friday.”
Chefs also ask Jon’s advice on produce; what’s coming available with the seasons, what the best ingredients are.
Jon’s business is a far cry from humble beginnings with a stall on Brownhills Market.
“I started with a friend selling seasonal fruit and veg; we used to go to Birmingham market and pick up produce to sell on our stall,” he explains.
Jon soon moved from the buzz of the market into bricks-and-mortar retail with his first shop, which eventually became a chain of four around the Midlands.
“But retail started to drift off as the supermarkets took over, and we used to get a lot of chefs coming to the back door to get our best produce,” explains Jon. “So we decided to move into wholesale, supplying restaurants.”
After more than 30 years of working both for himself and for larger companies, Jon’s knowledge of ingredients, produce and suppliers is second to none. – something chefs value immensely.
Immersed in the world of fine dining, Jon is used to tasting the very best – he is often called upon by the chefs he works with to trial new dishes. But back home in Lichfield, Jon and Beth were continually disappointed by the fine dining options available locally.
So last year Jon and Beth, a graphic designer by trade, set up Sauce Supper Club, and over the past 12 months have managed to attract some of the country’s finest chefs to hold pop-up dining events in and around the cathedral city.
“We were always out eating somewhere because chefs who Jon supplies would invite us to try new menus using his produce,” says Beth. “And people would always ask us where we liked to eat, where we’d recommend – and when it came to the local area, we’d get a bit stuck.
“There are a huge amount of restaurants in Lichfield but more fine dining is sorely needed; the quality has improved over the past couple of years but we believed there was still a gap in the city.”
The couple’s idea was to bring top quality chefs into the area for events held at some of the city’s top venues, bringing together all the elements that create a fine dining experience. From the finest ingredients, complemented with the most exquisite wines through to supremely talented chefs, each supper club takes guests on a gastronomic journey to remember.
With Jon’s contacts in fine dining circles, he managed to attract support from some of the top chefs in the area and the inaugural event in February saw Brad Carter, of one Michelin-starred Carter’s of Moseley, cook up a storm with an exquisite five-course tasting menu for 60 guests at the picturesque St John’s House in the centre of Lichfield.
“We’re good friends with Dan at St Johns House and they have a great set-up there which seemed to fit with our idea,” says Beth.
The first event sold out in just two days, with Beth being inundated with enquiries and bookings for tables – in fact, they could have sold it twice over.
And the momentum hasn’t slowed down. Jon and Beth have now welcomed Luke Tipping, Rob Palmer from one Michelin-starred Hampton Manor, another former Michelin star holder in Lichfield’s own Richard Turner – who was so popular the couple had to put on a second night, exciting young chef Alex Bond and former Simpsons head chef Matt Cheal to Lichfield, as well as running events in conjunction with local rising star Liam Dillon, of The Boat Inn.
But the icing on the fine dining cake was the end-of-year Michelin star extravaganza at Alrewas Hayes, which saw six chefs with six stars between them cook up six courses – headlined by none other than Tom Kerridge of two-starred The Hand and Flowers.
As well as being a huge boon for the diners of Lichfield, the pop-ups offer plenty of benefits for the chefs and venues involved.
“It works on many levels,” says Beth. “The chefs get to promote their restaurants and attract new guests, and it’s great for them to get their teams out into a different environment to see who shines.
“The chef will generally come over to look at the kitchen but the brigade won’t, so when they get there and all of a sudden they don’t have something or things aren’t where they’re used to, the pressure’s on! It’s like a team-building exercise, they do love it!
“And for the venues, it gives their kitchen team the chance to work with top chefs and for their front-of-house team to experience a totally different type of evening. We find that front-of-house especially tend to enjoy the nights.”
After such a successful first year, Jon and Beth aren’t resting on their laurels. Their first 2018 event saw Nathan Eades of The Wild Rabbit come to The Wine House, while this month’s is a star-studded offering with two of the finalists of Masterchef: The Professionals in the shape of Birmingham chefs Leo Kattou and Louisa Ellis.
Great British Menu favourite Will Holland – named him one of the ten most influential chefs of the decade by the Good Food Guide – is on the bill for March, and Jon and Beth have a number of other stars in the pipeline.
In their hunt for the best talent to bring to the city, Jon and Beth travel all over the country and beyond to visit, and dine with, chefs on their wishlist.
“We usually take the chef’s table, because it’s much easier to talk through the concept and sell it to them when we’re sitting right in front of them,” laughs Beth.
“The only problem is that we tend to make each trip into a little break, stay overnight and enjoy the full experience, so it starts to add up!
“We went to The Sportsman in Kent, which has been voted best restaurant in the UK for two years running, and the food was incredible; no pretensions, just amazing food, so we hope to get them on board, and we’re also talking to Gareth Ward of Ynyshir Restaurant and Rooms, one of the top restaurants in Wales.”
With Sauce Supper Club bringing a taste of the finest dining to Lichfield, and showing the city a little of what it’s been missing, Jon and Beth have huge hopes for an on-going foodie revival in the area.
“I always thought Lichfield could be like Ludlow was a few years ago,” says Jon. “There’s a massive foodie following with the popularity of the food festival, and the amazing reaction to Sauce Supper Club shows there’s an interest in fine dining.
“The hope is that one of the chefs we get over here will see the potential in the city and set something up here.”
For more details of upcoming events visit www.saucesupperclub.co.uk.