Out of the frying pan… Interview with head chef Mark Archer

Out of the frying pan…

. . .of Seckford Hall chef Mark Archer comes some of the most delicious food you could hope to eat. All served up in the most elegant of surroundings

Mark Archer is that rarity among the Suffolk restaurant trade . . . a head chef who has worked at the same place, Seckford Hall, for 12 years. In a business known for its fast turnover of staff, Mark, a gently spoken Geordie, has happily led the way in the Seckford kitchens with no need to move on. “I took over from Jonathan Brown, who was head chef and ‘troubleshooter’ when I came down from working in hotels in the North East. Let’s just say things needed changing and I was able to continue the work started by Jonathan, albeit in a less flamboyant way!

“Basically it was agreed by myself, and the owner Michael Bunn, that I would take control of the food and we would only meet if there was a problem.” Clearly that trust has worked well with Mark taking charge of a team that may have been trimmed back to eight but works to his exacting standards day in, day out.

He describes his style as classical with a twist of modern British using good, local produce. “Customers demand it these days,” he says. “Our beef, and we use Red Poll cattle, is from Dedham Vale and our venison comes from east Suffolk. Our game is shot, hung and then prepared for us by local people.

Cannon of Lamb with baby onion tart,roasted root vegetables and dauphinoise potatoes.“I try to meet our suppliers every week, so I might be up in north Norfolk looking at seasonal vegetables, or fresh fish, or I could be somewhere closer to home here in the county. I enjoy doing it too. In fact, our suppliers regularly send us flyers telling us what’s available so we can use fresh ingredients throughout the year.”

Mark wants his fellow chefs to be as passionate about food as he is and his enthusiasm must be infectious (and lasting) as many of his pot-washers or trainees return to Seckford to work for him. “It’s nice to see them come back and shows that I’m not perhaps an ogre in the kitchen!” he says.

One question he asks his staff before a plate of food leaves the kitchen is: “Would they pay £15 – or whatever it costs – for it? “If the answer is ‘no’ it doesn’t go out, simple as that. Presentation, and attention to detail, is very important.” Even before uttering those words Mark has delivered what he promises by meticulously arranging food for our photoshoot. There’s a precise drizzle of jus and exacting placement of some cuts of meat. He agonises over a barely discernible finger print on the edge of a plate – that’s attention to detail.

The pictures on these pages give a good indication of Mark’s talents. Among the starters on the a la carte restaurant menu are scallop spring roll, with pink ginger, coriander, vegetables and teriyaki dip; cream of Jerusalem artichoke soup; galantine of rabbit, venison and guinea fowl and (perhaps best of all, based on our brief tastings), sauteed breast of pigeon with beetroot jelly, rocquette and toasted pine nut salad.

The Cannon of Lamb with a rosemary tatin was stunning, the meat cooked to pink perfection. Monkfish, lemon sole, pheasant and rib eye steak also feature. You can eat in the plush surrounding of the main restaurant, with views of the gardens, for £27.50 for three courses or, on Fridays and Saturdays, £31.50. Oh, and we shouldn’t forget the desserts such as roast fig and chocolate fondant or a trio of coffee desserts (tiramisu, espresso pannacotta and cappuncino ice-cream).

The Seckford cheese platter is nicely put together with Shipcord cheddar, a crumbly textured hard cow’s milk cheese from Rodwell Farm, just over the county border, joining West Country and Cumbria varieties. The menu changes frequently so there could be more intriguing dishes to try when youy read this.

If you prefer something simpler, the club restaurant has starters and mains that vary in price from £3.95 for soup of the day, with freshly baked bread, to warm duck confit and salmon dishes (around £6-7) up to £14-15 for steak, sea bass and shank of lamb. Tasty baked potatoes and baguettes are also served.

The splendour of four-star listed Seckford Hall must make Mark’s day even more of a pleasure. Even on a grey winter’s morning its Elizabethan facade – striking buttressing and elegant chimneys – are an eyecatching sight as you approach off the A12. Some slowly wafting smoke from a bonfire and a pheasant scuttling alongside the roadside add to the rural idyll.

Inside there are stag heads on the walls, ornate wooden panelling, rich carpets and furnishings and welcoming fireplaces. It really is the place for fine dining.

Mark admits he “just does food.” He doesn’t have a say on the wine (the hotel turns to the companies Enotria and Grape Passions for its list) but local brewer Adnams, supplies the ales.

Away from work, he lives with his teacher partner Amy on the outskirts of Ipswich and enjoys walking their labrador. W’hen he can, he plays squash but his footballing days may have ended. That said, he still follows the fortunes of his home town club, Darlington. “My aunty used to be the secretary there so I have a bond with the club . . . I’ve never been tempted to support Middlesbrough, Sunderland or Newcastle,” he admits. It’s probably the same kind of loyality that has kept him at Seckford and earned the admiration of staff, owners and diners alike.