The Lamb In at Crawley, Picture by Ed Nix

Seb Snow is as debonair as ever when we meet at his new pub The Lamb in Crawley. 

Renowned as much for his clientele as his tremendously successful restaurants and pubs, Seb has ridden the wave of celebrity culture, gastropubs and the Cotswold set. 

It seemed, for a time, that he was untouchable, that everything he tried turned to gold.

Seb was in the kitchens changing the oil in the deep fat fryer when the blow torch caught alight and blew the entire kitchen through the kitchen upstairs. The kitchen door blew off into the bar and Seb caught alight

But after one false move he lost everything. Now reviving the fortunes at The Lamb in Crawley, he talks to oxinabox.co.uk about his extraordinary journey, starting again, and the fire that nearly ended it all.

The Lamb In at Crawley, Oxfordshire 13/11/2019 Picture by Ed Nix

“In hindsight we have learnt a lot – a massive amount actually, namely that we are not good at running multiple businesses and prefer to say focused on one or two,” he tells me.

“And yes what happened brought us to our knees, but we have done this quite a few times,” he says sweeping his hand at the interior of The Lamb where we are sitting quietly in an alcove after a busy lunchtime service, “seven times actually when you include London, and we are pretty good at it. I just needed to find the right opportunity.

“we were taking from Peter to pay Paul.
“We had overstretched ourselves massively and just weren’t getting our usual clientele”

It’s certainly going very well at The Lamb. No sooner had the Snows opened up than the punters returned en masse.

Which is what the Snows do, alongside his gorgeous wife Lana, who sits with us throughout the interview, and is integral to their pubs success and design.

The did what they always do, transforming it back into a bustling, genteel hub. Bringing with them General Manager Paul Piper and Head Chef George Tauchman, both previously with Sebastian and Lana at the Plough at Kelmsott and The Five Alls in Filkins, opening in April over the Easter weekend. The Lamb was an instant hit.

“I couldn’t understand why The Lamb was empty,” Seb says when I ask why he bought it. “It was on a main road and was a lovely historic building. So I took Lana to see it.

“I said ‘no, no, no’,” she says, “and then came and had a look and knew it was perfect even though it had been empty for a few years. But then Seb is terribly persuasive,” she sighs.

“We saw it a few times and it was covered in moss and cobwebs with no electricity. Pretty nasty really. But we loved it. We liked the character of it and the lovely old building and we immediately began to think about what we could do with it.”

The Lamb In at Crawley, Picture by Ed Nix

Two months later, in mid July, Seb was in the kitchens changing the oil in the deep fat fryer when the blow torch caught alight and blew the entire kitchen through the kitchen upstairs. The kitchen door blew off into the bar and Seb caught alight. He ran outside where the flames were put out and was taken immediately to intensive care.

“I felt the blow and all I can remember is this massive fireball and bits of flying metal. It was such a big explosion we all thought it must be the mains.”

“I just started screaming and couldn’t stop,” Lana remembers. “He had second degree burns but it could have been so much worse. I could have lost him,” she adds. “And it put everything else into perspective.”

He shows me the pictures of his melted face, which looked like it would never recover. “The plastic surgeons at the JR were fairly positive the burns would just drop off and they did,” he says in that very English way which refuses to make a fuss.

You can scarcely tell now, but the potential damage is palpable. “The worst hit were my ears and mouth. I was wrapped in cotton wool for three weeks, and we had to close the pub of course,” he says unnecessarily.

Remember Steve Redgrave’s quote about boats? “I know,” Seb replies, “but some people’s egos are tied up in their work. Mine certainly is and there’s no way you’re going to find me laying on a beach with a beer in my hand.”

So did they hear the rumours? “What that it was an insurance job and we did it on purpose,” he laughs. “Or that I did it because I was having an affair with the chef,” Lana asks. “Yes we heard them all. But putting your own life at risk in the meantime? I don’t think so,”

“The villagers assumed it would stay shut, but that was never an option. It never occurred to me actually, that we wouldn’t clear up and carry on. Not at all. What would we do?”

“We don’t give up,” Lana adds. “We are fighters.”

They are indeed, but let’s go back to when Seb owned Snows on The Green in London which he ran for 17 years along with some pizza pasta restaurants there. It was only when the recession hit and they began losing money that he sold up and moved down to the cotswolds, taking over The Swan at Southrop.

“It was time to get out of London so we took on a five year lease and out of nowhere, in 2011 The Swan was awarded the Restaurant Of The Year award by the Good Food Guide ahead of Gordon Ramsay and Heston, which was a massive surprise and catapulted us up the ranks,” Seb remembers.

“It was an amazing time those ensuing four years. We didn’t do fine dining but we had style and interacted with people. Kate Moss was always there with her friends (Naomi Campbell was infamously dropped off in a stretch limo) and they cooked for David Cameron at No 10.”

“Our chins were on the ground half the time,” Seb laughs. “We went from being unable to sell our business in London because of the recession to being crammed with celebrities.”

It was certainly the beginning of the infamous Cotswold set whom Soho Farmhouse has been feeding off ever since.

But then, against all expectations, their lease wasn’t renewed and the Snows had to go off and find somewhere else.

“It was very unsettling,” Seb remembers, “but then I looked at it as an opportunity not to be missed, and decided to find a pub with bedrooms. The Five Alls in Filkins fitted the bill, just down the road from The Swan.

“It was a big old beast of a pub and had been run into the ground by the previous tenants. Everyone told me not to touch it because it was the wrong side of the A40 but I ignored them,” he says cheerfully. “I didn’t have the money so got a few investors together, some were customers at The Swan and we refurbed the pub entirely from top to bottom, later adding a bedroom block.

Sorry can I just quantify that? So three weeks after the accident that set him on fire and blew him across the kitchen he was back at work in a catering van outside his pub?

“That’s what we do, what we’re good at,” he says simply.

Then came The Plough in Kelmscott. “It was in the middle of nowhere and had been closed for 2-3 years after the flood in 2008, but again we fell in love with it, jiggled around with our investors and it turned into our favourite pub. It was incredible there, it was always packed, it was all great.

The Lamb In at Crawley, Picture by Ed Nix

And then he pauses, knowing this was where his fortunes changed, taking a deep breath: “But then I took it too far and risked too much. I bought The Bull at Fairford which was a beautiful old hotel in a market town, again run into the ground.

“My sister who does a lot of the interior design said I must be mad. But it had 24 beds. It was a massive project. So we took it on, refurbed the lot and opened our doors.

“you do question yourself a bit. ‘Can you do this again? Can you do it differently. Can you repeat yourself. Can you get it going’.”

“But it never caught on with the locals as it had with out other pubs and after a while we began having cashflow problems which began affecting our other pubs because we were taking from Peter to pay Paul.

“We had overstretched ourselves massively and just weren’t getting our usual clientele. It dragged the whole thing down with it.”

To cut a long story short eventually Seb and Lana Snow sold the three pubs to a small PLC with Seb still manning the ship, but things soon changed, and Seb just couldn’t back and watch. So they sold their share and he went to lick his wounds at home for six months.

The Lamb In at Crawley, Picture by Ed Nix

“It was so stressful because we sold out to investment bankers who wanted to do things their way – and eventually we realised we just couldn’t work with them. It was very upsetting but we weren’t enjoying it.

Seb and Lana Snow at The Lamb in at Crawley Picture by Ed Nix

What followed was a year of misery. Slowly driving Lana mad at home all day, Seb, a keen cyclist, began peddling in a 20 mile radius from his home to see what other pubs he could find, eventually chancing on The Lamb.

At this point aI want to throw my hands up and shout ‘have you learnt nothing?’ Remember Steve Redgrave’s quote about boats? “I know,” Seb replies, “but some people egos are tied up in their work. Mine certainly is and there’s no way you’re going to find me laying on a beach with a beer in my hand.”

“We wanted to buy The Lamb, to give us some security, and are 80% there.

The Lamb In at Crawley. Picture by Ed Nix

After the fire, Seb soon got bored and made a terrible patient, resuming his cycling and had soon talked a friend into lending him a food demonstration trailer and setting it up in The Lamb’s car park where Seb cooked away happily for his customers the whole of the summer.

“Nothing major, tacos and nachos, quesadillas, burgers, salads, that sort of thing. We did that for 12 weeks over the summer while the pub was rbeing epaired. We’ve got two pizza ovens built outside too, so we were really busy.”

Sorry can I just quantify that? So three weeks after the accident that set him on fire and blew him across the kitchen he was back at work in a catering van outside his pub?

“Yes. I suppose it’s crazy really,” he says shrugging unapologetically, “but I wanted to get back on the horse and start running my pub again. I’ve always been really hands on.” No kidding……

“And since then we’ve had five star reviews and ratings, which is all down to the team and that is really satisfying. We are in The Good Food Guide this year as well.”

As for his motivation, Seb says he’s always been overwhelmingly about the food: “For me it’s all about good, local sourcing and the complicity of the ingredients. I tend to tone things down a bit, so I’ll always sweep ingredients off the plate if there are too many.

“I like to push myself and concoct new things to put on the menu, while maintaining the classics. People might call it old fashioned but if that’s what people want there’s no problem with that.

“If I had to quantify I’d say Elizabeth David. I like to sprinkle some stardust on the menus and we are good at volume, we can cope with demand. After all, you go into business hoping to be busy.”

Now back in the kitchen, the repairs complete, Seb is happy again. “I love it here. I just want to immerse myself,” he says.

“I know we have made the right decision. We always wanted to run our own freehouse, and yes it’s a smaller business but The Lamb has massive potential and next we will concentrate on the garden and the rooms.”

The Lamb In at Crawley. Picture by Ed Nix

So in retrospect is he scarred by his experiences? “I’m still angry about it, but things just got out of control. It’s been a learning experience, that’s how I look at it and I love the process of building something up from scratch.

“So this is exciting again. A fresh start, just us. I never want to be seen as a victim. But it’s made me realise I need to be my own boss, and we love it here. So no, I haven’t lost my confidence.

“But you do question yourself a bit. ‘Can you do this again? Can you do it differently? Can you repeat yourself? Can you get it going?’ This is manageable, this is nice,” he says gesturing around him, before sweeping back his hair and getting up, ready to prepare for another night in the kitchens, in the space where he is happiest – hopefully nowhere near a blowtorch this time.

Katherine MacAlister

The Lamb Inn, Steep Hill, Leafield Road, Crawley, Witney, OX29 9TP

01993 708792

lambpub.co.uk

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