We have met early at The Milkshed before service begins, one of my favourite places to eat in Oxfordshire, despite being inauspiciously situated on a farm site off the main road through Weston On The Green.
But come 9am and the cafe starts filling up, customers pouring through the door for some of Lucie Ellis’ famous hospitality and wonderful food. Before long the place is heaving. It’s only 10am.
Lucie remembers the same time six and half years ago when she opened the doors for the first time and sat on the sofa wondering who, if anyone, would come in. Now she does 1000 covers a week and finds it hard to keep up with demand.
“It’s packed all the time,” she tells me glancing around the light, colourful open plan interior, which she transformed after taking on the vacant ice cream parlour all those years ago.
Which means she’s a glutton for punishment really, having reintroduced her Thursday night pop-up supper club until Christmas, which is already selling out, when more eager diners will pour through her doors.
So why give herself the extra stress? “Because I’m a control freak,” she says laughing, “and I get to tell people what’s on the menu and cook it.
“We are proud of what we produce in our kitchens on a daily basis and the menu has evolved over the six and a half years since we opened. But we rarely change it during the day, except the specials, because otherwise people complain and start ringing up asking where their favourite dish is.
“This way I get to do a new menu every Thursday night and people have to take their chances and hope for the best.”
Anyone who has attended one of these special evenings will know how Lucie’s menus sing for their supper.
“I love them because we serve what I want to cook and make. And it’s so simple – £21 for two courses and you can add in snacks and pudding. Last Thursday for example it was lamb kaftas with thyme and honey, a coriander and tomato salad, a hot courgette tsatsiki, a dill flatbread with onion and roast garlic and butter lettuce. And we had 58 for dinner.”
So where does she get her inspiration? “Mainly Instagram. I pour over the pictures and follow loads of chefs and food bloggers, and then I think of ways to put my stamp on them. They give me an idea and then I experiment with it, so I suppose the food is an amalgamation of my research and once I have an idea I just run with it.
“I then start by writing the menus. I don’t know what its going to develop into except for something I really want to eat and then it’s just a work in progress.”
Originally from Thame, Lucy spent her holidays in Cornwall and then moved there 16 years ago. Her mother and sister live there, so the pull of the West Country is still strong, especially as she’s recently bought a house there.
So does she see herself selling up and heading down there permanently? “What sell The Milkshed? As long as I have this business I will be here. I could never let it go. I might start a seasonal pop up thing in Cornwall, but nothing like this.”
Lucie’s catering career began in London where she worked for some top event catering companies first, before heading down to Weston On The Green and opening her own place.
Not the most obvious location – a derelict ice cream parlour on a farm? “We looked for ages for the right place and spent years talking about getting my own cafe or restaurant. It was my husband Mark who found it – he’d driven past a few times and seen the neon ice cream sign.
“When we came to look it was a big space with lots of parking and I knew it would be where I opened my first restaurant,” she remembers.
So can she look at it objectively and see what everyone loves about The Milkshed?
“No, I can’t see it, I can only see it as I know it when I walk in, but people tell me all the time how much they love it.”
And what of running her own place and being the boss? “It is a double edged sword being so busy, even though it is the best case scenario, because it is relentless. So you never really get away from it. We were on holiday in Turkey last week when the power in The Milkshed failed and the staff were ill, so you are never really off duty. So there are stages when you love and hate it at the same time,” she admits.
“But I love having my own place and am proud of what we have created here at The Milkshed.
As if Lucie didn’t have enough on her plate, she has a Milkshed cookbook in the pipeline.
“There are lots of home cooks, bloggers and female chefs but not not many of them actually running their own places. This restaurant is my identity so yes, I’m writing a cookbook which is quite exciting.”
Lucie also appears every year as one of the chef demonstrators at the Thame Food Festival. So does she enjoy presenting? “I love it because I’m such a show off” she laughs.
“I get to perform and cook at the same time. It’s absolute heaven. I wanted to be on stage when I was younger and this is a bit like that – you are running the show and making a difference. It is a form of entertainment I think. I love the theatrics of running a restaurant, but it’s also about having fun and bring creative, so there are lots of similarities.”
The Milkshed is at Manor farm, Northampton Road, Weston-On-The-Green. OX253QL.
To book a place at the Milkshed’s Thursday night supper club which runs until December 13 ring 01869 351387 or book at the Milkshed counter.