Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was impressed with both his cooking skills and his fighting spirit – a combination that shot Simon Ayres into the national spotlight in 2010 as head chef of ‘best British restaurant’ The Milestone.
Ayres went on to use those skills to good effect at the Showroom café bar, where he ramped up the quality, established a rooftop kitchen garden and tempted film-goers with fresh ice creams, handmade sweets and savoury popcorn.
Now he has taken on a new challenge: seeking culinary acclaim for one of the city’s longest-established hostelries.
The Cross Scythes at Totley dates back more than 300 years, to the time when stagecoaches first ran between Sheffield and Baslow.
An enterprising scythe-maker opened a wayside inn and the building provided stabling for horses and refreshment for passengers.
There were also bedrooms for those needing a place to stay – and we can testify to the comfort of these because we’ve spent a night at the Cross Scythes.
On the A621, within walking distance of the Peak District yet only six miles from the city centre, this is the perfect overnight stopping place for business visitors and tourists alike (£59 per room).
Not only does it boast the kind of hospitality that any weary traveller wants at the end of a long day, it also offers four comfortable bedrooms and one of the best breakfasts in the city – complete with eggs Florentine. But I digress...
After a lacklustre period as part of a chain, the Cross Scythes was given a new lease of life five years ago when the current owners stepped in.
Experienced restaurateur Stuart Hitchman joined forces with three partners to refurbish the place and restore its reputation as a popular community pub.
“We didn’t expect to get the drinkers when we first opened, but the locals have taken to us,” says Stuart.
These days the inn is once again winning recognition for its warm welcome and good beer.
It has also built a reputation for its food – under the lead of co-director Alan Rigby, it was named Sheffield pub restaurant of the year.
But that’s not enough for the newest member of the team. Ayres is ambitious, he’s up for the challenge and he’s already making his mark on the Cross Scythes.
“It’s the potential of the place that appealed to me,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of long-term plans.”
The menu, which once offered more than 50 dishes, has been halved.
But everything is now freshly made on the premises, from bread and pasta to ice cream, pastries and sauces.
“That’s completely new to the team here, so it’s been a massive learning curve – and we did 160 covers on Saturday!” says Ayres.
He was running the kitchen with only sous chef Stephen Wallis to help him when we called in on a Tuesday evening, to try out the new menu.
That probably explained a couple of timing issues. But we weren’t worried; the Cross Scythes is a pleasant place to spend the evening.
It’s a traditional pub with an upmarket feel. Floors and tables are stained wood, with walls and panelling in shades of grey. Original artworks and bold statement pieces – like an oversize loop-framed mirror – set the scene.
Stuart is an amiable host, welcoming us at the door, showing us to a table in the dining area and pausing to chat to groups as he passes. This is good old-fashioned service at its best.
The new menu offers a choice of seven starters and ten main courses, plus blackboard specials.
The emphasis is on fresh, local ingredients, with a couple of veggie dishes on offer for each course alongside meat, poultry and fish.
I start with scallops, soft and buttery, served with soused girolle mushrooms, braised baby gem lettuce and pancetta sauce. Nicely done.
But my companion picks the winner: coconut pakoras of sweet potato and aubergine, aromatic but subtle, in crisp fried batter with a powerful chilli after-kick.
The dish comes with wilted spinach, tzatziki and an artful drizzle of curry oil – the presentation being everything you’d expect in a top restaurant, never mind a pub.
The wine list is carefully chosen, with a changing special offer too. We can vouch for the house red: a light, tannic Montepulciano D’Abruzzo at £14.80 per bottle.
Main course fillet of sea bream is cooked to crisp-skinned perfection and served on a nest of freshly-made basil tagliatelle, with almond and tarragon pesto, nutty roasted almonds and spinach.
It’s an inspired combination – of textures as well as flavours – though, if I’m being picky, it could have done with more pesto for depth of flavour.
Across the table, lamb breast is going down a treat. It’s rolled around a stuffing of sweetbreads and chard, rich and fragrant with herbs, and served with saffron potatoes, spinach and an intense lamb sauce.
The meat is slightly overcooked for my taste but, with the fat rendered to a crispy finish, my companion insists it’s perfect.
We share a dessert of warm carrot cake with Scotch sauce, macaroons, vanilla ice cream and cinder toffee praline.
It’s delicious, the moist cake complementing bite-sized macaroons, which balance the fine line between biscuit and meringue.
We round off the meal with Illy americanos. Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, is £48.50.
* Cross Scythes Hotel, Baslow Road, Totley, Sheffield (0114) 236 0204 Cross Scythes Hotel