Championing Hospitality from Preston's newest fine dining restaurant

Sam Haigh and Sean Wrest on living and working in Lancashire

As you walk into the intimate Aven Restaurant in Preston, you can’t help but feel you have walked into somewhere special. Like many things that are precious, it is small; a stylish space that a recent visitor called ‘the hidden gem of all hidden gems’ and it’s a perfect description. Made even more welcoming by the team that greets you with a smile and puts you at ease instantly.

This is because the duo behind the day to day running of Aven are committed to ensuring fine dining is something that can be accessed by people from all walks of live. Sam Haigh, Front of House, and her partner Sean Wrest, Head Chef, at Aven are delivering something that can’t be found anywhere else in the city. We caught up with the couple to find out about their favourite things in hospitality and Lancashire and the question they get asked the most; what’s it like working with your partner?

Both Sam and Sean have made their way up from the bottom when it comes to restaurant work. Sean started as a pot washer and kitchen help while at college, and Sam began work in cafes before getting into hotel work. Neither considered a career in hospitality until they had experience in the industry, and have since flourished.

Sean said “The plan for me was university; I was doing A Levels but started working in a restaurant in my village part time. That’s where I realised I had a passion for cooking. But I finished my A Levels and then went to college to train as a chef. I continued to work in the village restaurant, then moved to a hotel before starting at The Black Swan in York. From there Roots its sister restaurant was established, which is where I gained my first Michelin Star as Head Chef.”

Sam’s story is very similar; “I was doing public service at Darlington College and was going to go into the Navy. But the Hotel I was working at offered me a full-time role and I had to weigh up my options. I think when you get into hospitality, you get hooked. I don’t think many people aim for it, but once they start they soon realise how rewarding it can be and the many career opportunities that are available in the industry”

Hospitality has changed so much over recently years and one of the things both Sam and Sean talked about is how much of an impact COVID had; not just on the number of establishments that closed and were affected financially but how the industry has developed since then. Sean reflected on the long hours and the minimum wage days of old and talks about how they are no longer as much of an issue.

With more hospitality businesses recognising the need for a healthy work life balance, and a new generation prioritising that balance, the industry has had to change. The couple talk about their four-day week and the balanced culture they nurture and encourage with their staff.  The team at Aven certainly has the feel of a happy family unit and that can only benefit and enhance the guest experience. But its not just the team that they treat in this personal way; Sam always finds time to really chat to the customers and Sean often comes out to the tables to meet them himself too.

“One of the best things about working in the industry is the personal skills it gives you” says Sam. “When I started out, I wasn’t that confident when speaking to people, and even now if you put me up on a stage in front of a crowd, I would hate it. But put me at the end of a table talking to two people I’ve never met before, and I can chat for hours. We have a few young people working on the team who were the same, when we hired them, they were shy and reserved. But now, we can see how much they have come on. And it’s amazing and rewarding to see them flourish. They chat away to everyone and have fun in their work. That skill is unrivalled in my opinion and its something that really develops, as you grow in the industry.”

She continues “Its not just the team that needs reassurance. We’re a small restaurant offering an intimate dining experience and some people aren’t used to it and don’t know what to expect.  The team soon puts them at ease and as each course is served, we see them relax into it. Before long we’re chatting away about all kinds of things”

Sean adds “I really enjoy getting out of the kitchen, meeting our customers, and talking about the dishes, the produce, producers and the process. It’s also good to find out more about their lives. We had a couple come in recently whose son is in the industry, and it was great to hear how proud they are of him.”

The restaurant serves a fine dining tasting menu which consists of 11 courses and the staff don’t write anything down, so the team need to remember those dishes, dietaries and accompanying wines when they speak to guests; so there is a need for memory skills at Aven! But this helps with building those interpersonal skills that Sam talks about. It probably also helps that Sam and Sean are so approachable. You can see the passion they have for their work and their delight in sharing this with so many people.

Aven has just launched a new £49 set menu which consists of fewer courses. This is in part due to the cost-of-living crisis that Sean and Sam recognise is affecting everyone – including themselves. They also understand that some people may be over-faced by or a little unsure of what to expect of a tasting menu.  The new set menu option is a great way to introduce more people to the Aven fine-dining experience and the warm welcome that awaits from Sam and the team.

When we arrived at the restaurant Sam was finishing up a wine tasting with a local wine bar owner, and it was great to see this collaboration at work. Aven is big on delivering dishes with a connection to local businesses; we spotted familiar Lancashire brands Cuckoo, Goosnargh and Wild Fox Gin in the bar and the team will often be asked where ingredients are from and speak knowledgably about each producer or call Sean out of the kitchen. Sean talks a lot about producers and suppliers in the area and raves about the best tomatoes he’s ever tasted coming from Tarleton, just down the road.  He believes local produce is getting better and better, even in the two years since he moved to the area. “The competition is getting higher,” he says” but that just means everyone is raising their game and has a responsibility to deliver the best to the customer and that goes for Aven too.”

This is definitely one of the things that drew the couple to the area for their work. Lancashire really has it all and they spend their days off out and about, exploring new places to eat or new shops and suppliers for the restaurant.

But even with this commitment to the industry, the pair like to remind themselves and colleagues not to spend too much time occupied with work. The nature of the industry has seen people give everything to their job, sometimes to the detriment of health or family.  Their advice is to simply learn from as many people as you can. For those thinking of a career as a chef Sean adds “Fine-dining is often seen as aspirational or the ultimate goal, but don’t force yourself into that setting,

“It’s just as important to have great steak houses or dining pubs and if that’s where your interest lies, learn from those who do it best and follow your passion, then you’ll find and achieve your own goals.  Most importantly, look after yourself and your mental health, because there’s nothing more important than that.”

Sam also adds that its important not to listen to other people, especially in Front of House roles “There will be many people assuming that the staff in front of house are working part time or doing the job while working towards an alternative goal. But there are good careers in front of house, and it is just as valid as other jobs in other industries. If you are passionate about it; then don’t listen to some of the negativity that can surround the industry.”

Sean adds that his parents are his biggest supporters and champion his work at every opportunity, despite their initial reservations about a career in hospitality as they thought it was a low pay and low skills option.

When asked about what it’s like spending so much time working together as a couple, they laugh and talk about how everyone asks that question but in actual fact, it’s made them know each other better and helped them work together well – as a team.

“We’ve worked together for so long that I know when he is stressed and when to leave him to his work and vice versa.” Sam says.

Sean, laughing, adds “The biggest thing we’ve learnt is not to take things home with us, which helps with our work life balance too. When we first got together, we’d get in the car on the way home and bicker about what happened on that shift. But now we sit in silence!

“I’m obviously kidding, but we have learnt to give each other thinking space to wind down and forget about the stresses of work. Our days off are just about us and not the restaurant, and we cherish that time.”

Sam continues; “I think it would be weird if we didn’t work together now. We’re lucky because we have each other and have worked pretty much in the same places, so it’s almost been a comfort. If you don’t know where something is or you’re not sure about something there is always someone to ask and to go to.”

They also find benefits in their differing roles too. Sean, with his creativity in the kitchen, knows that Sam will always give him an honest opinion on a dish and Sam knows that she can rely on him for the right information to pass on to guests and to help find the right wine parings.

Experience Sean’s amazing creativity and Sam’s welcoming spirit yourself at Aven Restaurant located just off Winckley Square in Preston.

Opening times:

Lunch 12 – 1:30pm Thursday to Saturday

Evening 5:30 – 9pm Wednesday to Saturday

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Find out more about Sam & Sean here