The Essex-born chef, who has three London restaurants, tells Imogen Lepere about learning the ropes in the kitchen, the best yakitori in Japan and the fermentation technique tipped to be the next big thing
Where in London do you go to eat? - All three of my restaurants are in Clapham, so I mostly like neighbourhood spots in south London. I eat at May The Fifteenth on Abbeville Road once a week and John Gionleka of Peckham Bazaar is an honest cook who knows his food and is comfortable with wonderful ingredients. I also rate Zumbura, an Indian in Clapham Old Town.
Where did you last go on holiday and what was the food like? - I’ve just done a bit of travelling in Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo and Nagoya. Everyone in Japan just eats when they’re hungry, so you go to a ramen restaurant at 8am and it’s full. Yakitori houses only serve chicken skewers that are cooked over super-expensive charcoal. All the money is spent on the coal rather than the meat and they use the whole bird, from knuckles, to heart, to thighs. Chicken sashimi is massive out there. They run the whole breast on the grill to warm it up and kill any bacteria on the outside, then slice and eat it completely raw.
Where’s the best place you’ve eaten recently? - Hachibei in Tokyo is the best meal I’ve had all year. It’s an underground yakitori place with one counter and just two guys standing there turning the skewers. The food was faultless and I was in awe of how simply and efficiently they were running this restaurant. I also recently had a stunning lunch with pristine produce at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, south-west London. I had a breast of quail and polenta dusted with parmesan and black truffle, with an egg yolk in the centre.
What chefs have influenced your cooking? - I left school at the age of 16 with one grade – a B in home economics – and did an apprenticeship at Claridge’s under John Williams. He taught me the fundamentals about ingredients and how to conduct myself in a rigid hierarchy where I was the most junior of 80 chefs. A successful kitchen is all about discipline and clear instruction. Philip Howard at The Square taught me how to cook, and anyone born in my era has been influenced by the likes of Simon Hopkinson, Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White, Richard Neat and Nico Ladenis.
What do you think the next cooking trend will be? - Nukazuke fermentation. It’s massive in Japan. They take all the rice bran that’s been produced from making sake, mix it with salt and sugar, then bury vegetables in the blend, essentially cooking them. They’ve been doing it for centuries. It tastes mind-blowing with fish or vegetables, yet is nowhere in this country.
What elevates a dish from good to great? - The amount of time and energy put into testing a dish shows through in the end product. Care, love and attention to detail are paramount. The difference between a three-star Michelin lemon tart and a very good one is the person who has gone to extra lengths to buy the best lemons, the finest butter and taken the most time to make the pastry as short as possible.
This article was published on 24th October 2016 so certain details may not be up to date.