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Adam Handling was born in
Dundee in 1988. He started as an
apprentice at Gleneagles Hotel
aged 16, before winning Scottish
Young Chef of the Year in 2011.
His first job was at Malmaison
Newcastle; his first head chef
post was Fairmont St Andrews. He became head chef at St Ermin’s Hotel in 2012, and got to the final round of MasterChef in 2013. He was awarded Scottish Chef of the Year in 2015 and opened his debut solo restaurant The Frog E1 in 2016. Covent Garden’s Frog by Adam Handling followed in 2017. The Frog Hoxton opened this July.
‘The art of classic British hospitality is dead,’ claims Adam Handling on an atypical October afternoon as the sun beats down on his packed-out Covent Garden restaurant. ‘Look across the road at The Savoy, the most iconic British hotel. Does it look British? No. It’s got more gold and gaud than a jeweller.’ He’s not talking about the Boodles outpost in the lobby, either. ‘Take The Berkeley; it’s not British anymore. These places used to represent what we were about, but for me, they’ve lost their way.’
You’d be fair to wonder why Handling – the most successful 30-year-old restaurateur in the UK – is offering critique on London’s lodgings. But in a move unexpected to everyone but himself, he’s just taken skin in the game. He recently won the contract to manage the full food and beverage offering as executive chef at 54-bedroom Belmond Cadogan Hotel in Chelsea, opening this winter as one of the most luxurious hotel projects the capital has seen.
‘I want to make sure that this hotel is more British than Buckingham-bloody-Palace,’ he says, spitting out the Bs like a Tommy gun. ‘We’re surrounded by all sorts of nationalities here – which is what makes London awesome – but we need to get back in touch with true British style. We developed the art of hospitality and I want to bring it back. The hotel is going to feel like a cosy British home.’
At the Cadogan, he’s opening a modern British restaurant with the same food philosophy his brand The Frog has spawned, alongside a breakfast service, he adapted his ideology to fit in with a hotel? ‘I haven’t,’ he says. ‘I think the reason The Frog has been successful is that we cook what people want to eat. We’ve also devised a style of hospitality that works and that’s adaptable for any environment. I’m in this game for a reason – I love to give people a good time. I’ve got the restaurants; now let’s do a hotel. The same principles apply.’
Handling learnt his hospitality philosophy from his parents. ‘My dad had this expression, “kiddy on you’re at your auntie’s”, which basically means that while you’re under our roof, treat it as home. We want to make people as relaxed as possible while they’re eating with us.’ You feel the location with casual uniform and an informal manner; at Covent Garden, it cranks up a notch with more formality, but with the same relaxed vibe in terms of interaction with diners.
‘Mum cooked everything from scratch at home. I was a quite a pain in the arse as a kid because I was sugar-, wheat- and lactose-intolerant. Anything from the shop would set me off and she got it in her head that it was all poison, which isn’t too far from the truth, to be fair. Mealtimes were great. We went to school far away and mum and dad worked like animals so dinner meant a lot to us. There were no phones, TV or fizzy drinks and I loved it.’
Handling’s father was a military man. As such, the family moved around and Handling, his sister and brother changed schools regularly. He speaks fondly of his time in Germany. ‘The cheese and charcuterie there are bloody brilliant. You don’t hear anywhere near enough about it, but they eat it every meal and I really got into it. Military school was great, too. As everyone is moving around every year, it makes you that little bit more outgoing and keener to make friends. I wasn’t that academic though and I couldn’t wait to get out and do something with my hands.’
After finishing his GSCEs, Handling made a pact with his mother. ‘She told me I could take on an apprenticeship as long as it was somewhere high-end. It could’ve been the best painting and decorating firm, or wherever. She thought that going somewhere big gives you an extra bit of protection and something good on your CV.’ It makes sense. In a move that would define his career, Handling took an apprenticeship aged 16 at Gleneagles Hotel.
‘I peeled a lot of potatoes, made a lot of tea and watched a lot of beastings. I was fine with that to start with, but my eureka moment came about six months in,’ he says. ‘I was watching a chef make the foie gras terrine, making notes, following his movements and asking questions. He started to get quite pissed off.
‘“You want to make the bloody terrine? Get over here then,” he said. I was like ‘boom’, let’s go. He called me over and held out a ladle-sized spoon full of the mixture and told me to taste it.
I said “That’s raw livers, man!”’ The chef laughed and filled the spoon higher. ‘Then he said something that stuck with me forever. “I don’t care if you don’t like it – you have to taste it to understand it.”’ It resonated.
‘I look back now and think it was such a good place to learn. I get chefs coming in who think they know everything but will use the wrong board or fillet a fish with the wrong knife. They don’t have the basics; the why and how behind an ingredient that you need to understand to create something magnificent.’
From Scotland, Handling took out a loan to pay for a room in London, rolled up his knives and head south. On the same day, he secured six placements in top kitchens. ‘When I speak to the chefs I worked with, they tell me that I was rubbish then, but I’m alright now – which is the best compliment I’m likely to get.’
In 2012 he took the head chef position at St Ermin’s Hotel, Westminster. The next year, he got to the final MasterChef and they put his name above the door for Adam Handling at Caxton. It won a place in the Michelin Guide and won him the Food and Travel Best Newcomer award in 2015. Sailing seemed smooth, before the hotel was sold to new owners who changed the identity of the restaurant. Handling walked out.
It forced his hand. He had designs on opening his own place, just not quite so quickly. ‘We opened The Frog E1 on £300k. I needed cash to kit out the kitchen, so I took out a loan saying it was for a car. I bought three new cars that year.’ Handling was justly confident it would pay off. The restaurant was predicted to turnover £800k in year one; it made £1.4m.
It came as a shock when E1 wasn’t renewed its lease earlier this year. Handling found his hand forced again. He relocated the Shoreditch Frog to Hoxton in a huge site that was previously a Byron. It got off to a flier. ‘We learnt a lot of lessons opening the flagship in Covent Garden [last year]. For a start, I’d never take over a site that wasn’t a restaurant before. I won’t go into detail, but our contractors made mistakes that have cost millions to put right. It’s held me back.’
Handling has restaurants east and west, and now a hotel. What’s next? ‘That’s quite enough. The task now is to elevate each to be the best.
I want to be renowned for having standards, not a string of restaurants and being super rich. I want to be the best restaurant in the area, not the best in the world. Each site I have is neighbourhood-friendly and because of that, I get a return rate of 25 per cent.’ And there’s no better indicator of good hospitality than that. Long live British hospitality.
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