Food & Drink

Paying it forward: three London chefs on their cooking mentors

It’s not so much fire and knives as love and friendship for chefs Tom Brown, Alex Jackson and Ramael Scully. They explain how collaboration makes everything taste that little bit better

Shouting. Swearing. Abuse. These used to be the blood, sweat and tears of the culinary world. People filmed it, and we watched it as entertainment on Channel 4. But slowly and surely, there’s been a revolution in the capital’s kitchens. Yes, the hours are still long, and the work is still physical and sometimes arduous. But the old-school French brigade system, where you start at the bottom mindlessly chopping onions while aspiring to maybe one day, after years of effort, becoming head chef, is losing its grip. Instead, chefs are increasingly paying it forward – established names are giving people in their kitchens a leg-up to strike out alone, and young London chefs with skill and talent, as well as nerve and an incredible work ethic, are disrupting the status quo, by being, well, nice. Chefs are champions of one another, and of good food in great kitchens. And we get to reap the benefits.

Tom Brown: Cornerstone

Hackney Wick isn’t the obvious place to open a new restaurant, but Tom Brown’s restaurant, Cornerstone, has been busy ever since he opened in May of this year. ‘We’re in a little bubble out here on the edge, in the wild East. We knew we’d be out of it,’ he says. That hasn’t stopped the plaudits coming in. Brown laughs: ‘I never really go past Liverpool Street if I can help it. The only time I go to central London is when we win something. It’s surreal to think people are talking about what you do outside of the reality of the day-to-day.’

Brown hails from Cornwall, and started out in kitchens as a weekend job as a porter. Early on he got the chance of a job with Nathan Outlaw. ‘Nathan’s the big name in Cornwall,’ he says. ‘When I first started with him I couldn’t believe it, it had seemed like such an unattainable thing to do.’

After a few years under his mentorship, first in Cornwall and then at The  Capital hotel, Brown decided to take the leap and strike out with his own venture. ‘You hear about people who make it difficult when chefs want to go it alone. I had the opposite. Nathan always said that he saw it as an accolade when people who’ve worked for him go on to do their own things, and do well. He always said he would support me.’

Brown’s food is unfussy but meticulous, focused on the delicious over the ostentatious. ‘The chef is just the facilitator, the middleman,’ he says. ‘When you know this fish has been swimming in the Atlantic and a man has gone out and literally risked his life to put it in a net and bring it back, and someone has brought it to you to cook in the most perfect condition possible, why would you take away from how wonderful that thing is? Life’s too short to piss around with 30 different kinds of cress.’

With a strong seafood showing on the menu, it’s clear to see Outlaw’s legacy, though Brown is also very much his own man. ‘As much as I feel we do our own thing, you don’t go and play football for Barcelona and then, when you go it alone, pick up a rugby ball,’ he laughs. ‘If I hadn’t had such a clear vision about what I wanted to do, I’d have happily worked for Nathan for the rest of my life. We cook what we like to cook. What I care about most is seeing people make the satisfied face of someone eating something delicious. It’s instantaneous gratification.’

Where 3 Prince Edward Road, Hackney Wick, E9 5LX,

Eat The potted shrimp crumpet with kohlrabi, gherkins and parsley. Seafood is the focus, and Brown’s crumpets have set people raving.

Alex Jackson: Sardine

Alex Jackson fell into cheffing almost by accident. ‘Before I started out, I’d worked in Zizzi in Birmingham, and that was it,’ he laughs. The 33-year-old opened his own restaurant, Sardine, serving a Provençal-style menu in 2016. Tucked away behind a huge McDonald’s, it’s not the most likely spot, but people come here for Jackson’s cooking, not convenience. For that the drive-through’s open 24/7.

Ten years ago Jackson was newly graduated, working in a cafe, when a friend told him her brother was looking for a part-time waiter. Her brother was Stevie Parle, the brains behind Dock Kitchen, Palatino, and Rotorino.

‘Jay Rayner came to review Dock Kitchen,’ Jackson remembers. ‘I was his waiter. At the time I had a massive afro. He wrote that the restaurant had “hipster blokey service”. That was me.’

Within two years he was head chef. ‘The way that happened wasn’t common,’ he says. Clearly Jackson is talented and a quick learner, but he attributes his rise to the way he learned. ‘There were two ways to learn. You could work in Michelin kitchens and learn by repetition doing one thing a million times and slowly work your way up. Or you could do what I did. I was thrown in at the deep end and it was very stressful. I made lots of mistakes, burned stuff, dropped stuff, but Stevie was very patient and took the time to teach me properly. There were no other kitchens like it.’

In spite of his rapid rise, Jackson quit and went to sell cheese for a while. ‘I thought because I’d fallen into it, maybe I didn’t love cooking and I should try and do something else. Turns out, I did miss cooking after all.’

When the opportunity came up for him to return to the kitchens and open Sardine, Parle was the first person he called. ‘I knew I could run a kitchen, but I didn’t know if I could run a business. He helps me, and comes in every week. Having someone you know on your team is always a good thing.’

Nevertheless, for all of the spirit of camaraderie and collaboration, there are some kitchen realities that don’t change. ‘There’s a romance attached to being a chef, so I can see why it’s become more aspirational,’ Jackson reflects. ‘But you’re still peeling potatoes and doing lots of deep cleaning. My fingernails are disgusting and according to my wife, I smell like fish a lot of the time,’ he laughs. ‘It’s not something you do because you can’t do anything else. It’s something you do because you love it.’

Where 15 Micawber St, Hoxton, N1 7TB,

Eat Roast brill, coco de Paimpol, anchovy and minestra nera right now as Jackson’s Provençal-style menu changes with the seasons.

Ramael Scully: Scully

‘I got my first job at Ottolenghi through an advert on Gumtree,’ laughs Ramael Scully. ‘Does that even happen any more? I was looking for the ultimate job, and I found it there!’ The Australian – born in Malaysia to a Chinese/Indian mother and an Irish father – first came to London in 2004. ‘Yotam [Ottolenghi] had a communal table in his restaurant, and I had never seen that before. I didn’t think people wanted to sit with strangers, but he changed the food culture.’

Scully used to take a suitcase to Tooting Broadway and Croydon to load up on Asian spices and dark soy sauce, and Ottolenghi noticed his skill at mixing flavours in a way he’d not seen before. ‘He gave me my first break to showcase my food on the plate. I didn’t know at the time if it was any good – I was just doing what my mum had taught me.’

Scully had an advantage working for Ottolenghi in that he’d already learned about Middle Eastern flavours in previous jobs. ‘He’d never eaten tofu in his life before I gave it to him,’ Scully chuckles. ‘Gradually he let me add dishes to the menu. If people didn’t like it, he told me you can always go back to the drawing board.’

Since Scully opened his eponymous restaurant earlier this year, it’s clear people do like it. Though he worked with Ottolenghi on and off for more than a decade, Scully has his own ethos and philosophy. ‘I like to buy things that are what I call second selection,’ he explains. ‘I work with a Cornish organic farmer who has baby vegetables that he grows in perfect shapes for the Michelin chefs, but the ones that had grown wonky, people wouldn’t buy so he’d use them for compost. A tomato should be different shapes, and you can preserve them in brine and use them months later when no one else has got them. All those beautiful flavours. I try to be that guy.’

His pantry of pickles and preserves is proudly on display for all to see as they walk into his restaurant. ‘It’s a passion project. I’ve learned how to make people happy with food. I always had so many flavours in my mouth. Yotam encouraged me to cook how I feel. I’m blessed that people love it.

Where 4 Saint James’ Market, St James’, SW1Y 4AH,

Eat Arepa, eggplant sambal, and bergamot labneh – it’s a staple on Scully’s menu, delicious and regulars’ firm favourite