Between closing, pivoting, opening outdoors, shimmying inside and maintaining social distancing, it has been a tough and tumultuous 469 days for London’s restaurant scene.
While many of us were at home baking banana bread, zooming and scouring the internet for yeast, those behind the capital’s once bustling food venues found themselves saddled with excess produce, sky-high rents and anxious workforces — as well as the fear of catching the virus. As a result, many of our most treasured London restaurants couldn’t stay afloat, and to our dismay the brined heirloom tomatoes at Cub, refreshing oysters at Counter Culture and buttery pies at Rochelle Canteen in the depths of the ICA became a thing of the past.
Now as we emerge from the fog of Covid-19 and trickle back into some sort of ‘normality’, the city’s restaurant scene feels... different. A unprecedented limbo between closed-up cafés and thousands of thirsty people chomping at the bit for bottomless Mimosas. What will happen when the dust settles? Who knows, but there are a few savvy movers and shakers making it their mission to support and improve London’s delicious landscape one bite at a time. Want to meet them? Of course you do.
It’s 5pm on a Tuesday afternoon and Ravneet Gill tells me that she was nodding off at her desk when I call, which comes as no surprise because she’s probably the busiest woman alive. A Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef, this non-stop slashie is an author, television presenter, teacher, entrepreneur, career guru and Instagram sensation all at once.
While studying psychology at university, Gill ‘spent the whole time thinking about food and cooking and baking for everyone. So I googled “How to go and be a chef” and went to Le Cordon Bleu and did pastry.’ She’s since whipped up tarts, custards and cakes at St John, Llewelyn’s, Zuma and Harvey Nichols, gone freelance ‘pulling shifts for mates’, founded Countertalk (more on that later), created the (now closed) Puff pastry school, written The Pastry Chef’s Guide and presented Junior Bake Off on Channel 4.
“Pastry and cooking, in my opinion, should just be a bit more accessible”
Now between working on her second book, Sugar, I Love You, out in October, and giving almost 100,000 Instagram followers baking/career/life advice, Gill has launched her latest project: the Damson Jelly Academy. A baking and cookery school designed because ‘pastry and cooking, in my opinion, should just be a bit more accessible’, it costs only £99 per four-week digital course. Plus, ‘for every beginners class that we sell, we give one back to a kid in a school’, says Gill, who wishes her state school had emphasised food technology, ‘because if I’d noticed [I loved food] then I wouldn’t have gone to university’.
Gill’s platform for restaurant workers, Countertalk, is ‘building an empowered food community’ from the inside out, offering career advice, hosting talks with industry experts and advertising jobs in vetted spaces. ‘I wanted to create something that would help people bypass the rubbish kitchens and get into the good ones, because great kitchen environments do exist.’ Here’s to hoping the scene takes note because let’s face it: happier staff make for better restaurants.
‘I always wanted to have a little place in Soho where I’d cook Thai food and just do some drinks and play some records,’ says Ben Chapman, who worked in music and restaurant design until he opened the first Smoking Goat in 2014. Now he’s the proud co-owner of the Thai-themed hot-spots Smoking Goat and Kiln, and one of the founding fathers of Tomos Parry’s Basque-inspired Brat, all under the Super 8 restaurant group.
Kiln, famed for its baked glass noodles with Tamworth belly and crab meat and swoon-worthy, low-intervention wine selection, was crowned the UK’s best restaurant at the 2018 Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards. While flattered, Chapman isn’t bothered by it. ‘I was very proud of the team but [awards] are not interesting to me.’ What he is excited about is ‘what you can do at a farm, if we can grow holy basil, if we can have catfish in the UK’ and ‘trying to have an ethical, diverse and inclusive company with zero gender pay gap’, he says. It’s this mentality that drives the Super 8 team to go the extra mile, from committing to buy whole crops and cuvées from farmers and winemakers, to emailing staff members’ landlords to negotiate rent reductions during the furlough period.
In order to save jobs once the restaurants reopened with limited capacity, Chapman and team opened a second Brat restaurant at Climpson’s Arch, where he used to ‘mess about’ barbecuing with Parry before opening Smoking Goat. ‘We really didn’t want to lose anyone, so we got the teams from Smoking Goat, Kiln and Brat all working at this new place. We went into it with 150 staff and came out of it with nearly 200.’
So, what’s next? ‘There is a project in the fun, creative stage at the moment. We’re sketching menus. It will be from [the core team at Kiln] Luke and Meedu, but it won’t be the same Kiln.’
Despite being in front of the cameras for this year’s series of the Great British Menu, chef Oli Marlow found sitting for the pictures you see on these pages rather awkward. ‘When you’re cooking you’re so in the zone, you don’t notice what’s going on around you, but when someone tells you to sit down and smile it’s like, “Oh my God.”’
Only 30 years old, Marlow is one chef who has spent a lot of time ‘in the zone’. He’s been donning chef’s whites for 15 years and has chopped, sauteed and baked all over the world from Eleven Madison Park in New York to Maaemo in Norway and at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Berkshire — all of which have three Michelin stars.
These days Marlow is executive chef of Simon Rogan’s farm-to-fork concepts Roganic in Hong Kong and Aulis in Soho, splitting his time between cooking, consulting on menus for other restaurants and plotting food events such as Royal Ascot.
“As I’ve grown a bit older I’ve realised that I just want to do tasty food that’s simple but hearty, bold, delicious and fresh”
When asked to define his style, Marlow doesn’t want to box himself in. ‘I think a lot of chefs try and force finding a style from a very young age. As I’ve grown a bit older I’ve realised that I just want to do tasty food that’s simple but hearty, bold, delicious and fresh.’
After spending seven months with Roganic in Hong Kong during the first lockdown, post-Covid the chef has his sights set on reopening the London branch of the restaurant, which sadly had to close during the pandemic. He is continuing to work hard at Aulis, which currently has a waiting list of more than 100 people per night and is working on opening a bakery in Hong Kong. And this weekend the Great British Menu finalist is serving up his top-scoring feast at The Rondo, Hoxton, just don’t get your hopes up because it’s all sold out, of course.
Co-founder of the Bao restaurant group and widely acknowledged as the woman who brought those clouds of moreishness to the UK, Chang has ‘always been a kid who loves eating’, and taught herself to cook by rustling up dishes from her homeland, Taiwan, after moving to London in her teens.
Though it was only when Chang took brother-and-sister duo Shing Tat and Wai Ting Chung on a road trip to where she grew up that she realised her calling. ‘We encountered the Gua bao there and it was a refreshed memory for me. For them it was a new experience, it was a moment when we all thought, “Oh my God this is amazing, let’s go back and try to recreate this.” We had this energy of wanting to crack something. I was in Taiwan for a little longer, but Shing Tat and Wai Ting had already come back and had started booking local cafés to do pop-ups.’
Eight years on from opening its first pop-up restaurant, Bao now has sites in Soho, London Bridge and Fitzrovia and the newly opened Cafe Bao in King’s Cross, where Western dishes meet Taiwanese café culture.
Coronavirus lockdowns did ‘force us to think on our feet and reconnect to what we do best, which is be creative,’ she says. ‘Bringing the perfect bao to the table is already a trek, let alone 20 minutes down the road, so we just had to think differently.’ The result was Rice Error, a selection of Chi Shang rice boxes featuring classic Bao flavours, which they managed to turn around in six weeks. And the delivery concept wasn’t the only thing keep Chang and team busy. Next week marks the opening the brand spanking new Bao Noodle Shop and karaoke bar on Redchurch Street, fitted with ‘disco lights’ and plenty of Bao beer for those ‘craving fun after lockdown’. See you there.