Saturday 15 August 2020 12:32 pm

Back to Business – James Cochran on how the pandemic helped him launch a long-planned project

Save our SMEs

We talk to London’s top chefs about how they are dealing with the strange ‘new normal’. This week James Cochran speaks about launching a new venture and missing the theatre of service.

Who are you?

James Cochran, co-owner and executive chef of 12:51, a casual fine dining restaurant in Islington. Around the Cluck is our lockdown baby, starting as a delivery service but now in residency at 12:51 (as well as delivering) until we reopen back to 12:51. 

How has coronavirus affected your business?

It’s been a complete nightmare. Trade has been down 80-90 per cent, staff have been made redundant and there’s still so much uncertainty for us all. We’ve tried to use this time constructively, researching and refining our menus and launching Around the Cluck. We’ve been bowled over by the support the surrounding area has afforded us. 

When were you able to open back up?

Our signature restaurant 12:51 is still closed but we hope to open soon. We’re back in some ways, with our signature roasts available from 16 August and fully back as 12:51 from September. In the meantime chicken fans can still make the most of Around the Cluck dining in with us Tues-Sunday, including with the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and via takeaway and delivery. When we fully open in September as 12:51, we can take a step back and finally celebrate 

How are you managing the ongoing effects of the virus?

Lockdown restrictions and social distancing basically meant we were unable to open as 12:51 as the margins once tables were removed just didn’t work with our business model. 

With Around the Cluck we’ve had to deal with delivery and collection, which we’ve never done before, which has been challenging and alien to us. Following the guidelines means we’ve had to change our venue set up and staffing rotas, and invest in PPE and sanitising stations. Training our on how to work with all the restrictions is a priority, making sure we can still offer a service to be proud of. 

How have you kept sane when the restaurant was closed?

Launching Around the Cluck has kept us very busy. The research – eating lots of fried chicken – was a lot of fun. It’s turned out to be a huge positive out of the lockdown, as it gave us the time to push something we’ve always had on the backburner 

What did you miss most when the dining scene was shut down?

The comradery of service and the show you put on as a collective to make sure guests have an amazing evening. You just can’t achieve that with deliveries only. You don’t see the appreciation for the dish you’ve put together, so it’s nice to experience that again. 

Where was the first place you went to eat/drink when lockdown was eased?

The new opening Six by Nico in Fitrovia. I thought it was a lot of fun. They introduce you to fine dining in a way so unstuffy, and relaxed that no one should be intimidated by it. That’s kind of my vibe at 12:51, albeit less conceptual, so I appreciated what those guys were doing. It was also amazing to see the restaurant packed with people having a good time, a scene I’ve missed over the last few months.

I also went to one of my favourites, Lina Stores in Kings Cross, when the sun was blazing. I love that place, the pasta is just incredible and it was great to enjoy it whilst soaking up them rays. They also make a mean negroni – my favourite drink.

Do you think things in the restaurant world will go back to ‘normal’?

I’m not sure… I think we’ll see more cashless venues and restaurant ‘at home’ kits will become huge. We have our own at home kit available for nationwide delivery with for people still nervous about dining out, it’s a good option for them to enjoy the restaurant scene from home

Are there any silver linings to this awful few months?

Having the space and time to launch ATC has been amazing and now we hope to put it in other venues as residencies or franchises if we can’t operate it at 12:51. Seeing how the whole hospitality business has adapted and brought through innovative new ideas has also been incredible. Other than that it’s hard to see any silver linings. There have been some really hard-to-take casualties, including some of my peers and friends who have lost everything.