Depending on who you speak to, young chefs are either the rock stars of the 21st century, or the last vestige of a Victorian-style workforce, toiling away in cramped conditions under tyrannical bosses for pay that makes nurses look like millionaires.
What’s beyond question is that London is one of the most exciting culinary cities in the world, producing the kind of innovative, agenda-setting food that was once the reserve of the French and the Japanese. We caught up with some of the brightest stars plying their trade in this great city of ours to find out what it’s like being a young chef today.
Perry Torrance, 21
Chef de partie, Smiths of Smithfield
I find the London chef scene really competitive and driven, especially among those of us aged between 20 and 25. Everyone is trying to get ahead, come up with the best ideas, impress the head chef. If a new dish is coming on the menu, people will be trying to top each other’s ideas on how to make it better. You always want to be one step ahead and be the best you can be.
It’s fun, I like the adrenaline rush and knowing there’s always someone snapping at my heels. At this stage in a career, I think ideas are more important than skills. If you can bring flavour combinations together well, you’re on your way to becoming a good chef; you can always learn the rest as you go along.
At Smiths of Smithfield where I work there’s a real family atmosphere, which is great. It can be intense, though – I had to take three months off last year because I got a third degree oil burn to my hand. When I’m cooking I like to combine parts of different cuisines.
I’ve grown up in a Caribbean culture and a common thing is to pair meats with sweet flavours, especially fruits, so I do a lot of that. I also like to combine the rustic quality of Italian food with the fine dining elements of French cuisine. So for example, in the M Restaurant Young Chef of the Year competition that I won, in my dish of pork belly with apricot and nduja, you had the sweetness and stickiness of the pork belly, combined with the unusually sweet but also smokey apricots.
In my mackerel dish, I paired it with gooseberries, which become quite sweet by the end of summer. I don’t see a lot of people combining those kind of flavours but it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.
Erchen Chang, 27
Co-founder & Chef director, XU and BAO
London is so diverse – there are so many things happening, with more and more being added every day. People have a really open-minded view to food. Lots of regional and niche things are able to happen here, which pushes the quality of everything up. It keeps everybody on their toes, makes them keep pushing to be better.
After I graduated in 2012 I went travelling to Japan and Taiwan and Hong Kong, where I did a lot of research into the steamed bun – I tasted so many different types, the big ones that are a meal in itself, ones that are super-fluffy, loads of different fillings, and then I sat down to perfect our version of it.
At the time not many people in London were doing buns, so it made sense for us to start that way. It was popular from quite early on, but we grew the business steadily, going from pop-ups to markets and then on to restaurants.
There are many ways of breaking into the food industry; you have the traditional route, going through culinary schools and working in well known kitchens, which is great as an educational background. But now more people are finding street-food another route into the restaurant – it’s a low-risk way of testing your concept, seeing how your food is perceived, then slowly building your following, so when you open a restaurant it isn’t a total shock where nobody knows who you are.
We also got lots of good advice from people that we knew in the restaurant business, which was really useful, especially in terms of the back of house stuff and the operational side, which let us focus more on the creative side. It’s still tough, though – you have to learn everything as you go along. It never seems to get easier though – there are just new challenges!
Ben Marks, 25
Exec Chef and Co-Owner, Perilla
London kitchens have a reputation for being really tough, but it’s not as tough as it’s made out. Your kitchens in Sweden and Denmark, where I’ve also worked, are just as tough. London has changed massively even since I started out – the hours aren’t as long as they used to be. We run a four-day working week here at Perilla, and that would have been unheard of not long ago.
I’m massively worried about Brexit. A lot of the produce we get is from France and Italy, especially the fruit and veg; they are streaks ahead of us in terms of the respect they have for farming and the quality they produce, so that’s going to cause big issues for us, and it’s going to reflect on prices in the restaurant. Staffing is going to be a big headache too. It will make running a restaurant a lot harder.
I doubt it will have an affect on London’s standing, though. We have the broadest restaurant scene in Europe, with a lot of different things going on, and quality right through, although in terms of top-end restaurants, I think Scandinavia is miles ahead. There’s a new modern wave of French food that’s really exciting, too.
We opened Perilla in Stoke Newington and I love not being in central London. I used to hate the commute into London every day. There’s something different about being slightly outside the action. We looked at one or two sites in central London, but there isn’t the same feeling and vibe, although this is the area I’m from so I have a special relationship with it.
Ben Murphy, 26
Head chef, Launceston Place
A lot of young chefs in London are entering the industry through pop-ups, but I think it’s still very important to study under masters, to understand the core knowledge of what goes into running a restaurant.
But no matter how you make it, London will always be incredibly competitive. When I took over as head chef at Launceston Place, the restaurant was already established and beloved by locals. As well as trying to maintain that reputation, I’ve found myself competing against people like Clare Smyth, who’s just opened Core around the corner.
What she’s doing is great, but I strongly believe in what I’m doing here, and I think my youth is a real advantage. I’m doing a lot more modern stuff that people haven’t seen, and being be a bit more cutting edge with the menu. She’s a little more obvious: what you expect is pretty much what you get, and that’s good, but then what I’m doing is maybe a little more exciting.
I feel like I can put my own stamp on Launceston Place now. When I first started it was tough going, we had a few people who didn’t get what we were doing and the restaurant had lost its Michelin-star, but for us now to be fully booked almost every night, we’re definitely doing something right.
When I started it was tough to find out what people loved, and to know what to put on the menu – will they love it or won’t they? – and sometimes it felt like a guessing game to be honest. But now I’ve got a strong sense of how I want to present my menu and an amazing team on board. We’ve had so much positive feedback.
At age 26, I feel that I have to prove myself a little more than older chefs. As an example, I have emojis on my menu that match up to my food, so from the get-go, some people don’t think we’re being serious. But when you see and taste the food we make, and see what we do in the kitchen, it just speaks for itself. It’s on a completely different level.
While it’s very competitive for younger chefs, at the end of the day the quality of the food is more important than the age of the chef. Clare Smyth has years on me, but then I think restaurants should be judged on what they serve every day, and I think we do pretty well.
Elizabeth Haigh (née Allen), 29
Founder and head chef, Shibui
London is a great place to be a chef – there’s so much choice, so many places to work, so many other great chefs you can learn from. That’s really the reason I stayed in London, even there are so many other countries with interesting food cultures developing. But the scene here in the last five years has really come into its own, it’s so exciting, with new restaurants opening every week.
I’ve gone down a pretty traditional career path, even though I came into cooking quite late, having done architecture first.
I think it’s important to know the basics, to learn to walk before you can run, so while it’s great people can now come up through supper clubs, for me I wanted to go the classic route, so I did three years at catering college as well as working, then went into Michelin star kitchens like The Royal Oak and Kitchen Table. You really appreciate the respect and discipline and quality of food. But I wouldn’t say it’s necessary any more – there are lots of ways into cooking now, especially in the last five years.
I was working at Smokehouse for Neil Rankin when I was approached to open Pidgin, and I jumped at the chance. Having a menu that changes every week is a great opportunity to get creative. It was a small unit, a small team and a small kitchen, but we were producing high quality, inventive food.
A lot of restaurants can fall into a repetitive cycle of menus depending on the season, and doing the same thing day in day out can get a bit monotonous – at Pidgin we were learning something new every week.
I left to pursue my own projects, and I’m planning to open my first restaurant, Shibui next summer. I’ll be focusing heavily on wood-fire cooking, combining European and Asian flavours, using my knowledge and background and heritage in South East Asia. Getting funding for a new project has its ups and downs. It depends on how you want to approach it.
You can self-fund, raise money, find investors. For me the success of Pidgin meant funding wasn’t the hard part – that was finding the site. I was a little naïve thinking I’d be able to open somewhere very quickly, but it’s so important to find a site that fits the concept and the branding; it’s not something you can afford to get wrong.
Seb Holmes, 27
Head chef and director, Farang
We launched Farang from inside my step-dad’s old Italian restaurant, and we’re still cooking out of a pizza oven today. An Italian restaurant serving Thai food cooked by English chefs is rare – but people really like it. The pop-up runs until January, but after that we’re going permanent and taking on a refurb of the building.
For me going the route of opening a pop-up first was purely a financial decision. A lot of young chefs go this route to build a name for themselves and have people try out their food, but you’d be lucky to bring in much money after rent and tax. Costs are still the biggest issue for young chefs, especially in London.
Between everyone I’ve worked with, and with Andy Oliver from Som Saa, we’ve got what feels like a Thai street food family, and we’re bringing something to London that people really love.
I want to demystify Thai food as well. My book, Cook Thai, steps things back from the kind of daunting recipes you often see in Thai cooking. The books I’d seen are quite scary if you don’t cook Thai food often, packed with ingredients you’ll never have heard of, so I show you how to make dishes whether you’ve got Chinatown on your doorstep or need to make do with whatever Waitrose has got in stock.
You really want to do your shopping at New Loon Moon on Gerrard Street if you can though. It’s the best Asian supermarket in London, filled with loads of weird stuff you can’t get anywhere else.
Jack Layer, 29
Co-founder, Billy and Jack
My trajectory has been very different to most chefs. I was on Master Chef in 2016, which was a really crazy experience. I got to the final alongside my now-business partner Billy Wrigh. We started Billy and Jack and we found ourselves in a position where we were able to do whatever we wanted, within reason.
We cook mostly seasonal, modern British food, and we’ve worked on loads of supper clubs, had a residency on top of the South Bank, worked with brands including Google, done bits of writing and recipe development. It’s a long list.
People are much more open to unique, bespoke opportunities and experiences than they used to be – if something is only on for a couple of weeks, it becomes more attractive, especially in London, where people are always looking for that sort of thing.
We’re not looking to settle down with a bricks and mortar restaurant – we really enjoy the flexibility and variety of doing pop-ups and events. It means we can cook three times in a week with three different menus and three different types of guests, in three different places.
That’s really fun and exciting, and you’re constantly developing and figuring out different ways of doing stuff. As anyone will tell you when you’re setting up your own business, it can be difficult, but we’ve been fortunate so far. I guess you don’t really know what’s going to be round the corner.
It’s a great time to be a chef in London, where the food scene is just fantastic, just being a part of it is awesome. Everyone is so welcome and opening and willing to help out. People are so interested in food, and food culture more widely.