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Cooking
back better

With the toughest of times now (mostly) in the past, London’s restaurant scene needs to look ahead. Joanna Taylor
meets four chefs with their sights set on the future

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.

RAVNEET GILL

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.

BEN CHAPMAN

‘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.

OLI MARLOW

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.

ERCHEN CHANG

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.’