You might think that running two renowned London restaurants would be challenge enough, but that's not the case for Ollie Dabbous, chef and co-owner of Dabbous and its sister restaurant, Barnyard. He recently created a bespoke menu with the theme of 'creative process' for the National Theatre's Bright Young Things Gala, dishing up the meal on stage for the likes of James Norton and Olivia Coleman. Here, he talks to us about his career, avoiding trends and why it's good to work outside your comfort zone.
On learning to be a chef
When did you first realise you wanted to go into food?
I started cooking when I was six, and I realised then already that I was really passionate about it – it felt like quite a vocational route. I started out doing holiday jobs from 15 or 16 onwards, as soon as I was legally able, then I did my A-Levels and started at Le Manoir with Raymond Blanc in Oxford. I started as a commis chef, and I stayed for four years, covering every section in the kitchen. I went to Hibiscus for one year after that. I went as chef de partie, which is one below a sous chef, then to Mugaritz in San Sebastián and ran the meat section there, then went to Texture as Head Chef. I was there for two years and then went to set up my own place. I also staged (did work experience) at restaurants in Paris, as well as The Fat Duck, Noma, WD50 in New York and Pierre Gagnaire. We opened here in January 2012.
Which chefs were the most influential on the way that you cook?
The chefs at Le Manoir, because that's where I learned the basics – meat prep, fish prep and all the sauces. There's a lightness of touch there, a clarity of flavour. It was my first proper Michelin kitchen and in terms of developing palate and developing backbone, it was the most formative. And the other place was Mugaritz because it has quite a minimalist approach. It was definitely interesting working there. I think it's good to work in both more classic places and more modern places as well, you don't want to have experience of just one or the other.
Why did you decide to open your own restaurant when you did?
I worked for other people for 10 years, learning my craft. There's a lot of ideas for dishes that I had at the time and I look back now and think 'God, they're dreadful,' but it's nice having that freedom of expression. That's what you work towards. That's what it was about for me – it wasn't about recognition or awards or money. I just wanted to be able to cook my own food and I knew early on what, stylistically, I wanted to cook.
Which are your staple ingredients at home?
Yoghurt. And I always have a pork pie in my fridge. If you're hungry at the end of the night, a pork pie is an immediate brick for your stomach – although that's not that light! Fruit and yoghurt is really refreshing after work, because you try lots of different food throughout the day. You're also quite dehydrated from the heat of the kitchen. I like fenugreek seed for marinating meat, I think it's underused. I cook very simply anyway, so not too many snazzy ingredients.
On working with the National Theatre for its Bright Young Things Gala
What are you doing with the National Theatre?
It's interesting when you do a collaboration, and it's really interesting to do it with someone who's very different to yourself. We did something with Harrods, we did something with National Theatre, and there's another one coming up with a big historical institution later in the year. In general, life's a bit more interesting if you say yes. That's probably why I'm always running around.
It's the Bright Young Things Gala, so it's the annual swanky bash for its patrons. The theme this year is the creative process, which is a hard one to encapsulate in food form... There needs to be some sort of interaction between the diner and the food. They need to be able to see the evolution of the dish or have some sense of expression in the outcome of that dish.
We're doing it for 300 people from a satellite kitchen, which is going to make it a bit more of a challenge. It needs to be something that people can understand and that isn't overly attention-demanding, that won't detract from their conversation or enjoyment of the evening, and that's also executable for us.
Life's a bit more interesting if you say yes – that's why I'm always running around
Why did you decide to get involved?
It's got amazing resources, it's an amazing space, and they're a creative bunch. They want to do something quite quirky and they've got all these set designers, they've got amazing facilities. Even the invitations... the layers of detail. It's something that's fun to be part of and working with these big institutions is really compelling. You'll feel full of regret if you think you said no to it. But I'm sure on the night there'll be some sort of cold sweats.
On London's fast-paced food industry
Where do you like to eat in London?
I like simple food that's well done. I like Tom's Deli in Bethnal Green for its thin-crust pizza – it tastes really healthy. In general, I like food that's got an inclination for lightness and healthiness. I like Nopi, I like Dean Street Townhouse. It's simple food that's tasty and well done. I had a great meal at Kitchen Table which is just around the corner. I also enjoy cooking at home. It's quite a different feel, especially if there's a few of you and you can take your time.
What gets you really angry in the kitchen?
If people know they can do something better – when they have the intelligence but not the self-criticism to say, "That's not good enough, I'm going to start again.” Or when chefs try to hide a problem and then it becomes too late to deal with it. We're quite fortunate here though – all our dishes have clear recipes and everything's very organised, so service is very calm.
What it really comes down to is that we start work every day at 7am in the morning, we get up when it's dark outside and drag our tired bones into work. To do that every day and underperform – that sort of thing breaks my heart. I want every plate we serve to be the best it can be.
Dabbous's best dishes, in pictures:
If you could change one thing about the London food scene, what would it be?
Rent. It's becoming prohibitive for independent restaurants to set up centrally and it also drives the cost of the meal. I want to keep my prices as low as possible. Our tasting menu is under £70, you can get a glass of wine for a fiver and I want to keep it reasonable and democratic and have happy customers as a result. The London rents at the moment, commercial ones, central, are becoming borderline untenable.
The other thing is that there's now so much social media and self-promotion. I find that quite tedious. I'd rather be judged on my offering. There's so much competition. I'd have rather run a restaurant 20-30 years ago before all that shit existed.
The social media side of it is something that a lot of people do, but I find that self-promotion to get people interested and keep them coming back... I want people to come back because they've had a great meal and it doesn't break the bank, not because I've put a picture of a red mullet on Insta-twat.
I want people to come back because they've had a great meal, not because I've posted on Insta-twat
What food trends are you most and least looking forward to?
I don't really know what's in trend and what isn't. I just get on with work, and for me, I quite like having a sense of isolation and tunnel vision. I don't eat out as much as I should, and if I do I'm quite happy with just basic food. I think it's quite healthy not to look around too much at what other people are doing as a barometer for what you should be doing.
How do you keep momentum as a chef going when the industry moves so quickly?
Ignore what everyone else is doing and you don't feel that sense of pressure. As soon as you set up your own place it's because you feel you're ready, you've learnt as much as you can from other people and you want your own voice. That's why I did it. So that's the first thing – not from a cocky point of view, but it's more that if you don't believe in yourself you shouldn't do it.
The main thing is just that I still really love coming up with new ideas and being at the coalface. I don't want to do it forever but at the moment I'm really enjoying it. I feel that the food we're doing now is better than when we started. Every year we do new dishes and every year we find a way to improve one of our classic dishes. I don't feel any pressure other than what I put on myself, but that's just from having pride in what you do, which is a fundamental part of it.
39 Whitfield St, WIT 2SF; dabbous.co.uk