Big Jo and Jolene: My Career in Five Dishes

The founders of Primeur, Western's Laundry, Jolene and more share the five dishes that have defined their career to date, with a razor-sharp focus on ultra-sustainable supply chains

Big Jo: My Career in Five Dishes
David Gingell and Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, Big Jo

"When we opened Primeur, we were doing these things without thinking about it. We were hunting out small-scale suppliers, we were hunting out the Callixta of Flourish Produce, the small dayboat fish. Because of quality, because we love food," says David Gingell, chef and co-owner of a burgeoning family of restaurants in North London: Primeur, Westerns Laundry, Jolene and Big Jo.

He and his co-founder, Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, who heads up front of house and designs the interiors, have built their vision around this ethos.

The latest site to be added to their stable is Jolene Redchurch Street, a mini version of Jolene and Big Jo, serving up the now-cult pastries in Shoreditch.

And this latest opening is significant. Because one of the reasons why the pastries (think rhubarb danishes) baked at Big Jo and served at Jolene and this new 'mini' Jo have received such attention is because of the way they taste.

Which is intrinsically linked to the way they are made: with flour from Wildfarmed, a company focused on bringing the message of regenerative agriculture (the practise of farming in a way that replenishes the soil) to the masses.

Since learning more about regen agriculture, Gingell, Cometto-Lingenheim and their entire team are committed to helping Wildfarmed spread the word.

"What they're doing is huge," says Gingell. "I'm proud of our partnership. They're on a mission, and we're on that mission with them. It's the right thing to do. It's the little part we can play. So we're aiming to open five new mini Jos this year."

In fact, they've taken to it so strongly that Cometto-Lingenheim now spends part of the year living in a converted van.

It's an ambitious mission, and one you should eat as pastries as possible to support. But before the pastries, there came Primeur, Gingell and Cometto-Lingenheim's first restaurant together, in Highbury.

The pair met working at Wright Brothers, and bonded over a shared loved of simplicity that's evident in their restaurants today.

Gingell oversees the food (although most of the cooking and decision-making is now devolved to the team of head chefs and GMs), but before that he learned to be a chef in classic French-inspired restaurants that took him all the way from working in Cornwall in the 1990s to learning under the Galvin brothers, at The Orrery, L'Escargot and Galvin Bistrot.

Gingell's classic French training is still evident both in the menus and here, with the five dishes he feels have defined the duo's journey through food.

Head to one of the restaurants, and you're likely to find them on the menus in some form or other, tweaked according to the seasons and styles of his trusted chefs.

You'll also note his refreshingly hands-off approach to his staff: "I've worked with all these people in the kitchen. I've eaten with them," he says.

"I know I can trust them. And that's how you can have that flexibility, how I can be laid-back, and how we're able to grow. Without them, this mission would be impossible."

Bread and butter

Five Dishes: bread and butter at Big Jo

"Our friend George used to come to Primeur and tell us about the flour that his friend was making. We'd always wanted to have a bakery, and for the first bit of my career I trained as a pastry chef, so it was something I knew – although not as much as our bakers now. So we tried this flour, and in 2018 Jolene was born. Jolene wouldn’t be what it is without Wildfarmed, and Wildfarmed wouldn’t be what it is without Jolene. It proved that you can work with those grains, when I think lots of chefs would have said no to that flour.

At Jolene, we had a millroom. We spent a lot of time in there, fixing the mill. It broke almost every two days. We still have the millstones at Big Jo, where we do all our baking these days, but Wildfarmed mills the grains for us now. I miss the milling in, but it’s better to have people who can do it really well do it for you, and the breads and pastries have got better for it. And the flour we’re getting is milled that week, so it’s really fresh. 

This butter is from France, from Mons Cheesemongers, and it’s got Alpine salt in it. It’s all about that relationship – we’ve used that butter since we opened."

Cuttlefish, shallots, capers, lemon and vinegar

Five Dishes: Big Jo's cuttlefish

"All our fish comes from Flying Fish who source from small day boats, but we also buy direct from some boats as much as possible. For this dish, we took some really nice cuttlefish that we source from them and pan-fried it either side for a few seconds or so. That way it's still a little bit raw in the middle. Cuttlefish and squid are a bit funny – you've either got to cook them quick or cook them for ages – so we cook it quick and slice it thin and that's where you get the nice tenderness.

These days with fish, regardless of what it is, it's really expensive, which I'm happy to pay for because I know the hard work and danger that the fishermen face every day. Slicing it thinly gives you more for your money, too. Then we just dress that with some shallots, some parsley and lemon, some nice olive oil, and a little bit of moscato vinegar. 

We did this dish from day one at Primeur, but it comes up in different forms on the menus – I saw one of the restaurants had it on the other day, taking the shallots and lemon out and mixing some nduja through it and squeezing some vinegar over it. It's delicious, but it's the same ethos, focusing on a few really nice ingredients."

Spelt, courgette and basil

Five Dishes: Big Jo spelt courgette and basil

"Spelt is good for you, and it’' potentially better for the planet, because it's an older grain. But when we went to Wildfarmed, I saw some grain in silos, and asked if it was spelt, and if I could cook something with it. So I cooked a variation of this dish, but with vegetables from the farm. Andy's (of Wildfarmed) wife phoned me up after to ask me for the recipe because the kids really liked it, and my kids like it too –  all that parmesan – and I cooked it for them at home before putting it on at the restaurant. It was originally on the menu at Primeur and pops up in different variations. Last week, they were doing it at Westerns Laundry with beetroot and goat cheese. It’s really good for the restaurants because you can replicate it quickly and really well, and it’s hard to get it wrong. You just cook it like a risotto – and you can easily change the dish according to seasons. 

Right now, the courgettes come from Flourish. The owner Callixta's produce has been affected by the heatwave and flooding, so we're trying to buy what we can from her to help her out. We'll be sourcing the spelt from Wildfarmed as soon as they're ready, which should be next year."

Beef, snails and garlic butter on toast

Five Dishes: Big Jo, Beef, snails and garlic butter on toast

"This beef was on at Primeur from day one. It's obviously French influenced; it’s been French classics for most of my career. I think that's a really good place to start – James Mitchell, the GM of all our restaurants now, really knows all the French classics too – but that's not necessarily where my love for food is these days.

So I've made it a bit less fussy. This dish is so dirty, isn’t it? And it doesn't really matter what kind of beef you use with it – our beef comes from Swaledale, and they buy from small farmers. They cook the snails now on the farm – there's nothing wrong with having a professional cook your snails. They braise them, they know how to look after them and they send them to us. I've braised snails before and it's a pain in the arse. And it's good to use leftover bread for the toast, better, actually, because it soaks up the beef juices, which is gorgeous.

It's a proper dish, like having a big glass of red wine. I personally don't believe you can have too much garlic in a butter with snails. I think if it was 30% garlic and 50% snails, it would still be alright. 

We did it at Galvin Bistrot a lot; we’d make a green butter and blend in the parsley. And now it’s a bit more like, 'Yo, let’s grate some garlic into some butter and put parsley in there.' It’s essentially the same taste, just a bit less fuss."

Rum baba with Chantilly cream

Five Dishes: Rum baba with Chantilly cream

"Rum baba has been definitely in my top five desserts for my whole life of cooking. We spent a lot of time making it together and now all the head chefs know how to make a rum baba. 

The rum baba is made with flour from Wildfarmed. And we use the nicest cream we could get for the whipped cream. And for rum baba really you need some fairly rough rum. Rougher than Captain Morgan's – we use Lamb's. The best version of this I've had is in a little French brasserie and they just put a big bottle of rum on the table with it. It needs to be almost too much rum.

It's essentially a brioche soaking in rum syrup. Whether it's French or Italian in origin, who knows? The Italians think it's theirs; the French think it's theirs. It's now mine. I learned to cook it at The Orrery in 2001, and I've changed things to make it simpler. Although the guys in our restaurants now make it better than me. 

To eat it, you need to get a knife and split the baba down the middle to reveal the crumb. Then take all the cream and pour it in the middle. Tip it in there and eat it greedily. You share a rum baba, but it's really important to share it with someoone who doesn't eat as much as you."