Chantelle Nicholson: My Career in Five Dishes
The New Zealand chef’s career has spanned distinct eras of London dining, culminating in the opening of a restaurant whose refined but honest cooking and ultra-sustainable ethos is emblematic of her outlook
It might seem strange that, during a conversation with Chantelle Nicholson – an acclaimed and experienced chef whose career in London has spanned two decades at some of the city’s best-thought-of restaurants – the word she comes back to is “unlearning”.
But it’s a repeated theme when discussing how her career has changed, especially since opening under her own name, Apricity, earlier this year. “I think I’ve gone back to that sense of produce being really important,” says Nicholson. Growing up around her family’s stone-fruit orchard in her native New Zealand, she describes being “surrounded by produce growing up,” a feeling that was anathema to the classic London restaurants of the early 2000s, where technique trumped provenance and sustainability was a niche term, if it appeared at all.
She landed as a young chef at The Savoy Grill in 2004 and moved on to Pétrus, and describes a kind of culture shock that went alongside the “overwhelming – in a good way” journey through some incredible kitchens. “I feel like I’ve kind of gone through the journey of seeing all that stuff to then removing a lot of it, and decluttering,” she says. “And I guess that’s more on an emotive level as well – thinking further than how it looks and how it tastes on the plate, asking ‘How did it get there? Who’s involved in that process?’ Whereas before it was what was on the plate that was the most important thing.”
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to go with what feels right, rather than what someone else has told you is right
It was Covent Garden restaurant Tredwells where Nicholson really made her name. Originally a Marcus Wareing project with Nicholson as executive chef, she took over its ownership in 2017, a move that allowed her to focus her energy on crafting a low-waste and sustainability-minded cooking philosophy, where many dishes put vegetables centre-stage (something that Nicholson leaned into in her first cookbook, Planted, around the same time).
Her journey to becoming a restaurateur of a project that’s truly her own wasn’t an easy one – pop-up All’s Well in Hackney was designed to be something of a free hit that provided a workplace for her staff during the pandemic but was plagued by constant lockdowns immediately after opening. Apricity, though, feels like the perfect sweet spot between her fine-dining training and her contemporary outlook on food. Alongside head chef Eve Seemann, she creates beautiful, artful cuisine rooted in a low-waste approach right down to logistics – using QR codes over paper to save waste and allow the kitchen to change the menus during service – and prioritising suppliers who minimise packaging and deliver milk in pails. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to go with what feels right, rather than what someone else has told you is right,” says Nicholson. “I run this completely the opposite way to how I was taught to run a business and how I was told to run a business. But actually if you do all those things with a conscious intent, following your ethos, the rest will follow.”
“This was from the cooking Bible that everyone in New Zealand had, which was called The Edmonds Cookery Book. It has every classic recipe in it – it’s got the recipe for scones, it’s got some other New Zealand gems in it too, but corn bake was something that generally my dad made, and we’d have it either for Sunday lunch or those dinners where no one could really be bothered cooking. I think we actually used to make it in the microwave. It’s this really comforting, cheesy corn pudding-type thing, and it’s really easy to put together. I was thinking you could pimp it up with a lot of lovely things, but I thought actually, no, it was so good just as it was. We eat creamed corn in New Zealand, and my family always had tinned creamed corn in the cupboard, and I remember we used to make it in those brown glass Arcoroc dishes. It’s super simple but it’s really nostalgic – one of those classic comfort foods.”
Apple tarte tatin
The Savoy Grill
“I’d never even heard of a tarte tatin before I moved to London. When I started at the Savoy I was put on pastry, which I guess can be a stereotype, but I was happy to get my foot in the door because it was such a huge change. We used to make loads of tartes tatin in copper pans – you’d peel and turn all the apples, and then you just layer them all up and off you go. It’s one of those dishes – you don’t know how it looks until you turn it out. I remember the first ones I made and I was really scared that they’d be terrible. Every time it was like, ‘Ooh, are they going to be OK today?’ It depends a lot on the apples, but it’s just one of my favourites. I think it’s the best pudding, because it’s just four ingredients, but they just work together so well. It’s very reminiscent of my time at The Savoy Grill.”
Chouxnut, double cream, apricots
“The chouxnut is something that was formed from waste. At Tredwells we used to make choux rings. We made them fresh every day, and we’d put different fillings inside – rhubarb and custard was one, kind of like a Paris-Brest but with peanut was another one – so we got this stockpile of them in the freezer and I was like, ‘What am I going to do with these?’ My first attempt, I sliced them in half and pan-fried them, and I thought, ‘This doesn’t really work.’ They looked a bit ugly. So I thought ‘What if I just soak the whole thing in a pain perdue mix, deep-fry it and coat it in cinnamon sugar?’ That’s when the chouxnut was born. This was February, 2018, and then it’s never left any of my menus since then. It’s become a stalwart, and it’s one of the most popular puddings here as well. I like that it was born from waste, so it’s that sense of trying to be a bit more creative, and now we just make them purely for chouxnuts.”
Lamb and kimchi toastie
“All’s Well, for me, was very much something positive and proactive during the depths of the pandemic. Nobody was going to Covent Garden, I had a big restaurant that was empty, I had a team that needed and wanted to work, and I couldn’t provide them that. So I just took a chance and thought, ‘Actually, why don’t I just do something completely different?’ I found a place on Mare Street in Hackney where I could do a six-month lease and moved in there. We were open for ten days and then the first lockdown happened, and then I think we managed five days between the second and the third. I wanted to put a toastie on the menu – I don’t know why, I just had it in my head – I think it was on for two days and then we had to close. We decided to do takeaways from All’s Well on a Saturday, and they became a bit of a favourite. The kimchi was something we made – again, because it was a great way to use up any kind of things around – the lamb was actually trimmed from our lamb ribs that we made, and then the bread was obviously any old bread we had left over.Although it was really tough, they were just this beacon of light, and all these things were created from it.”
Butterhead lettuce salad
“Sebastian from Crate to Plate came to see me a couple of years ago. We were introduced by a mutual friend, and he was the most excitable guy talking about his lettuce. I was like, ‘This is so beautiful. I really want to do something with it,’ but I didn’t really think much of it. At the start of this year, when Eve and I were working on the dishes for Apricity, we were like ‘What about those lettuces?’ I just wanted to put something on a plate that I really like to eat. This dish is fresh, it’s crispy, it’s creamy, it’s crunchy, it’s acidic because we spray it with vinegar, and there’s the crispy kale in there, too, so it’s all those things that I want to eat in a mouthful. And then I love the fact the lettuces are so local – they’re grown in Elephant & Castle, they get delivered to us by electric vehicles and then they reuse the containers after. Everything that’s on this is grown in the UK – the tomatoes, the kale, the linseeds, the miso is made for us in London, we use rapeseed oil. I think people get really surprised by it because they always say, ‘What should I order?’ I’m like ‘The lettuce.’ They’re like ‘The lettuce, really?’ and then they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that was delicious.’ This dish represents a lot, it tastes good, and it’s a great combination of me and Apricity on a plate.”