Jacob Kenedy: My Career in Five Dishes

Ahead of its 15th anniversary, we look at the enduring dishes of Bocca di Lupo with its chef and founder, and trace an extraordinary influence on London dining that punches well above its small footprint

Five Dishes: Jacob Kenedy

When a little restaurant called Bocca di Lupo opened in Soho almost 15 years ago, it wasn’t announced as a restaurant that would fundamentally change the way we eat and drink. It was the opposite, in fact: fresh from an education in cooking at Sam and Sam Clark’s Moro in Hackney and with Nancy Oakes at Boulevard in San Francisco, the Islington-born, Chelsea-raised Jacob Kenedy opened his first restaurant under his own name with relatively little fanfare.

Jacob Kenedy

“I was getting on a plane to go to Italy and recognised in myself a real excitement,” he says. “Although there were Italian restaurants that I really loved in London at the time, there were none that served the kind of food that I was excited about going to eat in Italy. And the idea behind Bocca was to cook the food that I otherwise had to go to Italy for. I suppose in retrospect it did mean something – bringing a new angle to Italian cooking in the UK – but it didn’t feel like it at the time; I was just cooking myself the food that I otherwise had to travel for.”

This revelation was had during travels with Kenedy’s former partner Victor Hugo. In Bocca di Lupo, the pair quickly garnered rave reviews and immediate popularity, but they did something more still: doing away with the idea of starters and mains, it instead put together a list of smaller and larger dishes all meant for sharing, and leaned into the regional dishes of Italy, rather than just generic ‘Italian’ cooking.

The idea behind Bocca was to cook the food that I otherwise had to go to Italy for

As it approaches its 15th anniversary later this year, it’s amazing to think of how outsized Bocca di Lupo’s impact has been relative to its small size. Even that in itself – a compact dining room and extra seating at the counter – was unconventional: “Bocca seats about 70, and even that is normally not a very financially comfortable size for a restaurant. But I figured in Soho, we could turn our tables more with pre-theatre, post-theatre people going out late at night, and have some of the benefits of the financial model of a bigger footprint without having to have walls so wide that I couldn’t see into the corners. The idea of small plates and counter eating, outside of Japanese and Spanish restaurants – we might even have been the first.” For someone eating in London now, these things are commonplace. In 2008, though, it was genuinely revolutionary.

Many things have inspired Kenedy’s career: the Clarks’ similarly revolutionary approach to cooking at Moro in the late 1990s; much of his young adulthood spent in the gay clubs of Soho (one of the reasons for opening there); a family home in Naples, where he’d spend many summer holidays; his Louisianian side of the family and visits to New Orleans, which also informed the food at his Islington pub Plaquemine Lock. And since Bocca’s opening, Kenedy took his passion for gelato – learned at Gelatauro in Bologna – and added a standalone ice-cream shop, Gelupo, opposite. Hallmarks from all are present here in the five dishes of a true – if unintentional – trailblazer.

Seared sirloin salad with barley, grapes and sumac

Five Dishes: Jacob Kenedy

“This is the first dish I remember cooking at Moro, on my first day in my first ever job as a chef, and in the kitchen that taught me to cook. I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe the outlandish combination of seared steak with the other ingredients (or how rare, to my young eyes, they cooked it!), and how naturally the contrasting flavours of meat, tart sumac, sweet grapes and earthy barley came together. It reminded me of Sephardi dishes family friends used to cook us at Jewish celebrations, and through preparing it a hundred times I learnt to season thoughtfully and balance flavour and texture. It still amazes me today, this crazy salad.”

Shaved radish salad with pecorino, pomegranate and truffle oil

Five Dishes: Jacob Kenedy

“This is a salad based on a canapé I knocked up at Boulevard, when I was given the challenge of doing something glamorous with radishes. It was the first time I was honoured by the opportunity to create something for the menu – I was so proud, and felt somehow authenticated as a chef. The dish evolved since then, and later came to be a salad on the opening menu of Bocca di Lupo, where it became not only one of our signature dishes, but one of London’s, for a hot minute. I still serve it eight months of the year.”

Fossil fish

Five Dishes: Jacob Kenedy

“Fish baked in salt is a theatrical masterpiece in the canon of Italian classics. Once I ate at a restaurant in the Italian city of Gaeta, the brilliant Sorelle Zitelle (now run by the same people under the name Sorelle Canolicchio), where they served ‘pesce al sale alla griglia’ – fish grilled in salt. What arrived was a seabass grilled in a charred salt crust – a marvel! I asked the waiter if I could learn how it had been made and he went to ask the kitchen, returning to say, ashen-faced, that the recipe would die with the bloodline of the family. Red rag to a bull! As soon as I got home, I started experimenting and managed to clone the genius dish. It’s a really wonderful presentation, perfectly cooked fish (which, when I cook it, is normally seabream), in a charred salty crust, split open like it’s a rock containing a fossilised fish. To me, it symbolises my ‘culinary magpie’ approach to being a chef, and it’s also something of a point of pride, that somehow I’ve developed enough culinary insight to divine these arcane secrets of other people’s kitchens.”

Shrimp and grits

Five Dishes: Jacob Kenedy

“I fell in love with New Orleans when I first visited, more than 20 years ago. I was drawn there by family ties – my grandmother was born in the town of Plaquemine, not far from Baton Rouge, and I’ve started to get to know a very extensive and beautiful family there. Over the last two decades I fell head over heels with Lousiana and New Orleans – the food, the music, the booze, the architecture, the swamp, the vibe and, above all, the people. It’s the only place I’ve been to that every resident you speak to is truly, madly, deeply in love with where they live. There are so many dishes that seem to epitomise the culture – or cultures (Cajun and Creole, particularly) – gumbo, jambalaya, etouffée, amandine, court-boullion, crawfish and crab boils, soft-shell crabs in pecan meunière, pecan pie and so on. But shrimp and grits is a particular favourite: it speaks of the estuaries and the land, the highest levels of refinement and the homeliest of soul food, Black people and white people, love and joy and simple deliciousness, breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. It’s the first dish my spirit guide to New Orleans, Steve Armbruster – a former chef, jazz club promoter, radio DJ, lawyer and dear friend – cooked me, and one I’ll forever owe him for: my version seeks to emulate his.”

Five Dishes: Jacob Kenedy

“I love gelato very, very much. It’s for this reason I made Gelupo, which came about because we were so darned proud of the gelati we used to make at Bocca di Lupo. And those gelati came about because I studied gelato – as a consumer since before I could walk, and as a maker, under Gianni Figliomeni at Gelatauro in Bologna. On my opening menu at Bocca – and most of the time since – I had a signature dessert of bitter chocolate sorbet with another signature, burnt almond granita. More recently, I discovered the joys of making a sorbet of home-made, rich, aromatic almond milk – and so often I serve the bitter chocolate with a porcelain-white almond sorbet instead of the nutty brown granita I also love. Almonds and chocolate harmonise so elegantly, and yet there’s the yin-yang of white purity and sinful black. It’s a pairing to end all pairings.”