James Knappett: My Career in Five Dishes
As he prepares to reopen the acclaimed, revamped Kitchen Table, chef James Knappett reflects on five of his kitchen’s defining creations, each one inspired by his personal history
The first thing you notice is the staff. As I walk into the newly refurbished Kitchen Table and for the whole morning I'm there, as well as chef-patron James Knappett, there are close to 30 chefs and front-of-house staff in training sessions, doing rigorous prep work, in constant dialogue. It is, of course, not an unfamiliar sight at a restaurant with international profile and which won its second Michelin star in 2019, but at the time I visit, it's still more than a month off opening.
That's the kind of dedication to food and service that's needed to operate at this level for the best part of a decade. Kitchen Table was formerly a small, 20-cover, tasting-menu-only chef's table hidden inside its sister venue, Knappett's wife Sandia Chang's champagne bar and restaurant Bubbledogs.
But is about to be reborn, with a beautiful lounge area taking over the space that used to house the sadly departed Bubbledogs' former dining room.
It'll still be a 20-cover restaurant, but now, Knappett says, "It's about a new experience. You're going to go through three stages of the meal in three different settings. It'll bring refreshment within the environment. It's still the same number of covers, but we've enhanced the experience."
When he first opened Kitchen Table after stints at Noma and Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York (where he first met Chang, who's just had the couple's second child, but will take the lead on Kitchen Table's front-of-house operations and wine list), he chose a format that allowed him and his team to express themselves to the fullest.
"The main goal for my whole career, when I finally got my own restaurant, was to do what I wanted to do," Knappett says, "instead of what other people wanted to do." He was chasing the dream of becoming one of the destination dining experiences in the UK, while staying true to his and his team's ethos, and refusing to chase trends.
On t-shirts he and the staff are wearing is emblazoned the mantra "Improvise, adapt, overcome," a repeated line of dialogue from the Clint Eastwood film Heartbreak Ridge, a favourite of Knappett and his father during his youth. "The biggest thing for me during lockdown was that mantra," says Knappett.
"We kept our business alive, we paid our bills, we created a shop, we were making cakes, we were selling bread, we were selling produce, we were selling caviar and waffles, and moving into doing our at-home service and private meals, we did it. We improvised, we adapted, and now we’re here and we’ve overcome."
The five dishes he feels have defined his career are all from Kitchen Table, but contain within them subtle influences from his childhood and the journey in cooking that's got him to this point. Furnished with a second Michelin star and reinvented ahead of launching into a post-pandemic restaurant scene, it looks certain that this genre-topping venue will continue to follow his mantra – to improvise, adapt and overcome – and to reap the rewards for it.
Crispy chicken skins, rosemary mascarpone, bacon jam (then and now)
"This is one of the first dishes we did at Kitchen Table, and one that stuck with us: people in our guest database became regulars, and every time they’d come, they want to eat it. At the beginning of running a restaurant, all you think about is survival, money, not wanting to fail – the most important thing being paying everyone – and working super-tight with your suppliers. So one of my questions to the butchers at the beginning was 'What don't you use? What do you throw away?' I wanted to be challenged. One was chicken skins – they threw so much chicken skin away, so we started practising with them and came up with this chicken wafer. Then at Bubbledogs we used to do a bacon-wrapped hot dog; we'd trim the bacon, and one of the guys made a bacon jam. We kept it quite rough and rustic and used a couple of ingredients, and before you knew it we had this little snack of crispy chicken skins, rosemary mascarpone and bacon jam. It became the favourite bite for three or four guests per night. We've come to a level now where we’re challenging ourselves more, so the one next to it is exactly the same ingredients, but stylistically it's more representative of our kind of cooking now."
Parker House rolls, wild garlic butter
"Even back in 2012 you could work out if a restaurant was making their bread or not, and now with almost everyone making sourdough in lockdown, you see people cracking bread open, smelling it, talking about the crust – it's as important as that piece of beef you get, or that beautiful dessert. So from day one, we've made our own bread here. A friend of mine, Brad McDonald, who I worked with at Per Se and Noma did a guest chef series here, and he did Parker House rolls, and I fell in love with them straight away. I thought they were so different and so humble. In my childhood, one of my favourite things was a white roll – there was something so comforting about it. And when Brad did this I had that same comfort, but in a restaurant setting. We've adapted the recipe slightly, so the one we’ve done today is brushed in aged beef fat with Maldon salt and wild garlic butter. Until I got to Noma I knew nothing about foraging – I never went out and picked things wild. Upon stumbling into Noma, I was seeing watercress, bulrush, elderflower. Where I spent my childhood in Suffolk, this shit grew everywhere, and I thought 'Oh my god. I’ve been living next to this my whole life?' Wild garlic is something we all know now, it’s delicious and it's one of the most versatile ingredients: just in that butter today, you've got a purée made from the big leaves; the pickled stems; the capers (the flower bud, which we salt and pickle for a minimum of a year); the fresh flowers and leaves; and finally, when it’s right near the end of the season, you get these hard leaves that are not nice to eat, so we make an oil from it. In this butter alone there are six or seven preparations of wild garlic. We serve it as a course on its own and when it's done, it's gone."
Turbot, foie gras, onion
"I worked at Rick Stein’s restaurant for a couple of years when I was young. It was at the time where he'd just done his very first TV series, and as a kid I was addicted to watching it. Turbot is an extremely precious fish. At Rick's, we just used to cut it on the bone, a big tronçon, and serve it with hollandaise. I thought 'How is this a dish?' And then you'd eat it and all you're doing is appreciating the fish with a delicious light butter sauce. So of course we've elaborated on that more. Here, the turbot is very gently cooked in foie gras fat, with a raw slice of foie gras on top, and the combination is about adding that richness and fattiness to this fish, and how the turbot can hold up to that. We have the sherry vinegar on top, with pickled spring onions, and at the back we have this very herbaceous salad, where we pick everything wild right now – chickweed, three-cornered garlic flowers, stinging nettle flowers – and we pour in a consommé of onions, split with an oil made of fresh thyme leaves. Within that there’s a whole journey – you have Per Se with the refinement of the elements, the precision and the unique flavours; things I learned at Noma, with the foraged salad, very clean flavours, and minimalism, and then Rick Stein’s as well. It's one of my favourite dishes, and it's inspired by all three of those kitchens."
Duck hearts, damson, burnt cream
"In the kitchens I worked in before we always used fine pieces of meat – if we were using lamb it was lamb cannon, if we were using beef it was beef fillet. When I met Sandia and started to travel with her family, I learned they don't want any of that stuff – they never eat beef fillet, they eat beef shin; they never eat chicken breast, they want chicken necks – and I just started to become educated on how much more flavour was in these ingredients. We started working with a farmer who had these unique ducks, so we'd roast the whole duck and then do a little second course with the offal. Part of coming here is 'Would you order this if you had the choice, or are you going to eat it because you have no choice?' I always love to do a dish like that. The burnt cream element is from catering college. One day my teacher told me 'You can’t boil cream, because it splits.' The next day I wanted to prove him wrong, so I boiled the cream and reduced it by half. But while we were talking I'd left it reducing, and I turned around and it had split. I quickly whisked it, and it came back to one, but you could see these brown bits in it. I was going to throw it away, but I tasted it and it tasted incredible, with this caramelised flavour. So I realised you could split it, caramelise it and bring it back with more cream. It’s like eating caramel and it lends a dish such richness. And then damson is easily one of my favourite foraged ingredients in the UK. It’s very rare to find wild, and I always get my family picking it when we find it. That’s something I’m really passionate about – pairing game birds and fruit, and bringing these interesting flavours of the pickled onion, the herbal notes of the shisu – it's delicious."
Beetroot, woodruff, milk ice cream
"I was at Noma, I’d been at Per Se, I'd risen through every position at Petrus, I thought I knew it all and one day woodruff comes through and I was like 'What the fuck is woodruff?' I saw this green herb and I thought it looked like a weed. And René [Redzepi] did this dish with apples and beets and muscox (a kind of mountain ox), and he just threw handfuls of woodruff in the liquid that was cooking these beetroots. I smelled this smell and I thought 'Whoa, what is that?' I’ll never forget the first time. I thought 'This guy’s a fucking genius.' Upon leaving Noma I forgot about it. And here, I don't waste anything, so we used to use a grower where we didn’t have a choice on the vegetables he’d send us, to challenge us. We had these bags of marmalade that no one did anything with – one day we were making elderflower granita, and one of the guys had picked a load of woodruff, and I said "Try that as a granita, let’s see what it tastes like." And it was amazing. So I brought it back, beet and woodruff. Beetroot has so much natural sugar, but when it's raw and earthy and it smells of mud and it’s cooked like that, you don’t think of it as something that could be in a dessert. So we change people’s perceptions – woodruff is a savoury herb like a bay leaf, beetroots are savoury because everyone thinks that’s how you eat them, and milk’s milk. So we turn the milk into an ice cream, we turn this into that and we’ve got a dessert."