A decade and a half might not be considered a long time in the recent history of many industries, but it's a long time in restaurants. That's especially true if the year is 2023, because 15 years ago saw a global financial crisis that, with the benefit of hindsight, can be said to have changed the fabric of the London dining scene – ushering in the movement towards casual dining done properly and the birth of street food, and being a catalyst for many of the ways the food industry has been democratised in the years since.
2008 was significant in London also for the opening of a Soho restaurant that, as we've discussed in our Five Dishes series, impacted the restaurant industry in more ways than its owner, Jacob Kenedy, could have predicted. By doing largely away with the idea of prescriptive starters and mains in favour of smaller and larger plates designed for sharing, shining a light on Italian wines beyond the big hitters, and delving into the regional specialities of Italian cuisine, Bocca di Lupo has inspired legions of similar restaurants, but has never been imitated.
Now, ahead of its 15-year anniversary, Kenedy talks to us about how Bocca di Lupo was devised and executed, as well as the additions of Gelupo and Plaquemine Lock to his stable, his early career and more besides.
What was your first experience of cooking and being passionate about food?
Even as a little baby, I loved cooking and food. And my very earliest memories involve food one way or another: eating artichokes with my grandfather or, I remember very early, while I was a toddler, I used to make potions by sneaking into my grandfather's cellar and pouring all the booze into a bucket. I didn't drink it, apparently. As a kid I always loved food, and I grew up thinking that I could cook. In fact, probably for a kid, I was a very good cook. But I took a gap year between school and university and approached Moro to see if they'd take me for a week and fell in love there, with the place and the kitchen.
What was it about Moro that made you approach them specifically?
I went there for a meal and was incredibly excited by the food. Crab brik (a sort of savoury filo pastry) was one of the dishes that we had, which I found really amazing. And the desserts I was in love with – I've always had a sweet tooth – so the chocolate and apricot tart and the yoghurt cake. The crab brik was a statement dish that they ended up making less and less because the labour was very dear on that dish. I went there with a friend of the family, who was quite a gastronome and knew Sam and Sam by name from The Eagle. And my mum said, 'Why don't you ask to see if you can come for a week when you finish school?' My friend took me to the kitchen – 'Sam, this is, this is Jacob,' and I spoke to them and I said, 'Look, can I come and do some experience in your kitchen when I finish school?' And so I kept on coming back every couple of months. I'd pop in and when I went on holidays to Italy I'd come and bring them some salami, and every time I went back in, it was like they'd never met me before. They'd completely forgotten about this kid. And I think they were quite surprised when I actually turned up in the kitchen.
God, the food there is very exciting. They really cook. I still find it scintillating and current and amazing. And I enjoyed the closeness, the camaraderie and collaboration in the kitchen a lot. It also felt like a place I could explore being an adult, rather than a kid. I never understood the importance of salt, until I ate there and I discovered that I didn't know how to season food, and sometimes I'd forget to put it in at home. And then I discovered that this is like an absolute, and there were so many fundamentals that I didn't have, but I was a cocky little shit back then and thought knew what I was doing, and they really taught me how to cook – which is why I put forward that steak salad, because that was one that really taught me about seasoning and balance, and also the kind of joy that you can have in simpler things. I find that salad outrageously crazy. It's just a nutty combination of fruit and grain, and I couldn't believe you could serve meat that rare. I grew up very gastronomically well educated, but I'd still order a steak at least a medium or medium well – this bloody thing was amazing.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Angel, on Noel Road, canalside Islington which, by possible coincidence, or at least partial coincidence, is directly opposite my pub now. I had a babysitter, who came to visit me a couple of years after the pub opened. We were sitting there and she said, 'Jacob, you know you used to come here when you were a baby?' And I was like, 'I've never stepped foot in this pub before in my life.' She said, 'No, I used to take you for a walk in the pram and when you fell asleep, I'd take you into the corner room and have a cup of tea while you slept.' We left there when I was about three, and moved to Chelsea, which is where I grew up. We had quite a bohemian family and Chelsea had already become quite conservative and a bit Made in Chelsea, which is not my scene. I had a few very close friends but more of our friends were in other parts of London. I stayed there on and off until after I opened Bocca. It was going back to live with my mum that enabled me to open a restaurant, not have much income for a while, and devote myself to that.
Why was it Soho and not Chelsea or Islington or Hackney Road? What was it about this part of town that made you want to open here?
I think there were two reasons, maybe three. One was that I prefer eating in smaller restaurants, and I prefer working in smaller restaurants where you can have a sense of what's happening everywhere all the time. And yet there are economies of scale in running one where if you have a very tiny place where the owner is the only cook and there's one person working there and a couple of seats, that's very efficient, but the owner can never go on holiday. Then in relatively small places, it's very hard to have a sensible complement of staff relative to the number of customers that you can do. So 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 slightly bigger footprint without having to have walls so wide that I couldn't see into the corners. So that was a big reason.
Another is that I grew up going out to gay clubs very late at night, trawling the streets of Soho at three o'clock in the morning, or five o'clock in the morning, hanging out with drag queens, and I loved it. And it felt like it was my stomping ground in London – more so than it does now, because both of us have changed and gotten older but in slightly different ways. I think the third is that the thing I love most about London is its diversity. And London is pretty integrative, generally speaking, but there are still these pockets which are quite amazing, where you get a particular culture blossoming more than others. And Soho was one where it felt like there was everyone – from the richest to the poorest, people in the tech world, people into arts, people who'll never have a job in their lives, everyone coming together, and mostly having fun. And that's something that I've always liked about it.
I grew up going out to gay clubs very late at night, trawling the streets of Soho at three o'clock in the morning, or five o'clock in the morning, hanging out with drag queens, and I loved it
When did Victor Hugo come into the picture?
Victor and I met when I was at university, and we fell in love and became a couple. We both had very different memories of why we started working together. He remembers that I asked him to come and work in the business. He was an accountant by trade, so we could do it together. And I remembered that he knew I wanted to open a restaurant – I'd already become a chef, I trained at Moro and at Boulevard in San Francisco – and he was worried that if I started something as all-consuming as a restaurant without him, then it would come between us, and that he wanted to do it for the benefit of our relationship. In any event, it didn't work, because we broke up after running the restaurant for a few years, we probably would've done anyway, but working together might have accelerated the process a little bit. He's still an equal stakeholder in the business, but he's no longer working, he's moved back to South Africa and he stepped away from running the business about two years ago. But he came and trained at Moro, and then came to Boulevard with me to train in front-of-house and management.
When you opened here, what was the restaurant scene like in London and in Soho compared to now? Did you get the sense that you were bringing something new and exciting?
I didn't intend to trailblaze, at all, and I think we actually did in three regards, quite significantly. But the reason Bocca is what it is, is that my mum grew up in Italy, and we've got a family house in Naples, and I go there all the time. And as part of our romantic entanglement, Victor and I took a year off and spent it travelling around Italy – not working, it wasn't intended to be research for him – and I discovered this crazy regionality to Italian food that I had no idea existed before. I thought Italian was a cuisine before; now I don't. The majority still do. In fact, most people who know that I'm a chef also think that I'm actually Italian. But at some point in this year, I was getting on a plane to go to Italy and recognised in myself a real excitement that I managed to understand, which is that 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, whether it was a really good plate of spaghetti with clams by the sea, trattoria or home cooking-style, very simple and honest, but of a place and not diluted. And the idea behind Bocca was to cook the food that I otherwise had to go to Italy for, which I suppose in retrospect actually 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.
There were Italian restaurants that I really loved in London at the time, but none that served the kind of food that I was excited about going to eat in Italy
The three places that I think we did end up trailblazing were bringing the focus on regionality, I think no one had done before here. The idea of small plates and counter eating outside of Japanese and Spanish restaurants – we might even have been the first, I don't know – is now a way of eating. And the third is that a wine critic recently told me that he was pretty sure we were the first to offer wine in the small glass and carafe, rather than medium – a slightly different way of eating and drinking. The small plates thing came about as a problem-solving exercise, and a little bit of an aspiration. When I eat in Italy, I might have a plate of fried shrimp as an antipasto or as the main course. And when you eat in Italy, if you order a grilled fish, you get a grilled fish. You don't get two veg and you don't get a sauce. And I was trying to draft a menu on which we had things like, I don't know, veal spezzatino and all you got was a bowl of veal stew or a bowl of tripe, whatever it was. And on a menu which is structured starter-main-dessert, there was no place for that. People expected sides, they expected the sauce. And it was months of wrangling with this problem, until I drafted a menu where I offered things as small and large, and there ceased to be this concept in the menu of a main course.
And the other was that flexibility. When I trained at Boulevard, I had a meal at the Ritz Carlton. The chef there in San Francisco was an ex-chef of hers, and he put together a menu with I think 15 or 20 dishes on there. And you could order as many courses as you wanted. It was priced per course, but they cut the portions after you ordered. So if you ordered just a steak, you'd get a big steak, whereas if you ordered a steak as part of a larger order of dishes, you'd get a very small portion, so you ate the right amount by the end, which sounded a bit overly complicated, but it was just really nice that you could choose as many things as you wanted in whatever order you wanted and have it come. And so the small and large plates thing came about to enable that – to enable sharing. The intention's not that everyone has to share – I'd say about 60%, 70% of our tables share – it just suits the cuisines that we do, and it lets you play a lot because you can know, you can have a course of sharing, a course of not, I can have a meal that goes veg-fish-meat or antipasto-primo-secondo, or if it's going on a journey through your meal from Sicily to Rome to the north, it lets you play. We have to train our waiters a lot, and they get better and better the longer we have them, but they have a big role to play, taking people on a journey.
What was the idea behind Gelupo?
In the gap year that Victor and I took, I didn't work at all. I wanted to learn how to make salamis and sausages in an Italian style, and I couldn't find anyone who would teach me. I'd already learnt a bit because Nancy Oakes's husband – I lived with him for the first six months I was in San Francisco – he's a guy called Bruce Aidells, who had a big sausage company and has written dozens of books. He's a good Jewish boy – dozens of books on sausages and meat and pork cooking – so I knew a bit from him, but I wanted to learn in Italy. And I couldn't find anyone who’d teach me, because I'd approach people and ask them, and they would have the view not only that they wouldn't teach you if you weren't a member of the family, but it wasn't actually possible to learn their recipes if you didn't share their blood. It wouldn't work. They have these dynastical family businesses, the recipes are passed down, but the founder of the business will have the matriarch behind the till controlling the money, there'll be the patriarch controlling the kitchen, and then they'll be all the cousins and sisters waiting the tables or stuffing the sausages, or whatever they do. But through a friend of Nancy's, a food writer in Florence called Faith Willinger, she introduced me to a gelataio in Bologna, who's a bloody genius – I think he's retiring now, his ice-cream shop is called Gelatauro, which is a kind of configuration of gelato and bull – and so I learned to make ice cream there, and when we opened Bocca I imported a couple of pieces of ice cream equipment, the same kind that I was using with him, and I was very proud of the ice creams that we were serving at Bocca.
It was a different version with the same chocolate and almond one we photographed – that was with granita, rather than sorbet. So Bocca I opened obviously hoping that it would not be a complete failure. And it was kind of the model of a success of a restaurant in its opening, it went incredibly well, and so we thought we could walk on water, we were very excited, and after about two years of running Bocca on a street with very few commercial units on the street – it's kind of a backstreet, with the back doors of a couple of theatres on here, a couple of office blocks, and there aren't many units that become available on this street. The unit Gelupo occupies used to be an internet café, the kind of shop where you'd go in and pay for an hour on a terminal. It was always empty – we came in here occasionally if our printer broke at Bocca, we'd come in here, and I remember they would charge a pound sheet to print menus – and they were dead, except they were closed down because their main business was selling crack cocaine. It became available, and I had this fundamentally stupid thought, which is 'How hard could it be to run an ice cream shop? If we can do a restaurant, we can do an ice cream shop.' And so we bought a bit more ice cream equipment and set up Gelupo.
Bocca always had some spatial pains, because we occupy a fairly tight footprint and I think we designed it pretty well, but we were a bit busier than we thought we'd ever be. So we put a bit of wine storage in the basement of Gelupo, and moved the office there to have a bit more admin space. I discovered that on a backstreet with no passing trade, in a country where the weather is shit for nine months of the year, and you're selling something which was three pounds a cup back then, it's actually not very easy. In an ice cream shop it's really easy to make people happy– people who go into a restaurant are normally going in for an event of some importance; there's some meaning to the time they're going to spend together, and it's pretty easy as a restaurateur to get enough of something wrong to really piss them off. It's a meaningful moment for them – if the food's late or if it doesn't quite live up to their expectations, or the server looks at them and has a funny tone of voice, it can upset them quite a lot. In an ice cream shop, even shit ice cream makes people happy. And we are selling really nice ice cream, so it's very easy for me to take people and give them a wonderful experience, but it's very difficult to turn a profit. And so this was years and years and years of agonisingly hard graft. And it's still not a meaningfully big business, but it's very impactful in terms of what it does for people. You can't be pissed off or impatient when queuing for a gelato.
In an ice cream shop it's really easy to make people happy
When did you decide that you wanted to go back to Islington and take on the Plaquemine Lock? And then where does the Creole and Louisianan influence behind the cooking come from?
In a very minor way, I'm a Louisiana landowner. My grandmother's from a town called Plaquemine, which is just outside of Baton Rouge, and I have a large family of several hundred cousins, and there's a family corporation – between us we own a very large tract of swamp, which brings me very little. I get alligator bounty. My grandmother lived very well off this, because for a period they found oil in the land – it was very much like some kind of 1980s sitcom. She was rolling in an enormous income and drank it all in champagne. And then the oil ran out, and I have a small share of a large chunk of swamp. But because of the family connection, I went for the first time when I was about 20 years old. My mum was a painter, and she shows sometimes in a gallery in Atlanta, and I was going there for an opening with her and went with Victor and a friend of mine who lived in America for three days to New Orleans. And I was incredibly drunk and happy the entire time that I was there. And then I started going a bit more often and began to understand the people who lived there and their food, and culture, and music and booze, all of which are beautifully intertwined, and for a long time, I had in my head that London would benefit from that.
If there's anywhere in the world that anyone should go to, it's New Orleans. It's amazing and enchanted in both the white-magic and the dark-magic sense. And there's some almost vampiric things there, and there are some very dainty, lovely things. There are a number of very old, very grand restaurants with quite colonial interiors, and very formal service – lots of tableside flambéing. The Creole cuisine that they serve, the kind of haute Creole cuisine, is rooted in maybe 18th-century French cooking. It's a very elevated, very butter-heavy way of cooking – beignets and Ondine, lots of cooked oysters, and bananas Foster is a very good classic thing they serve – but not snooty. The formal service in the French style and in fine-dining restaurants here can be a little bit intimidating, whereas this has the mass appeal that America gives to things, you know – they won't look down at anyone. And so I thought that would work really well in London, and I had it in the back of my mind that it was something I'd like to do there one day. And I happened upon this derelict pub on the canal in Islington, which already reminded me a bit of the bayou, and thought there'd be another way of looking at Louisiana food here, which would be that it's food to drink with, and that it might sit very comfortably in a pub context.
I was also quite mindful that I love restaurants and I love my restaurant, but Brits are quite good at bonding with people that we know, and our friends, but we're uniquely aloof and standoffish to strangers. And the only place that that rule seems not to hold, other than maybe the queue for an ice cream shop, is in a pub. In a pub people might challenge each other or they might make friendly relations – we treat it as though we're already in the living room, and I really like that. And I wanted to have a piece of it.
How does it feel to be celebrating the 15th anniversary of Bocca di Lupo?
Quite frankly, a year is a fair old while – you've got about a 50% chance of hitting a year. Bocca was designed to be timeless. In fact, I was a bit worried when it became trendy, because I thought, 'What's gonna happen when we're no longer trendy?' Even before I became a parent, I described opening a restaurant in terms of parenthood, and that it was such a big life event that I can remember opening it as though it were yesterday. So in a way it's as though no time has passed at all, but I also struggle to remember what life was like before it happened. In a sense, my life began when my kid was born three and a half years ago. But in another sense, my life began when Bocca opened, because before that it was completely different. So I suppose in a sense I'm 15 years old, just like Bocca is. It feels like yesterday and it also feels like it was forever ago.