London is inarguably one of the best cities in the world to eat in. Over the last decade in particular, the capital has seen a host of new, formative openings join the ranks of established, legendary restaurants. This rich tapestry of cuisines and cultures runs from the furthest reaches of the underground lines all the way into the heart of Soho, from the hinterlands of North London to the sprawling industrial estates in Croydon. And yet, even within this thriving ecosystem of eateries, family trees seem to sprawl, like roots below ground, with a select few matriarchs and patriarchs sprouting promising green saplings across the city.
If I were to step away from my computer for a few hours on a busy day, I might return to over 150 emails. Of those emails, around 40% will be press releases. Those press releases are studiously crafted by talented PRs to let journalists know about new restaurant openings in the city. They describe the restaurant, share examples from the menu and give you a thorough bio of the chef in charge, including any and all notable former workplaces. Time and time again, those bios contain references to the same small selection of restaurants.
This chef who is opening a seasonal Italian restaurant in a railway arch spent five years on the pans at The River Cafe. That chef who is about to start serving big, boisterous plates of modern British food earned his stripes at St. John. The chef behind this new, fantastic, Michelin-courting tasting menu worked alongside the legendary Pierre Koffmann for years. They might not share any blood relations, but professionally, a lot of these chefs can boast the same parentage.
It is, in many ways, the greatest legacies of these chefs and restaurateurs. There are many incredible restaurants in London, but it is just a small handful that have this same enduring lineage which can be traced, over generations, up to the top of the tree. It is one thing to cook brilliant food, and quite another to not only teach other people how to do it but to empower those people to go on and make their own significant impact on one of the most competitive restaurant marketplaces in the world.
What is it that takes a restaurant from an icon in its own right to an incubator for future talent? Why is it that these select restaurants seem to be breeding the next generation’s hospitality legends time and time again? We caught up with a few of these restaurant owners and their proverbial children to find out.
St. John is inarguably one of the most significant restaurants in modern history. It almost entirely ushered in a new definition of British cuisine and completely revolutionised the way we cook with and eat offal. Its significance can be felt around the world, even simply in the sheer number of times the signature dish of roasted bone marrow and parsley salad has been replicated everywhere, from Los Angeles to Australia to Argentina.
“Fergus is, in my mind, the most influential chef of his generation,” Trevor Gulliver, co-founder of St. John tells me of his business partner, Fergus Henderson. I doubt you’d find many people who disagree with him. And while Henderson’s culinary influence can be seen in every gastropub worth its salt from John o’Groats to Land’s End, it’s ultimately the restaurant’s alumni that really secure St. John’s reputation as a living legend. Ever visited Lyle’s? Black Axe Mangal? The Marksman? How about Hereford Road? Or Cafe Cecilia? Or Trullo? Have you stepped into Silo? Or Quality Chop House? If you haven’t, then I suppose there’s a pre-made hit list of London restaurants to try. If, more likely, you have – then you’ve felt how the influence of St. John has crept into every corner of this city – and that’s just a small snapshot of the chefs who have passed through its hallowed doors who have gone on to open their own equally relevant joints.
“A little bit of intelligence tells you that if you look after people, they’ll look after you. So my view has always been I work for the people who work for me, and we all work for our customers,” Gulliver tells me. “My job as a restaurateur was to create an environment for people to do well, and still to this day, I expect everybody who comes to work at St. John to learn something noteworthy. If you don’t want to come and learn, then it doesn’t help.”
For Douglas McMaster of Silo, working at St. John was a game changer. “I was working in classic French two and three-Michelin-star restaurants as a young pup, and just absolutely hating the industry,” he tells me. “I was like, this is awful. I’m working 90 hours a week and getting paid nothing; never seeing the light of day. I’ve got no social life and I’m being bullied. And that happened for three or four years, and then a friend of mine was like, I’ve just started working in this restaurant in London called St. John, and I was like ‘oh, yeah I know that place, it’s the one with a weird cookbook with brains.’”
Fergus is, in my mind, the most influential chef of his generation
Drawn in by his friend telling him it was the exact antithesis to the work he was hating, McMaster made the move. “It took me, honestly, about six months for the penny to drop while I was working at St. John Bread and Wine,” McMaster adds. “I was six months in like, oh, I get it now, I get it. It took such a long time because when you’re brainwashed into thinking that classic French food was the best food in the world, and all of this kind of frivolous, superfluous fluff on the plate was meaningful, you suddenly realise, no, it’s not meaningful, it means nothing. It’s just some pretentious garnish that serves no real functional purpose.”
He says St. John taught him “the fundamentals of good cooking”. From butchering an animal to gutting a fish, it was a masterclass in food. I ask McMaster whether the ingenuity required to cook a whole animal from nose to tail helped him develop the creativity that shines through in his zero-waste approach to cooking. “They’re absolutely connected,” he tells me. “It’s hard, as an innovator, to talk about the way in which we innovate. But there is a frame of mind that is required to innovate. And when I said that it took me six months to rid myself of the shackles of the indoctrination of classic French cooking, it really was this penny-drop moment. It’s a state of mind, a way of thinking, and a way of seeing ingredients. And when it clicks you start thinking and cooking using that skill set and logical processing.”
McMaster tells me he thinks there’s this kind of “St. John DNA” that he thinks people would recognise in his cooking, even though the two are, at face value, extremely different. “I’m a different person. I’m allowed to express aesthetic presentation in different ways to St. John, but there is still that fundamental kind of appreciation of nature,” he says. “There is so much in what Silo food is doing and saying and being that is very St. John, and that is this observation of ingredients being precious and perfect the way they are. And so we would process a tomato, I would say, right, how can we make this tomato the best version of a tomato? In what ways can we elevate the tomato into tomato kingdom? And that is a very St. John thing.”
Even in the context of the names mentioned in this article, the number of influential chefs who have worked for Pierre Koffmann is staggering. Household names of the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Tom Kitchin, Marcus Wareing and Marco Pierre White have passed through his kitchen, learning from and working alongside the legendary chef.
Funnily enough, though, when I ask Koffmann about his approach to training up younger chefs, he maintains that he wasn’t a ‘teacher’. “My main objective was always that I love cooking. I only have one restaurant, and I think I worked very hard. I was the only chef going to the market in the morning. I never saw another chef in the morning market. And the only thing I was asking of the young chefs was to follow me,” Koffmann tells me over the phone. “I was like a captain, I just asked them to follow my example, that’s it. But I was not a school teacher, I don’t think. I was showing them how to do stuff, of course, but you had to do it. You show it once, twice, three times and after that, if you don’t understand it, it’s not a good thing. I was not a school teacher. I was more like, follow me to war.”
And while he may not see himself as an educator as such, for those chefs who worked alongside Koffmann, it’s very clear that his approach was educational – whether intentional or not. “I use a lot of what I learned working with Pierre Koffmann at Sollip,” Woongchul Park, owner of one-Michelin-starred restaurant Sollip tells me. “The techniques he used are classic. Let’s say you’re confiting a salmon or trout, he would cook it directly in the oven, the normal way. He didn’t use sous vide machines, or the vacuum pack, he just put it in a pan with oil in the oven and figured out exactly the spot and the temperature that made the oven do it properly. And then he just left it there to do its thing. And that’s how I still do it.”
Park tells me about purposefully seeking out working at Koffmann’s, partly because he wanted to learn classic French cuisine, but also because he had a friend who worked at the restaurant who told Park that Koffmann would “come to work five days a week”. “For me, it was like, he’s not just a famous chef – he was a celebrity. I’m not really into singers or TV stars, but some chefs are celebrities to me, and Pierre Koffmann was one of those.”
It was at his first restaurant, La Tante Claire, which opened in 1977 on Chelsea’s Royal Hospital Road, that Tom Kitchin worked with Koffmann. In an echo of Koffmann’s words about following him to war, Kitchin says, “It was literally like SAS survival school. It was all about survival, certainly for the first three to six months, because I was so out of my depth working in that kitchen in the beginning,” he tells me. “Then, little by little you started to build confidence and you felt that chef was pushing you in the right direction.”
For me, it was like, he’s not just a famous chef – he was a celebrity. I’m not really into singers or TV stars, but some chefs are celebrities to me, and Pierre Koffmann was one of those
He describes his time working with Koffmann as an education. “He taught me everything, not just about cooking and produce and extracting flavour, but also about the complete and utter lifestyle of living and dying by food,” he says. “He would do incredible things like mushroom foraging on the weekend. You didn’t think about it when you were young, but it was a proper school and he was taking me on a proper culinary journey. Without his input, I would not be where I am today, for sure.”
When I ask Koffmann if he ever sees his work reflected in the eateries and restaurants of the chefs who worked with him, he recounts a story about Kitchin. “I went to Tom Kitchin’s restaurant in Scotland to replace him for a week because he had to go somewhere. And I just felt like I was back at La Tante Claire, because the kitchen was working like La Tante Claire 30 years ago. I felt quite pleased.”
Kitchin laughs when I tell him about it. In the early days of his restaurant he was invited to go on Great British Menu. Initially hesitant, the advice of peers that it would be good for business was what eventually convinced him. Intending initially just to participate in the first stage, he temporarily closed the restaurant and headed to London for filming. Unsurprisingly, he ended up making it to the final – something that posed an issue around keeping the restaurant’s doors closed for longer than they already had been.
“In the jubilation of winning the Scottish heat I was like, oh shit, what am I going to do? I’m in the final now. I can’t close the restaurant again,” he remembers. “So I plucked up the courage to call chef [Koffmann] and explain the situation. And he says, ‘oh no, it’s fine, I’ll come and do your restaurant’. So I’m in London to compete in Great British Menu, and in the restaurant we have a window where you can see into the kitchen, and people started going ‘is that Pierre Koffmann?’ This mad rumour started going around Scotland that Pierre Koffmann was taking over my restaurant, it was incredible. I had my menu, but of course he changed everything. I came back and I was on the pass and I was like, what’s that? And they were like, oh, chef changed the menu. And then I had this fridge full of different birds and meats. It was an iconic part of our history.”
When I ask Koffmann why he thinks so many chefs who have worked with him have gone on to be so successful he replies simply “because they wanted to.” But it’s clear after speaking with the chef himself and the people who learned from him that it’s about so much more than that. From La Tante Claire in the 90s, to Koffmann’s in the 2010s, Koffmann was in the kitchen every day from open to close. He remained in the job for the love of cooking, and didn’t mollycoddle his chefs, choosing instead to lead by example. Park calls him “a legend,” while Kitchin says “once I got older, I started to realise I was working in the presence of a genius.”
The River Cafe
There is hardly a modern Italian restaurant in the city untouched by The River Cafe’s influence. Dine there once and it’s easy to see why. This is a restaurant that deifies the ingredient and operates an egalitarian kitchen structure that, while having two extremely talented executive chefs, gives the impression that everyone has their place in the sun. Put simply, it seems like the perfect learning environment, so it’s no wonder the list of alumni is about as long as the Thames (the restaurant’s namesake river which just so happens to glitter – or, more accurately, dully flow – just beyond the windows and bucolic gardens).
Maybe you’ve heard of Jamie Oliver? The chef, cookbook author and international television star spent the early years of his career at The River Cafe – in fact, he was scouted by the BBC while working there in 1997. Oh, the joys of an open kitchen. Speaking of men from the television, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, founder of River Cottage, the organic food titan that was the subject of multiple eponymous TV shows, spent a few years in the kitchen at The River Cafe, an experience that he cites as shaping the direction of his career.
Other notable names that have passed through these hallowed halls include Tomos Parry of Michelin-starred Brat and the newly opened Mountain, Anna Tobias of Cafe Deco, Sam and Sam Clark (the husband and wife team behind Moro and Morito who both worked at the restaurant), Theo Randall and Endo Kazutoshi. The latter spent his days off from Zuma working at The River Cafe and cites the late Rose Gray as the person who gave him the push he needed to branch out on his own.
“What’s interesting about Rose and Ruthie is they were just obsessed by perfection. All their experiences were driven mainly by nonnas, grandmothers and how to cook seasonally using impeccable ingredients,” Jamie Oliver tells me. “It wasn’t about protocol, it wasn’t about chef’s traditions and it was incredibly empowering for me - I got to write menus and surf the seasons, twice a day, seven days a week.” The famous chef adds that Ruth Rogers “has an amazing ability to make people feel a certain way and make them have purpose. She’s very kind,” and adds that “she will always be my boss.”
They still cook what I think of as romantically at The River Cafe, despite how busy the restaurant is
Stevie Parle, co-founder of Pastaio, spent three years working at The River Cafe from the age of 17. “I think I was the youngest chef they hired!” he jokes. Parle believes the reputation The River Cafe has for producing talented young chefs who go on to have brilliant careers is ‘well-earned’. “They still cook what I think of as romantically there, despite how busy the restaurant is,” he tells me. “What I mean by that is that there is no compromise for production and no need to de-skill processes because everyone there is a genuinely excellent cook. People who work at The River Cafe learn to be nimble and proactive.”
Joseph Trivelli, one of the two executive chefs at The River Cafe, echoed this sentiment when I interviewed him last year for a different article. “It’s because of us” he joked to Sian Wyn Owen, his fellow executive chef, when I asked him why he thought that the restaurant had sent so many talented chefs out into the dining world. “You’ve got two executive chefs, and there’s loads of us, so you get everyone’s opinion,” he continues. “We’re talking about cooking all the time, we’re talking about food all the time. So maybe that helps if you come in here, you’re young, you’re a keen cook, and then you work here for four years. You leave very rich.”
He adds that, unlike many other restaurants, chefs at The River Cafe work a different section every day. “It used to be that you’d go in a kitchen, you’d get a section, you’d have a list to complete, and then you’d do it all over again tomorrow, and then you’d hope that in six months you might go to another section, and you’d just do the tour around the sections and then you’d move onto the next place. However, this restaurant isn’t like that. You do a different section every day. Today you’re doing the grill, tomorrow you might do pasta, and you quite quickly get to form your own opinion on what you like and what you don’t like, and once you have that you’re halfway to having your own standalone restaurant.”
Parle also highlights the relatively calm, respectful way the kitchen is operated at The River Cafe as a reason staff learn so much. “It makes learning easier and growing in confidence more effective if you’re not worried about getting a pan thrown at you or branded with a hot knife,” he tells me. “In terms of bringing this legacy into Pastaio and my other projects, I hope I manage to continue that legacy, both in the confidence, the quality and simplicity of the food, but also in the way we treat our team and guests with respect and love.”