What are your childhood memories of food? "I was around 10 years old and on Sundays we had football. [Afterwards, at home] in the bath I would listen to the football scores on the radio. You'd know how long you'd been in the bath by the smells coming from the kitchen. First it was the roast and then, when you could smell the vegetables being boiled, you knew dinner was almost ready. When our restaurant just opened, it was crazy busy, we were finding our feet working in a 24-hour restaurant, and then someone walked by with a roast chicken and it immediately transported me back to being in the bath listening to football scores."
How did you get into cooking? "I'd already been working in restaurants on weekends and holidays since I was 14, and planned to do an apprenticeship [in my hometown of] Shrewsbury, two to three hours' drive from London. But my friend's mum saw a newspaper ad for a scholarship at a culinary school and gave it to me. I stuffed it in my pocket and when my mum was doing the laundry she found it and applied on my behalf. So one Sunday, when I thought I was going to play football, my mum said, 'We're going to go to Bournemouth', a six-hour drive, for the interview and trial. They offered me a space and I remember saying, 'I'll think about it' and my mum kicked me under the table. Thousands of people applied and they only take in 28. In the car on the way home, I thought it was a good decision."
Why is Austrian chef Herbert Berger, formerly of 1 Lombard Street, such an important mentor to you? "As part of the culinary programme, I went to London and worked at his Michelin-starred restaurant. There were 26 chefs and me, a skinny 16-year-old. He's an amazing chef with such a great palate, old school, very opinionated and has a wealth of knowledge of food. During my apprenticeship it was relentless. We did huge numbers for lunch in the brasserie and then the Michelin-starred restaurant. He would taste everything, and everything was made to order. He never sacrificed anything, was never willing to change anything. That's what we try to do in our restaurant. It shows you don't need to cut corners when you increase the volume. He was a tough man, a disciplinarian, that's why he's so successful. It was incredibly tough for a 16-year-old, but it was certainly what I needed. By the time I left, after five years, I'd spent a quarter of my life there. It enabled me to grow a lot quicker and move forward a lot faster."
When you were given the opportunity to run Duck & Waffle, a 24-hour restaurant in a London skyscraper, what was your reaction? "That's the funny thing - I didn't have a reaction because I didn't know it was 24 hours. On my first day with the company I flew to Miami for two months to do some menu development. One of the chefs asked me what I was going to do overnight and I thought he meant staff food. He said, 'No - it's a 24-hour restaurant.' So that was an interesting curveball.
"The owner, Shimon [Bokovza], thought that just because there wasn't a 24-hour restaurant didn't mean there couldn't be one. Only nightclubs are open late, and the [London Underground] closes at midnight, which meant people would have to take a taxi or a bus. So when we opened, it gave people a reason to stay out. But the logistics of the restaurant are insane. We have a kitchen in the basement and the restaurant is on the 40th floor. The internal goods lift only goes up to the 38th floor and then the chefs have to carry the rest up two floors, and it's not like two normal floors, they're two big floors, so I have very fit chefs."
What is your favourite ingredient? "I love Jerusalem artichokes. They have a great flavour that's nutty and, in a purée, they're silky, rich and unctuous. If you roast them they have a texture that's like an undercooked potato. Fry them and you get these gorgeous crisps - there are so many things you can do with them."
The menu at Duck & Waffle looks pretty decadent … "When I started the restaurant I got the overnight menu wrong. I thought people would have champagne, martinis, ceviche and oysters, raw dishes, being elegant and glam. But all we sold was the heavy stuff - baked eggs and cream with truffles and cheese, doughnuts, smoked lamb sloppy joes and lots of sweet waffles. I never imagined that."
Where do you like to eat in London? "For informal places, it's Honey & Co, a husband-and-wife-run Middle Eastern restaurant, and Lyle's, in Shoreditch, which has the talented James Lowe. Barrafina is a Spanish restaurant and the food there is insanely phenomenal. They have three restaurants, one with a Michelin star. You sit at the counter and they cook with so much integrity. It's very classic, nothing refined. They do a roast suckling pig leg or shoulder for two people to share. There are only 15 seats so there's always a queue. London's going crazy with food now. When I first started going to New York it blew me away but now I realise more and more how great London is. We've had this solid foundation of food and now you're seeing young chefs coming up and reinventing dishes, and they don't have to stick to a cuisine or a format any more. That's what's exciting."
How have celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay helped improve the British food scene? "I don't think Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay helped the restaurants, though Ramsay trained people like Mark Sargeant, Angela Hartnett and Jason Atherton. And now you have the third generation coming through and that's where it's happening."