How did you get into cooking? “I grew up in Glasgow and, on special occasions, my family would buy Indian curries and pakora [fritters]. When I was seven years old I wanted to make it. I took recipe books out of the library – this was before the internet – and read them. I’d go to the local cash-and-carry shop and buy every spice available, learn about them and then learn not to put too much spices in at once. I also liked to make cakes, pancakes, scones. I think I became a chef because I enjoyed making other people happy.
“My mom’s friend gave me Ken Hom’s The Taste of China as a gift because I was interested in Chinese food. A friend tells me that for my ninth birthday I wanted money to cook a banquet. I made things like salt and pepper pigeon and congee. There was a large Chinese community in Glasgow so I was able to get some Asian ingredients but not Thai, Vietnamese or Japanese. But when I was 10 or 11 years old, I remember the supermarkets started having fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal.”
What was your first job? “In Glasgow it rains a lot so I didn’t want to be a newspaper delivery boy because you’d get wet. So I thought I’d do something I was interested in. I worked for a fishmonger, learning about different fish and how to fillet a fish. I did that on Saturdays and school holidays for about nine months. After that I started cooking in a restaurant after school, washing dishes and making bar food. My mom wanted me to go to university to give it a try so I studied food chemistry but dropped out after a year to cook full time. I find it constantly engaging, you get to do what you want, have creative freedom, there’s always something new to learn, like the intricacies of sourdough fermenting, gluten strengths, poly crystals in chocolate, animal husbandry, the business of the restaurant.”
What was it like to work at Noma, in Copenhagen? “ [In 2008] I went there and it was No 10 [on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list]. I only went there for a month but it was an eye-opening experience. Noma gets a lot of credit for their food, but one of the most important things Rene Redzepi created was amazing hospitality. That team is so charming and welcoming that you want to go back just to be hosted by them. You can see the pride and enthusiasm of the chef bringing the dish to you. That’s as important as the crazy food, which they made without fear.”
Tell us about The Clove Club. “It’s been 3½ years but it feels like a lot longer. It’s been a fairy tale for us since we started. We’re No 26 in the world, No 2 in the UK and have one Michelin star. There is a lot of competition in the UK – good cooks, good restaurants. We’re self-funded in that we did crowdfunding so we have lots of minority investors. We started with very little money and couldn’t afford curtains or nice cutlery, but now we have curtains and are slowly buying nicer stuff.”
How did you meet your partners? “I’ve been cooking for 21 years in restaurant kitchens. Five years ago I met Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith. They worked at St John, a very British restaurant, and I did pop-ups with them. They are super fun guys – very nice and kind hospitality, without being fine-dining, Michelin-trained service. They wanted to do a restaurant in their house and it was named The Clove Club. After we decided to do a restaurant together, it ended up with the same name.”
What’s the food concept behind The Clove Club? “I’ve worked in restaurants a long time and we’d use any ingredients from anywhere. The odd thing is, [at those restaurants] in summer we’d use British berries and fruits, then in wintertime tropical coconut, lime, passion fruit and mango. These have no relation to the UK.
“Noma didn’t want to use the same ingredients as everyone else. But Denmark has smoked salmon and dill, langoustine and lobster, carrots and root vegetables, butter cream instead of olive oil. They frame the ingredients and their land differently but that’s nothing new. If you go to Japan, people are fiercely regional – the same with Italy. But because there wasn’t a renowned local cuisine, if you cooked fine dining in Denmark, you would cook foie gras and truffles, and so on. So Rene opened people’s eyes to the products in the region and cooked them in their own style.
“I didn’t come back thinking I must do the same thing. I didn’t want to do desserts with coconuts even though I love coconut. The UK has some of the best produce in the world. The beef is grass fed, British breeds of cattle are the best because it’s free-roaming cattle that eat grass and so it has a lot of betacarotene that allows for proper dry-ageing, and controlled decay to allow more flavour to come.
“We have the most amazing shellfish, and langoustine, lobsters, razor clams, scallops, velvet crab, shrimps, crayfish, wild Scottish salmon and trout. We have good pork and lamb, too. But vegetables are a struggle. Since March we started a little farm in central London, one mile from our restaurant. We are growing tomatoes, herbs, flowers, shelling beans, white beans, asparagus, peas, spinach, radish and turnips. We’re seeing what works for us there. It’s an experiment to use what we can get. We still import vegetables from elsewhere.”
What do you do when you’re not working? “I need some hobbies. My life has been obsessed with working in kitchens. My hobby was learning about sourdough bread and which chefs were in which kitchens. But I’d like to play more squash and badminton. I can’t drive but I’d like to walk in the country, learn to pick mushrooms, learn to make pottery, maybe get an MBA. Keep my brain going and get fitter.”