Young blades: The next generation of kitchen creatives
Holly Williams meets the young people whose inventive attitude is delivering bold new experiences to an ever-hungry public
Sunday 25 September 2011
They might have graduated into a world in the grips of a recession, but our top young foodies have benefited from the fact that, when it comes to what we eat, Brits haven't gone in for too much belt-tightening just yet. Fashionable new restaurants keep opening and food festivals, farmers' and artisan-food markets as well as cookery-based TV programmes go from strength to strength.
But there's also been a rise in a certain DIY aesthetic, with young creative types setting up pop-up restaurants or themed one-off events, driving mobile street-food vans or hosting supper clubs in their own homes. And they're canny when it comes to promoting their activities, too: thanks to blogging, Twitter and Facebook, word-of-mouth can now spread speedily, and a good website can be as valuable today as a smart postcode was in days gone by.
While establishing yourself can be tough, this hard-working bunch – all under 30 – prove that if you mix a willingness to graft with a sprinkling of imagination, you can get there, whether that be starting your own business, slogging up through the ranks at top restaurants or blogging your way from three followers up to a must-read site.
We speak to five young people cooking up a storm in the food world, about how they got creative in the kitchen...
The head chef
Florence Knight 25
She may be young, but Knight is already running the show at one of London's coolest eateries: she's head chef at Polpetto, Russell Norman's dinky restaurant above The French House pub in Soho. Aiming for a Venetian osteria vibe, Knight is responsible for its menu of small plates.
Having studied at the London College of Fashion before dedicating herself to the kitchen, Knight is surely hip enough for such a destination. But she got the gig thanks to sheer hard work. "I'm from a family of five and I always cooked for all of them," she says by way of introduction to her swift rise up the culinary ranks. And although she studied at top London cookery school Leiths, it was having the gumption to just get stuck in that was really valuable. "The best thing was taking my knives and going into kitchens and saying, 'Can I work for free tonight?' It really opens your eyes and gets you excited about food. Everywhere I went, people offered me jobs."
You can see why: Knight is clearly passionate, brimming over with enthusiasm. "Every dish starts with one ingredient; you think, 'Damsons – what can I do with them? I'll pickle them!' And that's how I write the menu."
Not that it's always been easy. Knight speaks candidly about the sexism of the industry: "It is hard being a girl, and particularly being a small girl." And that's before you even mention the long, antisocial hours. "It's hard for friends and family to understand that you do a job where you get in at half one at night and get up again at six. But I just love it." k
Nick Troen 26
Nick Troen met Frank Yeung on their first night at Oxford university. They became best friends, and used to dream up plans of going into business together. Little did they know that by the age of 26 they'd be running Poncho No8, a successful chain of burrito restaurants, together.
"We went down fairly unoriginal career paths – he at Goldman Sachs and I at KPMG," explains Troen. "But then we both realised that we don't want to be in finance for the rest of our lives– so we thought, let's sell burritos instead."
In January 2009, Yeung quit his job and Troen put the Masters degree he was studying for on the backburner; by that September, they'd opened their first branch in London's Spitalfields, offering fresh Mexican food to the discerning City types they themselves had been.
"We were two guys who'd never run a business before," acknowledges Troen. "We tried to get loans but banks looked at two 23-year-olds opening a food business in a recession and said, 'Forget it'."
Troen reckons their youth gave them an advantage: "We didn't have anything to lose, and we didn't have any other responsibilities: no wives or girlfriends or kids or debts or mortgages. We had nothing to do but run this business."
They've taken on one other manager, Nick Birkett, also 26, but it's a very young company; as Troen points out, most of the staff are their age too. And while Poncho No8 has gained a new store each year – they're in St Paul's and Soho too now – Troen favours quality over quantity. "We want to grow, but we also want to focus on being the best little burrito place in town."
Edd Kimber 26
Not so long ago, a twentysomething man on the front of a book of cake recipes would have been unlikely, to say the least. But baking is no longer the preserve of the WI: with obsessions over cupcakes and macarons, umpteen new recipe books channelling the 1950s housewife vibe have appeared and TV programmes are dedicated purely to the art of cake.
It was winning one of these – the BBC's The Great British Bake Off – that changed Edd Kimber's life. "It was definitely a springboard for me. I was always trying to find a way of making what I love doing – baking – into a job, but I didn't have the confidence or knowledge to do that."
Having had a sweet taste of success, Kimber quit his day job. "I used to sue people for a living, now I bake. I'm making people a lot happier, and I am so much happier, too – I get to spend all day being creative," he says. His first recipe book, The Boy Who Bakes, has just been published and he also teaches people how to cook those trendy but tricky macarons.
"Baking is very popular now. It's cheap – you can always afford flour and eggs," he says. "And it's a dual thing: you enjoy doing it and you get something nice to eat at the end. The classes are going well so far. I understand the home kitchen – people from a purely professional background might not understand that environment."
The 26-year-old blames his obsession with cake, biscuits and confectionery not only on having a seriously sweet tooth but also on the baker's urge to share their wares. "You rarely bake for yourself – you share what you make, it's a beautiful thing," he explains. "It's very satisfying." k
The blogger/supper clubber
James Ramsden 25
James Ramsden is one chef and food writer who shunned the traditional path of sweating it out in a professional kitchen under a vitriolic star chef, instead setting up a supper club in his own home and penning a lively, no-nonsense – and widely read – blog of recipes, reviews and general foodie news.
Having trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School when he was 18, he went on to study French and Italian at university, where he spent much of his time cooking for friends – "whether they liked it or not". In his final year, he began to blog about food, and enjoyed it so much that he decided to forge a career from it. He's had some considerable success, writing for numerous broadsheet newspapers, while his first recipe book – Small Adventures in Cooking – was published this summer.
Eighteen months ago, Ramsden also set up the Secret Larder supper club with his sister, serving three-course meals in their front room in Holloway, north London. "It's a mixture of friends and strangers usually," he says. "It's surreal when they're all strangers – you almost feel like you're an imposition, though it's in your flat!"
Supper clubs offer an informal way for young chefs to cut their teeth, and Ramsden is clear that he's never fancied the repetitive daily grind of working in a professional kitchen. "Supper clubs are a nice way of 'playing restaurant' for people who can't quite face the realities of doing it properly," he says, pointing out that setting up in your own home makes financial sense too: "It's an economical way of having a restaurant without the ridiculous overheads."
The drinks blender
Ruth Ball 23
Many of our young foodies are determined to do things their own way – but Ruth Ball really puts, well, the ball in your court. Running her experimental liqueur-blending business from her home in Kennington, south London, Ball gives the customer complete control.
A visit to her website, Alchemist Dreams, guides you step-by-step through the bespoke liqueur-making processes: choose your "base" spirit; then add some "accents" (herbs and spices); select one of the charmingly shaped glass bottles to store it in; and then wait for your liqueur to arrive by post. It's a personal and creative approach to flogging booze, and – unsurprisingly – Ball says she's had a "huge response" from people looking for gifts.
It was only meant to be a hobby, but having graduated with a 2:2 in chemistry last year, Ball wasn't finding it easy to get a job. "I thought, 'Why do a proper job I don't want, when I can do this full time?' It's a bit stressful, but it's worth it."
Ball also harboured the ambition to be a chef, but found that the environment didn't suit her: "I never liked the hours, and I wanted something more private, something I can do in my own time."
She sees herself as part of a certain do-it-yourself, inventive foodie movement. "There's a huge underground scene, especially in London. It's a community, and I've just joined the Experimental Food Society." And while she does plan to expand her enterprise, Ball also intends to keep that homespun approach: "I'd like to have premises outside the home, with my own little underground bar, but doing it myself, not with the big chains." 1
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