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Chef James Lowe on London Dining and His New Restaurant Lyle's

Photo: Julie Falconer

In May, British chef James Lowe is set to open his highly anticipated first solo venture in East London, years after gaining an international following as part of The Young Turks cooking collective. Hot Dinners reported last month that Lowe has partnered with the Sethi family — responsible for considerable London hotness, including Bubbledogs, Gymkhana, and Trishna — to open Lyle's in Shoreditch. The plan is for "an all-day restaurant" with an emphasis on coffee and simple British food that Lowe describes as "driven by a common sense kind of mentality."

In the following interview, Lowe explains what he means by that as well as why he thinks certain food trends are "slightly bizarre." Lowe also talks about creating a menu that will allow him to treat diners like friends, and the rapid growth that has propelled London into a powerhouse dining city in recent years. Here now, the interview:

Congratulations on your forthcoming restaurant. It sounds like it's been in the works for some time, right?
Yeah, it has. In a way, I first started looking about four years ago, when I was still at St. John Bread & Wine, but always wanted to make sure that it was the right group of people. Things come up where you realize, "Ah, not quite the right group of people to do the restaurant with." Which I have [now].

Tell me more about that. It's the team behind Bubbledogs and Gymkhana, right?
Yeah, the Sethi family, which is Jyo, Karam and Sunaina, we formed a new company to open this restaurant. I won't go into details. We're using their past experience with the sites they've done. They like opening restaurants like Gymkhana, and Trishna, and then for other things like Bubbledogs they want to find people who have a clear vision and want to do what they want to do. They're a family that loves restaurants.

That helps quite a lot, and because there's been quite a long process to get open, we've become really good friends over time. When you first start up that kind of business relationship you take a bit of a gamble, because you don't really necessarily know these people, but it's really good.

Have you had this concept in mind the entire time that you've been looking the whole four years?

I started doing supper clubs to recreate this way of feeding your friends.

Yeah, pretty much. The idea of a fixed menu for me is based on how it used to be when friends would come into St. John Bread & Wine and they would maybe order a couple of things that they liked, and then would just say, "You send the rest," and so you would send food in waves, shall we say, rather than courses, to the table. It was always just such a nice way to feed people. The fact that they would have something that they would not necessarily normally have ordered was a real thrill, both for them and for me. So that's when I started doing supper clubs, to basically try and recreate this way of feeding your friends or looking after people in a more intimate way.

Lyle's will be located in London's TEA building. [Photo: Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr]

You told Hot Dinners that the food is going to be driven by a common-sense kind of mentality. What did you mean by that?
I guess by "common sense" I mean I'm very aware that trends in food and restaurants come and go. I've been cooking this way for a long time, and I find it slightly bizarre that only recently is it now again trendy to butcher whole animals or buy from a single farm. It is such common sense that you should buy from a supplier who treats their animals ethically. That you should buy a whole animal because it comes in to you at a cheaper price. If you butcher it and break it down, it means you can do more interesting and exciting things with it. Why wouldn't you do it like this? It's so obvious to not buy fish that are in danger of being over-fished; to buy from farms who try their hardest to produce really good quality produce.

It's almost like that is a trendy thing to do; however it's so bloody obvious. Of course you shouldn't throw away the offal and you shouldn't throw away trotters. Belly became trendy 15, 20 years ago, whereas before then it was incredibly cheap. You see these trends come as everyone latches on to a new cut. If you look at food cultures all over the world, you can see that it's such a normal thing to use all parts of an animal or to work with good suppliers.

I hate terms like 'farm-to-able' and 'nose-to-tail.'

That's what I mean. It's just common sense. I think it's ridiculous that it is a trendy thing. I don't know how else to describe the philosophy. I hate terms like "farm-to-table" and "nose-to-tail." I know you have to come up with descriptors for what you do, but really, cooking in a common sense way is as good as it gets. I know it doesn't sound very cool, but it works. It makes sense to me. I don't really think people necessarily need to know what the food's going to be like before they come in. Hopefully they just come in because they're interested and then once having eaten they should understand. But we'll see. Who knows.

[Ed. Note: Lowe clarifies, "It's not the phrases themselves, as they are generally well intentioned. It's just that everyone uses them to the point where it's almost forgotten what they originally meant."]

Actually, I think that's a really interesting way to describe it. Why do you think labels like that evolved? Why did we get away from that being a common sense way to cook?
That's kind of tricky. I guess it's just because the nature of trends is that people look for something new. If everyone did the same thing it would be boring, so people need to find other things to do. Food went down a road obsessed with details and cooking techniques and the adoption of large-scale things using large-scale food processing and applying that to restaurants to maintain and improve consistency, quality and taste.

Then, if you've just been doing the same thing for a few years, I guess that [new thing] sounds really exciting, and you do go for that and then that inspires a lot of young chefs, who then will work in the places that originally carry those sorts of techniques out. I worked at the Fat Duck, for example, because I found it really exciting when I started cooking. I was really excited by things that were going on in Spain. I used to go to Spain a lot and eat in those restaurants, but I was also inspired to cook by the simplicity and cleanliness of Japanese food, so those two things were working at the same time.

A lot of fine dining restaurants in London are trying to pare back.

Yeah, I don't know. Trends happen. It's quite funny how a lot of fine dining restaurants in London are trying to pare back. They're getting rid of their tablecloths and they're making themselves more casual and approachable, which is funny because a lot of the reason why those restaurants are still surviving sometimes is because there are a lot of people out there who want to go to a restaurant and have seven waiters standing around them, and have tablecloths.

I can totally see a time coming where every restaurant that opens is small plates, super casual, and everyone's just going to get fed up of it. You'll read a restaurant critic, I have no doubt, within two years, crying out for more waiters. "Can I please just have a comfy leather chair?" "Can I please just have a nice, clean, tablecloth on the table?" Do you know what I mean? People like to do something different. They like to see a bit of change.

[Photo: Julie Falconer]

So it's cyclical.
Absolutely. It will come back, fine dining. If people say fine dining is dead, I think it's ridiculous. Of course it's not. People will always want to eat in those sorts of restaurants. When they get fed up of just everywhere being cheap and casual, people are going to want something that's a bit more expensive and gives them more of a sense of occasion, and it will all come back in. It's going to happen. It's bound to.

With every trend, something gets left behind, something sticks.

I do think with every trend, something gets left behind, something sticks. The street food trend. Everyone's been a bit sick of that, and saying, "God, it's just never going to end." I don't know what it's like in New York, but in London in the last few years we've had numerous burger places opening, for example. People think, "Ah, it's just going to continue to happen, with more burger places," but of course it won't. People get bored; bad ones fall away. I think it's good because the good ones survive, they get bricks and mortar sites, and then we get more of a diversity of restaurants in London. We get food at a better price point in London. London as a whole is better for it.

We do these regular heatmaps for London, and it just seems like things change so fast and so completely in London's dining scene. But what's it like from the inside?
The London restaurant scene at the moment is really exciting. It's slightly scary because there are so many restaurants opening. When I first went to New York, maybe 10 years ago, on an eating trip, I remember thinking how exciting the New York scene was. Restaurants were opening with new concepts all the time, and people were willing to throw money [into them]. I thought, "Wow, everyone over here is so much more bold and brave. This would never happen in London. People are too scared to put money behind someone or something that's unproven." At the moment, I feel like there's just such incredible confidence in London.

At the moment, I feel like there's just such incredible confidence in London.

There's a general shortage of chefs and people working in the restaurant industry because there are so many projects. Christ, I have been asked by so many people for staff. I haven't got enough staff; I can't find anybody. It's a tricky time. It's very exciting, but, yeah, it is quite tricky.

It will certainly slow down. I hope not in a bad way. I hope we don't go the way of boom and bust. You don't want people to go out of business. I've been cooking in East London for eight years now. When I took over at St. John Bread & Wine, there were pretty much no restaurants in the area. Then a few things started opening, and I remember people in the area being slightly nervous about, "Oh, wow, this is going to take trade away from us." I was always very confident, but I certainly think we're approaching the point now where the restaurant market now is pretty saturated. [But] despite the number of new openers in East London, there are still not that many really good restaurants. All the best ones have been here for quite a while.

Does that kind of growth help prepare a neighborhood for even better restaurants, though?
I think the area's always ready for good restaurants. High quality doesn't necessarily mean a high price. I think what's really hit London in the last couple of years is a higher quality of food at a low price point. It's something that I've always admired about New York. You can get quality food across a really wide range of prices, and very consistent service. But we didn't have that in London. There was a real gap, and I think that a lot more of the places that have opened recently are hitting that lower price point. I do know somewhere I can go and eat dinner for 10 pounds, 20, 30, 40, and I know that there is quality at all of those price points.

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56 Shoreditch High St, London E1 6JJ