Anyone at the cutting edge of the foodie world knows that there’s huge change afoot. People are eating and drinking in ways that would’ve seemed like pie in the sky a decade ago. Words like vegcentric and sober curious (more on which next week) are rapidly moving from buzzword status to a more mainstream way of life.
One of the up-and-coming names on the London foodie scene is Jamie Park, the Head Chef at Adam Handling’s Frog, Hoxton. Already known to many of you from Masterchef: the Professionals, we first met him through our mutual friend, Matt Campbell. We were immediately taken with his ideas around a more holistic, healthy approach to food in general – everything from avoiding the bullying nature adopted by chefs of the previous generation, right through to staff meals and nights on the beer – and have looked for a chance to work with him ever since.
In the following interview, you’ll find out how Jamie Park found his way into food, how he sees the foodie scene changing and developing, his own struggle with mental health and the darker sides of the industry, his impending marathon in Matt’s memory, and why he’s not to be mistaken for a yogi.
If you’re in the mood for a good, long read, scroll on down. But first, here’s a video of Jamie Park at work in the kitchen.
Real Kombucha meets Jamie Park: the Interview
You told me before we started this interview that you don’t speak very much. That must be a difficult thing for a head chef in a kitchen.
It depends. We’re quite a small team and it’s a small, open kitchen. I guess the last thing the guests want to hear is some angry-looking chef shouting at all of his staff. So we try and keep things pretty cool and pretty calm – more just going over to people and chatting with them rather than yelling across the whole kitchen and being aggressive, abusive or sweary. That’s not really my style. I’m not really into that.
It’s interesting you say that. I’m fascinated with the fact that people like you and Matt Campbell – this young generation of chefs – are very different to the previous generation: your Gordon Ramsays, your Marco Pierre Whites…
[Laughs] Yeah, definitely. I’m very conscious of it. I trained through the later stages of that era, where chefs still thought it was cool to be angry, abusive, bullying, fucking around playing mind games, harassing young chefs and things like that. We’re at a stage now that that generation of chefs are complaining that there’s no good chefs left in the industry. It’s like, obviously! Nobody wants to get up at 7am or 8am and come to work just to be yelled at for 18 hours, just to go home feeling miserable. Even if the food that they’re making is making them really happy, if the environment’s not right then they’re not going to do it.
I look around now at the jobs that exist that didn’t exist when I was going through the late stages of college – social media jobs and things like that where people can genuinely make a living sat in a cafe on their laptop – as opposed to getting up first thing in the morning, working their arse off for 18 hours, being shouted at the whole time. Who’s going to want to do that now, do you know what I mean? If you could go back and if you had the opportunities that you have now, you’d have to think seriously about what path you wanted to take. If you love food and you love cooking then you’re going to find the right environment to work in. You’re not going to go and work in an environment that doesn’t make you happy. People aren’t going to do it anymore.
Is that something you’re seeing across the chefing industry? Is there still an element of that bullying nature, or is it something you’re all moving against?
I think it’s a little bit split. Especially in London, there’s massive pressure on restaurants to make money, on head chefs to make profit, to fill the restaurant, to have the best restaurant. I guess it’s just how you approach that pressure, and how that trickles down through the team. We’re a massively open kitchen and all the chefs take the food out, so really, for the guests to have the most positive experience, the people serving them need to be happy and passing on that energy. It just lifts the whole vibe of the restaurant. You can tell that everyone’s working together and happy. Whereas, I suppose in more old-school kitchens where they’re closed, you don’t see the chefs, they’re locked away in some basement kitchen, then yeah, I’m sure that style of head chef still exists in some London restaurants.
In more local places that I’ve worked in back up North, even 1-star places, they’re not really like that. There’s that element sometimes, but it’s not like that all the time. That’s like intense pressure, non-stop, abuse.
Since I started working for Adam Handling five years ago, he’s not really a big believer in that. He’s trained at the same sort of time as I have, so he’s seen that side of kitchens and he’s seen that kind of chef. He’s not interested in that. For me and for him, I think it’s more about nurturing talent. I don’t want to be complaining that there’s no chefs left in the industry if I’m stood shouting at some young apprentice for doing something wrong because he didn’t know better. If he doesn’t know better then it’s because I’ve not taught him better, therefore it’s my fault. I should be shouting at myself. You can’t shout at someone for not knowing something if you haven’t taught them properly, do you know what I mean?
When I was younger, I’d never seen a quail egg before, and all of a sudden you’re getting told, “How come you’ve not cooked it right?” And I’m like, “Well, I’ve never cooked it before and you’ve not shown me how to cook it.” It’s a bit of a vicious cycle that we’re breaking out of. Now it’s more about trying to nurture talent, mentor people, help them.
What’s interesting as well is that it’s not just the change in attitude, but also a change in the way that you’re cooking; in the way that chefs behave in their own lives. I was talking to Rob Howell down in Root, Bristol, and he was saying that after hours they’re more likely to sit down with something other than whatever gets them slammed. It feels to me that there’s a change right across the board. Would that be fair to say?
Yeah, and that comes with the attitude towards management of the kitchen as well. Obviously, if you work those hours and you’re working under that pressure, then of course after work you’re going to be feeling pretty miserable and you’re going to want to go and smoke and drink – those things just become part of the cycle. When you start changing the attitude towards working hours – giving people back their time, working on the mindfulness of people and the health conscious side of things, then people’s approach to their life is going to change. They’re going to start going for more healthy options. They’re going to start swapping the beer for something non-alcoholic because they’ve maybe got a run or a swim the next day that they’re looking forward to. It just has a knock-on effect on people’s actual lives when you change the attitude at work.
Take the attitude towards a staff meal. If everyone’s got a bit more time during work then the staff meal’s going to be better or healthier. If someone’s taken their time over it, then it’s going to make people happier because they’ve had a delicious, nutritious meal at work before their next shift. It’s all one sort of cycle. If you break the cycle from before – hours, pressure, which just leads to smoking and drinking, whatever; laying in bed until 4pm on your day off, hungover after a hard week because you’re knackered – if you change that, people are going to start making better plans for themselves and living better.
So is that something that has happened to you? When you joined the industry were you slamming it all the time?
[Laughs] Yeah, definitely! Like I say, you work those hours then everyone, when they finish at the end of the week or at the end of a hard day, they just want to get wasted. They just want to forget about it. It’s like, “I’m off now, I don’t have to get up in the morning, I’m just going to go out and get hammered.” But now I’m training for a marathon, so if I’ve got to go out for a run on Sunday, then Saturday night I’m like, do I really want to drink all that booze that I would normally, or do I want to go for a better option, be able to wake up and enjoy my days off and do the things I need to do?
You’re 28. For your generation it seems more acceptable to get to the end of the day and pour a kombucha, or something like that.
100 percent. It was Enrique [a colleague], originally, who went to Noma about two and a half years ago and had kombucha from their test kitchen. He brought this idea of it back and he was like, it’s actually quite nice! So up until the back end of 2017, when I discovered Real Kombucha through Matt Campbell and we were doing the events after Masterchef: the Professionals, and he gave me your product, I didn’t know that this style of kombucha was available on the market. I’d had some before from health food stores and I thought they weren’t as good as what I was making because I’m in charge of the balances – it was a bit too funky; a bit too much like, “this is a health drink, it’s good for your gut” and all of these taglines that you associate with that style of kombucha.
But with your product, it’s aimed at the Modern Drinker. It’s a sophisticated version, I guess. It’s the sort of product that you’re going to (A) drink for yourself at the end of a long day (I tend to drink it before dinner service and after staff food because it just settles me down a bit after what’s usually a lot of carbs), or (B) at the end of the night when you’re having a drink with the guys and you’re getting up in the morning to do whatever it is you’re going to do.
Obviously, if it’s something we’re going to be happy drinking ourselves then it’s going to be something we’re happy to sell in the restaurant alongside our food. Especially with the way food is going at the moment, as well. Everyone’s using the term “vegcentric”. I try not to use that, but we have vegetarian and vegan tasting menus here at the restaurant, and that’s been the case since we opened, since someone came in and said they were vegan. I’d never heard of a vegan before! I was like, “Oh! We’d better find something to cook for you”. That was pre-Masterchef and meeting Matt Campbell.
Obviously meeting Matt and going through Masterchef, looking at his approach to that style of food – vegcentric, vegan – looking at protein alternatives – that really opened my eyes. Hence, starting the full vegan and vegetarian offering at the restaurant. Also, it was a way of not alienating people, which I guess is the same as the kombucha. If somebody went into a restaurant 10 years ago and said, “I’d like a vegan tasting menu and I don’t drink alcohol”, they’re going to go, “You can have an orange juice, and I think the chef could prepare a salad”. Do you know what I mean? Now you can walk into a restaurant and have a complete non-alcoholic pairing and a vegan tasting menu. And, if you want, you can even go as far as taking sugar out of people’s menus, too, completely.
So, yeah. Definitely people’s approach to food and cooking has changed hugely, as has the attitude in kitchens.
We’ve mentioned Matt Campbell. Some people might not know, so maybe it’s worth mentioned who he was, why he was important and how it leads to the fact that you’re doing the London Marathon.
I’d never met Matt Campbell before, until I did Masterchef. Adam Handling knew him before from something like BBC Young Chef of the Year. When he found out I was on the show with him, he was like, “Oh yeah, I’ve known Matt Campbell for a bit. He’s a really cool guy. He’s got some really innovative ideas about food and restaurants and how they’re going.” But when you’re on the show, obviously he’s competition to you, so you’re watching him and you’re like, “This guy’s pretty fucking clever! I can see what he’s doing here and people are really going to like this.” Which they did.
He did what, I guess, was a really niche market for most people at that moment. I think Marcus Wareing was a little bit taken aback by him. He wasn’t really sure how to handle him! He was coming in with these ingredients – for instance, like kombucha – that Marcus Wareing had never heard of before. This was all very Nordic! Wareing was a little bit out of touch with it and he didn’t really understand it, so I guess it made him not like it at first. But you could see how, as the show progressed, they came around to it, and to Matt’s style of cooking.
That massively rubbed off on me. We became really close friends outside of the show. We started doing pop-ups to the point where we did a Vegan Easter Sunday which sold out in no time. We did a whole vegan tasting menu for Easter Sunday. When everyone else in the country was eating their roast lamb and mint sauce, we had people eating Matt’s carrot hot dog! It was really exciting for me because everything I knew from food before was kind of flipped upside down. I had this whole new understanding of stuff.
Unfortunately, he passed away during [last year’s] London Marathon, which made me want to join [chef] Tom Peters and run this year’s London Marathon for the Brathay Trust. I’m in the middle of training for that at the moment.
How are you planning on approaching it?
We’re going to try and take the day. I’ve never run a marathon before. I’ve never done something so big. Everyone tells me it’s quite overwhelming. There are lots of people, huge crowds, a really good energy and good vibes. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed. It’s the same as in this kitchen – it’s a bit like a pirate ship! Everyone’s just in it together like this weird band of pirates. We’re just going to do the best we can. There’s myself, Tom Peters, and Tom’s father running with us as well. I think we’re just going to set a nice comfy pace and just grind it out.
It’s quite amazing to be sitting and talking to a head chef about running a marathon and mindfulness in the kitchen. It shows how things have changed so quickly.
[Laughs] Yeah… we’re not quite yogis! We’re not out on the Hoxton Square doing our sun salutes before breakfast every morning!
There’s still time!
Well, yeah! [Laughs] If I had my way…
It’s just one of those things. I’ve been through really dark times in my career as a chef. I know that I’ve been depressed. I know that I’ve definitely been way too attached alcohol at some points. Over the last few years its been about taking that time back, taking the bits of yourself back that the industry does take from you and you don’t even realise it’s happening until it’s a bit too late.
It’s about nurturing people. “People” for me is a key word. They are people, they’ve got real lives outside of the kitchen. You can’t just treat them like staff, or like non-human entities, like head chefs have been doing for so many years. You need to understand that each person is an individual, they each has their own home lives and problems at home. They’re all from different backgrounds. In kitchens especially, you can have four, five, six different cultures and nationalities coming together. They’re all working together as one, and sometimes socialising together as well after work. It’s about understanding everyone as an individual. If someone’s a bit down today, it’s not just “man-up and get on with it” (I hate that phrase), it’s “is everything OK? Can I help you with anything? Is it work related? Are you not happy here? Is it not work-related?” It’s about getting to the bottom of things and making people believe that you care about them and their life and their career, rather than just getting ready for lunch.
We’re going to lay out some food with the kombucha in a moment. What are we having?
The first dish we’re going to do is one of Adam’s dishes. It goes well with Dry Dragon by Real Kombucha. It has been on the menu for seven years. We’re going to do the vegan version. So, usually it would have truffle cream cheese, and we take those elements out and do a whipped truffle tofu. It has truffle, apple, dates, salt-baked celeriac, fresh apple. It’s seasoned with seaweed and mushroom powder, full of umami and bags of flavour. You’d never know that it was vegan food you were eating.
It’s what I like to do with that style of food. You don’t want people to feel alienated. Say you’ve got four people with three regular tasting menus and one vegan, as much effort goes into the vegan tasting menu. You still 100% believe in, and are happy with what you’re putting down as an offering. You want the other people having the regular tasting menu to go, “Well, actually, that sounds quite good.” You want them to be jealous of what they’re all having – like a kind of competition around who’s having the best meal. So we bring loads of vegan elements into all of our dishes now, including one dessert on the menu at all times that’s completely vegan and gluten free, which is really cool.
The second dish, is a pairing with Royal Flush Kombucha. We’re going to do a fish dish – a really light, roasted spring hake dish. We’ve got a little limestone mashed potato on there that’s filled with a crab sauce, and then a couple of kinds of radishes – fresh, garden radish left raw, really nicely crunchy and peppery. And then we get some meat radish, which we crunch right down and make like a kimchi that we’ll serve on the side.
And then we’ll do a third course that’ll go really well with the Smoke House Kombucha – a whipped chocolate dessert. It’s a whipped tofu mousse filled with a chocolate sauce, a little chocolate sorbet and a few bits of garnish on there as well. But like I say, it’s completely vegan and gluten free. It’s everything free! You always get someone who comes in who can’t have anything, and we like to be completely prepared to blow them away.
Sponsor Jamie Park’s London Marathon on behalf of the Brathay Trust by clicking here. For more info on The Frog Hoxton, click here. Our thanks to Jamie and all the staff at The Frog, and to Adam Handling, for allowing us to set up in the kitchen on what was a busy morning.