My grandparents were Irish, they're from Dublin, so the home cooking that I grew up with was Irish. It's my heritage and something that I feel emotionally connected to but when my business partner and I were discussing opening a small restaurant, Irish food wasn't the first thing that sprung to mind.
It was only when a space came up at the Sir Colin Campbell pub in Kilburn in North West London that it all came together. It's an Irish pub, in a traditionally Irish area of London, and the room upstairs was the flat where the landlady used to live. She was this legendary figure in the Kilburn area and the Irish community. This little space was her home and as soon as we saw it, we loved it. It was actually the space itself, the area, and the context of it being an Irish pub that gave me the idea that I wanted to cook food inspired by Irish home cookery.
The food also draws on my career, working in Italy and also as a sous chef at St. John Bread and Wine [one of nose-to-tail chef Fergus Henderson's restaurants], with a strong focus on seasonality and complexity of flavour with simplicity of presentation.
I only cook with ingredients native to the UK so I'm not using things like olive oil or anchovies. I love these things and I miss them but it's given me more focus and I think it gives the food more identity. Even though the cuisine of Britain is hugely diverse, influenced by Europe and further afield, and we have such a wealth of ingredients available, I found that there's a level of creativity borne out of restriction. Imposing these restrictions upon myself forces me to explore recipes in a different way and establish my voice in cookery, since it's my first independent project as a cook.
At the moment, we have purple sprouting broccoli on the menu with a buttermilk dressing and spring onions—using Irish ingredients for the dressing but using the fresh British broccoli. I'm not using wine in cookery and instead using different Irish ciders to get that tang of acidity—like the braised beef with Guinness which might traditionally have been done with red wine. It's trying to stick to that ethos of using just native ingredients to achieve the same flavour profile.
We bake our own bread everyday which is a really important thing for us. It's 100-percent sourdough so it's just a flour and water fermentation, no yeast. Bread is the cornerstone of every meal for me. I love that bread is on the table. The food and the bread complement each other perfectly.
I'm also doing a lot of things that are pickled and cured. I love the idea of preservation. These techniques are borne out of austerity and a dependence on seasonality. It also develops a different range of flavours and textures that are, on one hand essential for preservation, but on the other hand completely delicious. I'm starting to work on some charcuterie—something to look forward to in the future.
I'm obviously influenced by the nose-to-tail ethos of St. John—it's hard to avoid once you've worked there! Everyone who goes to work there does so because they have a huge amount of respect and love for what they're doing. It's a language that you inevitably start speaking in the kitchen.
Crubbeens are breaded pig trotters. It's actually a traditional Irish pub snack. You brine the trotters, braise them, peel the skin off (which sounds quite gruesome!), and take away the bones from the inside. What you're left with is all the fat and the meat to deep-fry.
When I was doing some research for the menu, I found out about crubbeens, which are breaded pig trotters. They're synonymous with Irish cookery, and obviously pigs trotters are also synonymous with St. John. It's actually a traditional Irish pub snack. You brine the trotters, braise them, peel the skin off (which sounds quite gruesome!), and take away the bones from the inside. What you're left with is all the fat and the meat. The texture of it is incredible—it's so gelatinous. Then you add the meat to a ham hock with shallots, parsley, and strong mustard. Traditionally, they're served whole with bone in. I wanted to do a more refined, more accessible version of it so I take the bone out and roll the meat back up before breading and deep-frying. We serve it with a really punchy mustard mayonnaise. It's a lovely thing. It's been really popular!
We're going to start making an Irish stew for the weekends when there are musicians playing downstairs. People can have a hearty bowl of lamb neck stew, soda bread, and a pint of Guinness, then settle down to listen to the music. It creates a nice, familial atmosphere.
My grandfather was the main cook in the house growing up so a lot of the recipes like bacon and cabbage and champ—the real classic staples of home cookery—are things that were very much influenced by the way he would cook. He used to mash potatoes outside in the garden because he thought that getting some air into it would make the flavour better. I'm afraid I'm not doing that but it's something I can work towards!
I want the food to have that homely comfort while executing it beautifully. Keeping the balance between the comfort element of a dish and elevating it, starts by sourcing incredibly good quality produce, so the raw ingredients are of the highest standard. It's just about having a lighter, more considered touch with the execution. But I don't want to deconstruct an apple crumble. I just want it to be the best apple crumble that I can make based on my years of restaurant experience. Perhaps that's why Irish food isn't represented more in the London restaurant scene, because it does have this association with being a humble and homely cuisine.
But that taste of comfort and of home is what I want people to feel like when they eat in the restaurant. That they're being cooked for with love and by someone who wants them to feel nourished and comfortable and happy. It's nice if people are impressed with what you've cooked for them but primarily I want people to be pleased by it. I want them to come away feeling comforted.
As told to Daisy Meager.
Ruairidh Summers is head chef at Summers, an Irish-inspired restaurant above the Sir Colin Campbell pub in Kilburn, London.