"A friend was meant to set this place up with me, but then they pulled out and moved to Ireland with two days' notice. Stevie said he'd help me out and I decided to do it on my own."
I'm chatting to Alex Jackson, chef and (now sole) owner of Sardine, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant which opened up at the start of July near London's Old Street roundabout. He's referring to Stevie Parle, the chef and supremo restaurateur behind Dock Kitchen, Rotorino, and Craft London—but more on him later.
Walking along a street lined with grey blocks of flats, the first thing that catches my eye on the approach to Sardine is the glaring golden arches of a McDonald's drive-thru. For a moment, I wonder if we've reached new levels of hipsterdom: Enter this trendy new eatery through an ironic fast food front!
Happily, Sardine sits quietly opposite the Maccy D's, forming part of contemporary art gallery Parasol Unit. Inside, I find a beaming chef.
"I had a day off yesterday which I spent mostly sleeping, but I did get out and enjoy some of the sunshine," smiles Jackson. "My wife and I had some beers and pizza in the park. But most of it was spent sleeping."
Jackson tells me that despite being in the same year as Parle at primary school, the pair didn't meet until years later when Parle's sister, Lizzie, roped Jackson into helping with her brother's new restaurant, Dock Kitchen. But not as a chef.
"Lizzie said they needed someone as a part-time waiter to make coffees," explains Jackson. "I started front-of-house but we'd all pitch in to help with the prep after Stevie would write a menu and put himself in the shit. I helped more and more and eventually, he asked if I'd like to give it a go as a chef."
Five years at Dock Kitchen (a few of those as head chef) plus six months as head chef at Rotorino, with a month or so in between in San Francisco kitchens, and Jackson traded his high pressure cheffing career to become an affineur at Mons cheesemongers. This basically involves washing cheeses and watching them age.
"I think when you fall into something like I did, you want to try something else while there's still time," Jackson says of his slightly confusing job change. "I learned a lot, spent time in France, didn't have to work in the evenings, and could hang out with my friends."
Sounds like the dream. So, what made Jackson return to London? Sardonically dubbed "the Magic Roundabout," the Old Street area he now finds himself in is possibly the furthest you could get from aging cheese in provincial France.
"I missed the creative aspect that comes with cooking," says Jackson. "If you work in an office, the photocopying is the drudgery. Or when I worked in cheese, packing cardboard boxes was the drudgery. But the drudgery here is peeling potatoes and I love it. I get in and I'm like, 'Yeah let's peel some potatoes!'"
Jackson assures me, though, that he's not some sort of potato-peeling robot.
"I do enjoy all the bits and pieces that some people might find a chore, but that's not to say that I'll be enthusiastic to go home and chop some vegetables after a double shift," he adds.
Mediterranean cooking may seem like a strange fit for a chef who grew up in Birmingham ("I was raised on balti, which was great"), but Jackson's interest in olive oil and legumes started young.
"When I was a kid, we used to go on holiday to Languedoc every year to the same converted farm," he remembers. "Eating the food was quite formative. It was the first 'foreign' food that I tried."
A French university degree with a year spent in France cemented his affinity with the country's cuisine, but it was the southern region that really piqued his interest.
"There's French food which is old-school and uses classical techniques to draw out flavour, but the approach is different in the South of France," says Jackson. "There are more vegetables, more olive oil—it's a bit lighter. Although I'm speaking very generally about French cooking and I'm sure some people will tear my head off. But from an English perspective, those are the conclusions I draw."
I don't care if the French grannies disagree, having tasted Sardine's thinly sliced, olive oil-drenched domino potatoes, I'm on board with French Food According to Adam Jackson. He tells me about some of the places in Provence he visited for research before opening Sardine.
"The best place we went was Le Bistro du Paradou at a road junction in Saint-Remy-de-Provence," Jackson says wistfully. "We went on Friday which is Le Grand Aioli day and everyone eats the same thing at the same time. It's this big plate of aioli with salt cod, eggs, cauliflower, potatoes, snails—the works. And then a platter of cheese, and then rum baba. It was one of the best thing I'd ever had in France. That's real food."
I ask Jackson whether he was ever tempted to simply open up shop in Provence. He smiles.
"Yes, but I don't think my wife would be happy about it. She doesn't like France very much. I think it's because she went to Paris and everyone was rude to her. She's also vegan so she didn't get on very well."
Jackson also admits that it can be hard convincing London diners to embrace southern French cuisine.
"The thing that's really good about food in the South of France is that you're on holiday, there are rolling hills, there's a big table outside, you've got cold wine, and a four-hour lunch," he says. "Food just comes out as and when. It's hard to replicate those experiences in a restaurant."
But Jackson does his best. The dishes at Sardine are simple and use the best produce he can get his hands on.
"It's hard because you've got nothing to hide behind when you cook like that," Jackson says. "But even when I was working at Dock Kitchen and making a curry, you don't use the shit tomatoes. You use the amazing tomatoes and it'll taste so much better."
One thing Jackson says can't be improved upon, even with French culinary techniques and specially picked vegetables, is brunch.
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"Eggs and pancakes are really boring to cook," he says bluntly. "In France, you don't really have breakfast. You just have a croissant, a cigarette, and a coffee. They don't do bloody brunch which is great."
Unsurprisingly, Sardine won't be joining the ranks of fellow East London eateries churning out plates of smashed avo on toast every weekend.
"We do a fried cheese sandwich with two-year-old Comté, cassoulet, and onglet with swiss chard gratin," says Jackson.
My stomach rumbles. Maybe it's time we started brunching like the French.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.