This Chef Doesn’t Want a Michelin Star, He Wants You to Have a ‘Cool Time’

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This Chef Doesn’t Want a Michelin Star, He Wants You to Have a ‘Cool Time’

Tia Maria teamed up with MUNCHIES for Coffee and Conversation, a series of conversations over coffee with the owners of some of London’s top coffee-serving establishments.
December 5, 2015, 5:43pm
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With the launch of the Tia Maria + Coffee Project and a selection of new, innovative serves that unite coffee culture with cocktail hour, Tia Maria is leading the way in coffee cocktails.

_To celebrate this, Tia Maria teamed up with MUNCHIES for Coffee and Conversation, a series of conversations over coffee with the owners of some of London's top coffee-serving establishments. We talk about all things Java: the industry, the cocktails, the science, and the steaming mugs of Joe at the heart of it all. _In this instalment, we find out why one of Britain's most important art institutions is roasting its own coffee.__

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For this installment, we sit down with the founder and chef of East London's Legs restaurant: Magnus Reid, a man intent on making eating out fun.

On Morning Lane in Hackney, opposite a fashion outlet mall, sits Legs, a restaurant headed up by Magnus Reid. You may have heard of the Aussie chef thanks to the brief—albeit intense popularity of the Rooftop Cafe in London Bridge, a seasonal eatery cut short by the area's redevelopment. Or maybe because of Reid's other venture, CREAM, a cafe in Shoreditch.

While CREAM is a daytime spot where Reid is "comfortable giving people scrambled eggs and salmon every day" if they want it, Legs has a different approach. The small corner restaurant opened earlier this year, with a menu Reid jokingly describes as "food you could probably cook it at home, but you didn't." But thanks to culinary skills he's often keen to understate, he created a "hype on the food that was never supposed to really happen." It's easy to see why. After our photographer Tom finished snapping, we all grabbed forks and essentially attacked three plates of uncomplicated, delicious food that Reid had cooked for the shoot.

Once these were over, I sat down with Reid to discuss coffee, celebrity chefs, and how "pulled pork might have been the thing that got all the lads into eating nice food."

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How did you first start working in kitchens? I needed a job.

I read something about you trying to be a tattoo artist? I was tattooing before I came to England, and then decided I didn't want to work in a tattoo studio. I didn't want to do stars on people's necks and all that. Then I was like, "I don't even know if I want to tattoo.' My mate was like, "Do you want to do some bar shifts where I work?" I was like "Yeah," then they were like, "There's a spot in the kitchen, do you wanna do that?" "Yeah, fine." The head chef of that job wasn't into it.

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Was this in Australia? This was in London. I came over here in 2008.

So anyways, the chef wasn't into it. I saw that he didn't really know what he was doing, and I thought, "I can just do this better." So I left that job and never came back. It became a thing: "I can do this." Being 18-years-old in London without a job isn't nice, so I liked that there were always hours. It's easy to get a chef's job, man. There's so few chefs you can wander in and be like, "Hey I'm willing to work." And cooking was one of those things for me. My mum is an avid cook, she preserves all this stuff she grows, she's currently building a chicken run—like a hobbyist, agricultural cook. I found it quite easy to cook growing up around that.

What were the first places you worked in like, were they more formal, larger settings than Legs and CREAM? Yeah, they were larger. My first job was 120 covers and there were only four of us in the kitchen. I was there from 9 in the morning til 1 AM, seven days a week. I think that might be why I've since opened small eateries. I like the intimacy. After that job, I found another in a smaller cafe that was run by an ex-St John guy. That's when I first realised a restaurant isn't actually all about the food, all about the drink, it's a bit grander than that. That's where I first felt like the food scene was exciting.

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What makes it grander? As in the ethos behind the restaurant? The atmosphere? Everything. It's down to who you've got in there, how loud the music is. It's almost more important than if you've got the best craft beer, or the best wine, because at the end of the day people want to enjoy themselves, and if they can enjoy themselves in what they think is similar to their lounge—as relaxed as they can get—you could serve anything.

I've never seen myself as pushing boundaries. I've never wanted to be one of those cooks who can, like, turn chorizo into a dust, because it just doesn't excite me. When I go out I want eat good food with people whose company I really enjoy. Yeah, we go to places where we get excited by food, but I'd be happy going to the chicken shop if I was with the right people. Having that as an ethos, especially in a smaller place, is quite important because you're open to the public. It's not a stage, although some chefs think it is. We don't wanna win a Michelin star, we just want people to have a cool time.

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It goes against the idea of "chef as celebrity"? Yeah, I hate that. It's why I left tattooing. Tattooists became these rockstars and now chefs are rockstars.

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I guess there are parallels there. They're both a craft. I don't see my skill set as an art. I hate when people are like "cooking's an art." It's a trade. Like an electrician or a carpenter.

Loads of good coffee places in London seem to be headed up by Aussies and Kiwis. Is there a distinct coffee culture in Australia and New Zealand? I think there is, but I think it's passed. My first job was a barista. In Australia a lot of jobs are in hospitality, because there's this eating and drinking culture. People go out for dinner to their local spot, and if you've got all these local spots in suburbia that are busy, they need staff, so everyone's first job's there. And in Australia, a lot of people stay in hospitality. I guess in England, if you work in a coffee shop you've got other directions to go at the end of it. Like all the staff at CREAM have other plans. They don't wanna be baristas. They wanna be musicians or …

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Does that sadden you at all? No. It's good. I want them to do other stuff. Because then work's not that serious. They know that they need to do the job, and they're great at it, but they don't have a hissy fit when the coffee's half an hour late, or when the machine breaks. They're not prima donnas about it.

On that note, do you think people in the coffee scene can take it too seriously? Yeah. In London and New York all of the original, great coffee shops were always referenced like "AUSTRALIAN-OWNED," when actually there's not much hype in the Australian coffee industry any more. Now you go to a place because it's good. It's the industry standard. Whereas here, it's not the industry standard so there's still all this hype. Somewhere like Melbourne, you can go to an amazing restaurant for lunch and have amazing coffee. It's really integrated with the hospitality sector. As opposed to London, where there's a coffee sector and hospitality sector, cafes, and restaurants.

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What things are you looking for when you source your coffee? I just want to work with nice people. I don't care if you're £2 more, if you're nice then we'll work with you because we'll get along. In terms of flavour profile, at CREAM, we change the coffee we've got on every week. That's mainly so the staff and the customers don't get bored, and so they can talk to each other about the new coffee.

Do you ever incorporate coffee in your menu? No. I cook quite traditionally. You just ate my food. Anything that's tricky might just be the colour. But in a restaurant coffee has a place—to drink an espresso at the end of the meal to perk you back up. Black coffee halfway throughout boozing always sorts you out and you've got another bottle in you.

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What is your approach to creating the menu? We just look at what we can get at market. I really like the idea of using things that other restaurants might not be able to get hold of. I like the idea of doing a nice ingredient that might be treated as special in Chelsea. Like we have trout roe caviar on fried potatoes here. It's delicious and it's fun, but at the end of the day it's just fish eggs on chips. But no one gets to eat caviar regularly. We don't make money on that dish because we want people to have it and enjoy it.

The menu is constantly evolving. I've never had an approach like, "This month I want to sell people what the ocean feels like." It's more like, "Here's some food you could probably cook at home but you didn't, so eat it and drink!" CREAM is where we're comfortable with giving people scrambled eggs and salmon every day. But Legs is more of a fun place to eat. We've got this hype on the food that was never supposed to really happen, but it's just turned into a place where people come and eat. Having said that, I don't want to tell people how to use this restaurant. Use it as you want.

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Do you do cocktails? Two. We do a negroni and old fashioned. But cocktails are more exciting than before. Like, espresso martinis are delicious, I'd spend a night getting tanked on espresso martinis. But now you've got people kegging cold brew, using filter, using the beans themselves, the skin of the coffee berry—ingredients no one was putting in cocktails five years ago.

Given your experience in the industry, I was interested to know what you think of the food trends that dominate London every so often? Like when everyone was eating pulled pork. I think trends have helped London develop as a food scene. Pulled pork might have been the thing that got all the lads into eating nice food. People need an entry point to such an alienating industry. A lot of my friends got into food because of places like Meat Mission. They said, "There's this new burger which is gross and greasy and it's yum." Then they graduated, so to say, to Hawksmoor, and they figured out what good steak is. Then they moved on to St John, got into the story of how that evolved.

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That's pretty much exactly what happened with me and my friends, right down to the order of restaurants. If a trend can educate that's awesome. I think trends are bad when the media in London become either/or. As in, "We reviewed this fancy place you could never afford" or "Here are the best ten places for buffalo fried chicken wings." There's not an overall perspective. It's also kind of plagued by Instagram, the "I-love-food-I-love-travel-my-whippet's-called-Bongo" thing.

The most exciting people I know in the food industry skate, listen to death metal, listen to rap—they're true characters. I started washing dishes so I've been able to meet all of those people. Now there's an almost sanitised, idyllic food scene, and a lot of that is based on trends. "Oh tacos are in … "

Alright, last question: Someone's going on a first date. Do they get coffee or cocktails? Cocktails.

You ever known anyone to go on a coffee date? I've got a couple of friends who don't drink and they still go to bars for first dates. I don't even think it's because of coffee or booze, more the surrounding. No one wants to go, "Hey you wanna meet at 9 o'clock before we go to work and have a quick black coffee?"

Very true. Thanks Magnus.

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This article is from Coffee and Conversation, click here to read more.

All photos by Tom Griffiths