They say what goes around comes around, and in the London restaurant world, where new places open with great hype, only to be replaced by the next thing a couple of years later, it can seem like one giant food merry-go-round. But at Salon, a seasonal restaurant in the south of the city, chef Nicholas Balfe is more concerned with ingredients than dining trends.
“A couple of weeks ago, one of our customers came in with a massive bag of quince,” he says. “It was brilliant, we used them for loads of things. But can you imagine that happening somewhere like Hix or Lyle’s? It’s too random.”
You see, Balfe has a reputation. Walk your dog in Brockwell Park, a 50-hectare green space around the corner from the restaurant, or even go for a stroll down one of the nearby residential streets, and you may well bump into Balfe filling tubs or supermarket shopping bags with leaves, berries, and fruits.
“There’s a brilliant rosemary bush down one of these streets,” he tells me. I’m walking with him up to the park for a quick snatch-and-grab-style forage. I’m dubious that we’ll find anything—it is November, after all. What could there possibly be to find?
“Oh loads,” Balfe says. “You’d be surprised. The barren months aren’t ’til January, February.”
Whether it’s rosemary hanging over someone’s garden wall, or rose hips and hawthorn berries, he’s out collecting as much of it as he can find to pickle or salt, turn into vinegar, or syrup. It’s not just him—his kitchen team are all urban food hunters too, so much so that they have weekly in-house championships.
“The prize is in line with the haul,” he explains. “Bring a small quantity of something then I might make you a cup of tea. Bring a lot of something unusual—mulberries or something like that, then I might take you to the football or something.”
It means the kitchens at Salon are lined with things floating in Kilner jars, and the menu changes to accommodate the latest haul. There’s room to experiment—on one of the shelves I spot a jar of salted plums, which Balfe assures me taste like olives.
Not everything goes to plan. By his reckoning, one in five of the things he tries doesn’t work. But he doesn’t seem troubled by it: “There’s such an abundance of produce growing right under our noses. People have amazing things growing in their gardens and they have no clue what they’ve got.”
Balfe goes on to talk about elderflower. The last of the elderflower vinegar is sitting in a jar in his kitchen, enough maybe for a week’s menu and then it’ll be done for the year. In May, when the flowers were in bloom, his team were bringing kilos of the blossoms into the kitchen there was such a profusion of it. Yet, says Balfe, “people would say, ‘Wow, elderflower! Where did you find that?’ as if it’s completely rare. They’d be surprised when I told them it’s everywhere, almost like a weed. I’d guarantee them there’d be an elder tree on their street and most people would be mindblown.”
Not everything on Balfe's menu is foraged and he’ll buy in certain seasonal ingredients—like sea vegetables—that he can’t go and collect himself. But Salon is small enough to be able to incorporate what is growing in the local area into its weekly menu. If someone brings a big bag of quince, for example, they can make good and interesting use of it.
“People are a part of it, they get to chip in to it,” he says. His customers aren’t just consumers, they can be contributors.
“Using food we’ve found makes the dishes more vital, and more unique. We’re small enough for the way we use these ingredients to be meaningful. Lots of places use wild food, but unless you’re L’Enclume with a massive team, it’s just not practical to base your whole menu on that. We’re flexible enough, and have a small enough number of covers, to be able to put the hips, haws and apples we’ve picked into something and let it have an impact on the dish. In the long run, whether you pick it yourself, or pay for it to be picked, or someone pops in and gives it to you, you’re using native flavours. Not green beans from Kenya.”
And Balfe gets excited about how exciting native flavours can be. In the park, he starts picking rosehips that have turned brown, about to squidge and rot off the branches. But not quite. Incredibly, they taste like dates.
“Part of the joy is the satisfaction you get from discovering things and seeing that they work. It adds to your humanity somehow. And we’re showing that there can be a really short chain between where your food comes from and where you eat it.”
It sounds romantic, trite even, but Salon seems to be a neighbourhood restaurant in the most holistic sense of the term—locally found or grown food served to local people, who also get to feel like they’re a part of it.
“We get tip-offs all the time. Donations of people’s gluts. One woman contacted us and asked us to clear a huge patch of wild garlic from her garden. It was brilliant—she got her garden cleared for free, and we got to use a load of really great garlic.”
Balfe laughs: “Some people think chefs are crazy reckless types working hard and then getting wildly drunk in dive bars. We’re those clean-living boys at Salon, who spend Sundays helping garden and making pickles, rather than getting pickled.”
It might not be rock and roll, but I’m pretty certain it’s karma of the best kind.