In the few minutes it takes to walk to the kitchen from the front desk at London's Grain Store, a veg-centric restaurant in Kings Cross, I hear snatches of conversation between front-of-house staff and chefs calling out to each other in multiple languages and accents. And it's a scene typical of restaurant kitchens across the UK.According to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, migrants held 30 percent of the workplace share for "food preparation and hospitality" in 2015. And the British Hospitality Association estimate of that amount, 15 percent—equivalent to 700,000 jobs—are held by EU workers. But with political uncertainty surrounding immigration policy and the looming Brexit negotiations, diversity in the kitchen hangs in the balance.
"We have around 65 staff who represent about 15 nationalities. We thought, Let's celebrate that," says Grain Store's French chef-owner Bruno Loubet as we discuss the restaurant's new Kitchen Culture dinner series. As a celebration of the Grain Store's vibrant migrant kitchen and front-of-house team, on the first Monday of every month, different members of the team will devise a three-course menu inspired by their heritage.
"This is a multicultural place, and the type of cooking we do anyway at Grain Store embraces the world—the techniques and produce we use is influenced from all over," explains Loubet. "Whoever is showcasing their culture can cook something classic, can change it and make it their own, or serve a modern interpretation of traditional dishes."The restaurant has previously hosted a Saudi meal, and tonight it's Belfast-born commis chef Diarmuid Goodwin and chef de partie Eric Ryley, who grew up near Limerick, creating a menu inspired by the Irish food of their childhoods."The majority of Irish food is home cooking and a lot of people wouldn't go out and pay for it. That's why it's nice to do Irish food that people would pay for," says Goodwin. "Even in Ireland, there aren't a lot of restaurants serving Irish food. The only real food you get is in the home. It's nice to be putting Irish food and flavours on the map a little bit."
Ryley adds, "It's nice being able to share food we grew up with, with other people. I moved away from home a couple of years ago and I don't get to go back very often, maybe once or twice a year. Having this experience and being able to bring a bit of home here is really refreshing."
Ryley and Goodwin grew up at opposite ends of the island but their culinary upbringing was similar—at the cuisine's core is comforting, hearty food. I ask whether they've decided to showcase Irish food in all its rustic glory or put a modern spin on things.But on spotting several huge loaves of soda bread in the corner, I think I already know the answer.
"The dishes are of the traditional style with simple flavours, but we've elevated the food a bit," says Goodwin, stirring a vat of thick, creamy potato soup which will be served as tonight's first course. "I didn't want to mess around with the food too much. I still wanted to taste it and remember where I was when I ate that or what it reminds me of."He points toward the soup and continues, "My gran used to always make potato soup with seafood for people injured during The Troubles, which is where inspiration for the starter came from. We're serving it tonight with mussels and a black pudding crumb. We're also doing soda bread which has been infused with Guinness—it adds a treacly, caramel flavour. My granny always used to have seaweed sandwiches so the accompanying butter has a dusting of seaweed powder."
A few of other chefs come over to inspect the soda bread and ask about the leek flowers sitting on the side.Ryley talks me through the main course: "We both grew up on a farm so we wanted to showcase fresh, simple vegetables. So, on the plate with braised lamb neck will be braised baby gem lettuce, asparagus, and, obviously, potato cake. It's simple, rustic food but bringing out the best flavours you can get."
Dessert similarly harks back to a childhood spent on the farm. "There are hundreds of blackberry fields around where I grew up," says Ryley. "Every August or September, we'd pick barrels full of fruit and take them home to make enough jam to last the rest of the year. As a nod to that, there's blackberry jam on the shortbread."
Goodwin chips in, "And there's going to be Baileys crème brulée, because who doesn't love Baileys?"I turn to Loubet, who's watching the chefs prep, and ask whether the aim of Kitchen Culture is to bring the public's attention to the mix of people who cook their food when they dine out."That's part of it, but it's also to give back to the chefs who work hard here," Loubet explains. "It's their project and their chance to cook the food they want—to show the food they eat or grew up eating."Later that evening, Goodwin and Ryley proudly put down steaming bowls of potato soup, plates piled with hearty meat and veg, and rich crème brulées in front of diners. I catch Goodwin as he's clearing down his station and ask him how the evening went.
"It was great to see people enjoying the food, and we even brought the right weather for it!" he says, gesturing to the wind and rain battering the square outside. "This food is all about comfort. I get quite homesick and having stuff like this takes me back. I'm actually flying home tomorrow. I can't wait."Loubet adds, "This is what it's all about. It's one night every month where we can look at the culture we have in the restaurant and make the most of it, for the diners and the staff."Sláinte to that.