I think what people are doing with seasonal, British ingredients is great—I did it myself when I was working at [East London modern British restaurant] White Rabbit. I think it's very important for people to know what they're eating and for it to come from the UK, but there are people doing that already. I wanted to learn more about what other countries are doing locally.
Even in places like London, everything is Anglicised for the British palate. Japanese and Indian restaurants are still very British focused, so I wanted to walk away from all of that by travelling abroad, bringing back traditional ingredients, and serving them at supper clubs.
It all started off with a trip to San Sebastian in the Basque country and that really inspired my whole year of travelling. I had always wanted to go because it's the chef's mecca for food but choosing the other countries was really just looking at a map and thinking: "Well, I don't know much about that place so I'll go." And off I went.
I've done four countries so far and I'm doing another five or six before the end of the year. I've done the Basque country, Sardinia, Morocco, and Croatia. I'm going to Northern Italy, doing Cognac in France then Lisbon, and planning trips to Japan and Vietnam.
I've managed to bring back some amazing produce from all my trips so far. Hake throats, baby eels, and amazing forest honey from the Basque country. Four-year-aged Pecorino, black chickpeas, and myrtle leaves from Sardinia. Spices such as zingiberaceae and hand-pressed black cumin, and smen [fermented butter] from Morocco, and from Croatia—some of the best olive oil, dried porcini, and truffle which. They seem pretty standard but they are incredible.
Thankfully everything has been fine going through customs so far, too.
I lived in France as a kid but then moved to West Yorkshire, which is where I started cooking in kitchens when I was 16-years-old. There are a lot of Brewer's Fayre and Wetherspoons-type places where I "cooked" microwave food. It was just rubbish food but you learn how not to do things.
If the local tourist office suggests somewhere that looks too posh, I won't go. I want to go into a country, make friends with the locals, and find mama's food.
It was my drive when I was younger to test out loads of different styles. I've worked in a lot of different restaurants—Japanese and Indian to French and Spanish. My style is international and I wanted to bring some of that proper, authentic cooking back to London. The only way to do that is by getting the authentic ingredients.
For me, the most important thing is the quality of the produce, done really simply.
When I visit a country, I'll do a lot of Googling about food markets, ask friends for restaurant recommendations, and get in contact with the tourist office. But if they suggest somewhere that looks too posh, I won't go. I want to go into a country, make friends with the locals, and find mama's food. When I went to Sardinia, I ended up eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner with loads of old Sardinians who had been there their whole lives. It was amazing.
Part of the reason that I'm travelling is to make connections in different countries so that when I do open a restaurant, I can import amazing ingredients that London hasn't got on the market.
I do miss the kitchen but I've spent the last 11 years in a basement so it's nice to be outside before I settle down again.
As told to Daisy Meager.
Entries for the 2016 YBFs are now open, with MUNCHIES' own Phoebe Hurst judging the new Food Sharing category. Head to the YBF website to nominate someone you think deserves recognition for their contribution to British food—or go all out and enter yourself. Entries close on July 22.