I've always been interested in the technique of making fried chicken because there's so much crap, especially in London. I still do have a soft spot for that "chicken shop" chicken, but I got really into making it good. We [Rita's restaurant] saw not so much a gap or a niche, but just a place for good fried chicken about three years ago.
Before that, I moved to New York to go to film school. My whole family work in that kind of world and it had always been my plan to be a writer and a director. While I was there, I was on student visa so I wasn't working but helping out in various spots, pot washing and things like that.
The main thing [that struck me] about New York was the diversity of food. With it being so expensive, where you end up living and what you end up eating is dictated by being broke. There's an amazing array of things available for people who have no money. Living in Brooklyn and then living in Manhattan and in Chinatown, you can eat amazing stuff from all over the world.
When I came back, I spent a year and a half making a ten-minute film that I was very proud of. I screened it and got a good response and brought it back here [to the UK], but all I was really offered was to make commercials.
At the time, I was hanging out with a friend who had a restaurant in south London. I had dinner with him, his head chef, and Deano [Jo], who I now own Rita's with. Because I was a bit disillusioned with film, I turned up in the kitchen the next day and told him them shout at me and tell me what to do, and just busied around in the kitchen for a few months.
It kind of grew from there, but the place I understood food from was always New York. I took that with me.
There wasn't really any well done fried chicken so it was a good thing for us to start with, something accessible that was really good and could be appreciated on any level. Rita's started when we built a kitchen in the toilet of a nightclub in Dalston, so we also had to do something that hits the spot right away.
Having said all that, I kind of never want to make fried chicken ever again. We still do phenomenally good fried chicken and I stand by it and I love it, but as a chef, I think you're only as good as your last dish. It makes you strive to do more. Fried chicken is where I started my career but I'm still learning every day. That's the journey.
At the moment, I really love the artichokes we're getting in. When we say our food is American, the idea is that it's not just New York but all the Americas: the South, the West Coast and East Coast, as well as South America and Canada. I also have a real affinity for Mexican food as it works really well with vegetables. We're doing grilled artichokes with jalapeno vinaigrette right now.
In Rita's first year, my friend Andrew Clarke [former head chef at Salt Yard Kitchen], who is a very well seasoned chef with a similar affinity with Americana, came onboard. Although we have this American lean and use a barbeque, we tried to look at meat as the addition, and vegetables and fresh produce as the lead. I'm just really into English vegetables, I think they're the best in the world especially if you're working in season. You don't limit yourself when you do that, it's the challenge.
We're not a chicken shop and we're not a burger place, we don't want to do one thing. The most important thing is to be a restaurant for our neighbourhood. What we've always tried to do is work within a price bracket so we're accessible to everyone. We've opened up to more families and older people—not just my drunk friends—which is really heart-warming.
We never want to alienate. We use some quite "cheffy" techniques so if you're a foodie nerd and want to know about our sous vide then you can, but if you want to come and have a nice lunch or bring your grandad, then you can.
I do slightly miss having a bunch of drunk idiot friends come in and just have fried chicken, piss off to a bar, and then maybe meet them later, but I don't know if that's to do with the restaurant or that I'm about to be 30. It's not a viable business plan but it was fun when we were younger.
As told to Phoebe Hurst.