I chose to become a chef because I thought restaurants were the most thrilling, glamorous places. Honestly, eating dinner, smoking cigarettes and drinking red wine late at night with people who made me laugh seemed like everything worth surviving adolescence for. Of course, I’ve found lots of other rewarding things since, and perhaps I don’t view restaurants with quite the same reverent awe as I did at 14, but I do still think they can make people, even if only for a brief moment, absolutely delighted to be alive.
I decided to open a dive bar because all the dive bars I used to frequent were closing down, and I’m contrary like that. As the London I grew up in is increasingly demolished, defaced and vandalised in the name of development, the opportunity to create a beautiful old-fashioned dive bar in an extraordinary historic space in the West End was thrilling. My greatest ambition would be to establish some of the sense of joyous optimism and creative anarchy which typified the early days of Frank’s Cafe, by keeping the prices low, the offering simple and unimpeachable, and the space welcoming to everyone.
I opened Below Stone Nest with my brother Frank. He was my original partner in Brunswick House, and has remained so all these years, albeit in the background as he pursued his own adventure. We’re incredibly close, and though we appear quite different to outsiders I believe that deep down we’re highly attuned to each other. He has qualities I wish I possessed, and remains one of the few people in this world I admire without reservation.
There are a few restaurants from my childhood that will always stay with me. First is Dino’s in South Kensington, where I remember being taken for knickerbocker glories after trips to the museums. Then, with my grandma, there’s Pizza Express on Fulham Road, which had beautiful Paolozzi murals on the wall. I loved going to Maison Bertaux in Soho for eclairs, and I also remember eating at Poons on Lisle Street for wonton soup before going to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The first thing I learned to cook was quite eccentric. It was a dish of stewed mince I’d seen on a history programme. I asked my mum to write off to the BBC for the recipe card, and we cooked it together. It was called ‘hodge podge’ and was absolutely delicious, but in retrospect it seems like one of those jokes about English food at which Americans are so amused.
I have so many places I adore in London but vanishingly little time to spend in them, and certainly not enough to visit any one of them often. However, a trip into town with the kids to Orient on Wardour Street, followed by ice cream at Gelupo is always a profoundly happy affair.
I love Chishuru in Brixton. Joké Bakare, the chef patron, is an incredibly talented cook, constantly pushing and evolving her own expression of West African cuisine. It’s utterly thrilling, and absolutely delicious, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I’m in two minds about the capital’s post-lockdown restaurant scene. On the one hand, conditions are tough. This city has never been more expensive, ingredient costs are skyrocketing week on week, and lots of people are struggling for work. On the other hand, we’ve never had a more engaged and open-minded audience to cook for, at least not in my professional life. People love restaurants of all different types, and not just for occasional special treats, but as an essential and redeeming aspect of urban life. I’m convinced we’ll find a way to make it work. We always do.
My most memorable meal was at Arpège in Paris. I’d been cooking a dinner the night before, and me and the team got really hammered on leftover red wine by the banks of the Seine. I’d planned to get up early before lunch the next day to find a smarter jacket somewhere, but overslept and ended up rocking up for my table looking somewhat worse for wear in filthy jeans and a white t-shirt – the one clean item of clothing I had in my possession. Imagine my horror as, shortly after being seated, Alain Passard explodes out of the kitchen and comes over to the table, bellowing “What is this! How did you let him in dressed like this?” to his team. My heart was in my mouth. Then he winked, patted me on the back, bade me welcome, and returned to his kitchen to oversee 18 courses of the most sublime cooking I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. A beautiful man.
My idea of a perfect Sunday is kicking a ball about with my kids, cooking lunch as a family – they’re very enthusiastic bakers – then collapsing in front of a film on a big screen.
When it comes to ingredients, I’m very lucky. Living in Stockwell, I have my dad’s excellent deli – Italo on Bonnington Square – nearby and also the very fine Madeira So Peixe for fish and seasonal vegetables.
My most used ingredient is vinegar. As a reformed drinker, I find everything lacks acidity, so compensate with an enormous collection of vinegars, which I’m constantly adding to.
I honestly struggle to think of anyone I don’t enjoy dining with. For me, it’s absolutely the most pleasurable way to spend time with anyone. That said my most frequent and adored companion is my wife Melissa, who has the twin virtues of fascinating conversation and excellent taste in both restaurants and food.
My dream dinner guest would be Samuel Beckett. I’ve always felt he looked in need of a good hot supper.
My go-to cookbooks are all Nigel Slater ones. Nigel is still the only writer who always makes even a jaded old hack like me want to cook again.
My favourite place for a culture hit is the Medieval Wing of the National Gallery. Often empty, always transcendent.
My idea of a weekend brunch is bacon, eggs, toast and good butter.
Being sober in the kitchen is interesting. For years I resisted any serious attempts to address my absolutely terrible addiction issues, because I was worried it was the only thing that allowed me to do my job well, and the thing that made working in restaurants ultimately so enjoyable. What I wish I’d known then is that quite the opposite was true: it was the drink and drugs making me chronically unhappy, and I’d end up being much better at my job – and enjoying it a great deal more, in a great deal more ways – if I managed to chuck it in. I’m much calmer now, and much more consistent, and have a far greater capacity for empathy, both for the people around me and the people we serve. On the other hand, I’m able to work much more intensely and much more ambitiously, so it’s not exactly easier either. Probably in some ways I’m tougher now than I was then, though I make a concerted effort to be a great deal fairer too.
JACKSON’S QUICK-FIRE FAVOURITES…
Barber? Sharps on Windmill Street.
Place to buy a suit? P Johnson.
Place for a quick meal? Old Town 97. It’s still the GOAT.
Under-the-radar London gem? Chishuru in Brixton.
Out-of-town destination? I’d go straight up to the Hebrides.
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