Five minutes with… James Walters

The founder of Arabica talks about his love of wild camping, water and his travel hammock

Food and Drink 13 Feb 2020

James Walters, the founder of Arabica
Arabica in King Cross
Babaganoush Man'ousheh at Arabica King Cross

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

It’s a real combination of people hinting at this advice and me figuring it out for myself: know your strengths and, more importantly, know your weaknesses. There are numerous ways to get results and your way isn’t always the best. As a control freak I really struggled with this as a concept, with delegation. But I’ve found you have to identify what you can contribute towards a business and look for the people who are brilliant at what you’re less good at to help. It’s taken me 20 years of trial and error, sometimes learned the hard way to work it out slowly and to find strength and maturity.

Who is your role model and how have they influenced you?

I don’t have one role model; there are many people I’ve looked up to. One that comes to mind is New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, the CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group and author of Setting the Table. I found it to be a profound book; it encapsulates and codifies everything about running a restaurant into one masterful read. When I went to New York, I contacted him to try and meet. He wasn’t in town but I ended up having an amazing meeting with his right-hand man, Richard Coraine, at the Union Square offices who graciously talked to me for hours about running restaurants.

What ingredient could you not live without?

I have around 50-60 spices that I rely on but really it would have to be salt – it makes everything taste better and I can’t live without it. You can always find ingredients that add different sour, sweet, bitter or peppery notes but you can’t recreate the flavour of salt with anything else.

Apart from your passport what do you always take with you when you travel?

I like to take my travel hammock with me when I go away and to put it up whenever I can. However, it’s not much use in a city so I don’t always take it with me. My phone is really essential too; of course, I use it for looking up restaurants, and as a camera and for navigation. I also usually have a folding picnic knife in a sheath with me.

Where is your favourite place to eat in London and why?

I have a four year old and a newborn so I haven’t got out much in the last few years. I tend to go back to the same haunts and quite often on my own so it would be somewhere I’m really comfortable. Kiln is one of them; I’ll drop by of an afternoon and grab a space at the bar. I love spicy Asian food so I’ll often pop into Hoppers or Smoking Goat and I really like Xi’an Impression in Highbury too.

Barrafina, especially the one on Adelaide Street, is also somewhere I go to frequently. It’s all relaxed, casual dining places; I’m not a fan of formality.

What do you do on a day off?

I have a campervan and I love to travel and explore. I used to live on a boat and I’d explore the Thames then pull up somewhere on the river and grill lamb chops on my Turkish barbeque and play backgammon. Now whenever I can I’ll get up and go to the coast in my campervan and get into the sea.

What are your biggest passions outside of food?

Travel and adventure: I’ve spent a lot of time in Spain, especially the Balearic Islands and in the Basque region around San Sebastián. I like to go wild camping and get off the grid – I’m always pining to find a place where no one has been. I’ll look at Google Maps satellite view and find somewhere on the coastline that has a track or road but no inhabitants. I don’t like to stay in campsites; I like to be in the middle of nowhere. I’m very sociable but I like to get away from people for a while – it helps reset and recalibrate. Then I like to lie in the sea with my ears below the water and meditate.

If you could choose anyone, who would be your ideal dinner party guest and why?

I would want it to be the people I love to be around who love food and wine and if they happen to tell jokes and play an instrument then that’s all the better. It has to be someone who’s going to linger and appreciate the meal.

James Walters is the founder of Arabica, encompassing two restaurants: Arabica Borough Market and the recently opened Arabica King’s Cross. Arabica also sells Levantine-based ingredients at its restaurants, Selfridges, and several London food markets.