One unexpected outcome of the stop-start nature of the past year on the UK’s hospitality industry is the clarity with which the nation’s most pioneering chefs have come into view. Not only are they continuing to introduce avant-garde flavours, fly the flag for seasonal, sustainable produce, and support small producers but they have embraced the importance of community and collaboration in the food industry.
Leading the way is award-winning Singaporean chef Elizabeth Haigh. The past year has seen Haigh offer online recipe masterclasses, work solo in the kitchen at Mei Mei, her popular Singaporean kopitiam (coffee shop) in Borough Market – serving her signature Hainanese chicken rice, and a range of contemporary Singapore dishes for takeaway and delivery – and launch her online shop offering meal kits and deli staples for customers to enjoy at home.
Her approach at Mei Mei is to mirror the hawkers of Singapore who are master chefs of one particular dish. ‘The menu at Mei Mei is limited but we do it really well,’ she says. ‘I want to capture some of the heritage of the dishes while educating the UK about Singaporean coffee culture.’ The past year has been a stalemate restaurant-wise for the ever-tenacious Haigh, who has been doing anything but sitting still.
‘We adapted. I did some home cooking around my local neighbourhood for the vulnerable. I developed the retail side of things and we are lucky to be in Borough Market, which, as an open-air market, has been a safe place for people to come.’ When Haigh caught wind of the school meals issue, she pledged overnight to provide free hot meals for local children of struggling families.
Haigh continues to innovate and is set to launch a cookbook in May called Makan (‘let’s eat’), which reflects the way she approaches food. ‘It’s the dishes that I grew up eating, adapted using British ingredients.’ It’s a project she has worked on closely with her mum, who has revealed some of her secret recipes for the book.
One of Haigh’s neighbours in Borough Market is the popular Bao, offering the wonderous flavour combinations of Vietnamese-Dutch chef Anaïs van Manen. She has been developing new ways of bringing Vietnamese flavours to the UK, with her own pop-ups as well as creating menus for a number of outlets, including Kitchenette Karts – a social enterprise in Spitalfields Market that mentors ex-offenders and shows them how to run their own self-sufficient food business. Food for van Manen is a journey of discovery and searching for the best flavours has delivered exciting results. ‘My Vietnamese culture is omnipresent in my cooking. We like to share food and I try to bring back this feeling as much as possible in my pop-ups.’
Adapting restaurants into takeaway venues to continue supplying incredible food to the community has become a priority for many chefs. One of the first to pivot was Mitshel Ibrahim of Italian restaurant Ombra in east London, which he has transformed into a pastificio and deli. ‘I never thought I would be doing takeaway but we need to be flexible,’ he says. Born in Milan to Egyptian parents, Ibrahim earned a degree in environmental science before becoming a chef.
‘It means ecology, biology and climate change is very close to how we do things here. We try to do things sustainably,’ he says. ‘And as Italian food is simple, the product has to be good otherwise there’s nowhere to hide. We get our meat from a farmer in Herefordshire, he raises and butchers the animals himself so there is very good traceability in the whole process.’ Ombra’s vast wine cellar allows him to create a significant volume of cured meat and Ibrahim has always made his own pasta, using a variety of grains both local and using his own domestic mill.
Continuing to develop the offering at Ombra has paid off. As well as providing essentials and takeaway meals for the community, Ibrahim started selling pasta sauces, which are now stocked in 12 stores, alongside pasta and focaccia.
It’s not just the chefs of the city who have continued to innovate. Will Devlin of The Small Holding in Kilndown in Kent, grows 180 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruits, as well as raising chickens and rare breed pigs, on one acre of land next to the restaurant. ‘The farm dictates the menu,’ says Devlin. ‘Celebrating ingredients when they are in season, just picked, and that taste incredible is the best feeling. We need to relish the anticipation of waiting and rediscover the excitement of seasonality.’ For Devlin – who was recently awarded a green Michelin star for sustainable gastronomy – the onus is on the flavour, which, he says, comes from managing the soil and developing flavour from the ground up. Devlin and his team have been making good use of what he grows, selling produce via his online farm shop, and since January, creating special meal kits for takeaway.
Seeing food as more than just ingredients on a plate and satisfying those who are as concerned with provenance and sustainability as they are with superior flavours, is just one of the significant markers of today’s pioneering chefs. Combining this with social enterprise, collaboration, exploration, education and the ability to stay one step ahead and shapeshift in the face of adversity, allows them to inspire the evolution and continued success of a defiant restaurant industry.