Brett Barnes, head chef, Eelbrook, London

The  Staff Canteen
Originally from Zimbabwe chef Brett Barnes has gone from gastro pubs in Leeds, to Mark Hix in London to the 19th best restaurant in the world in Sweden but has now settled in London’s Eelbrook with a casual dining restaurant that Brett says is him. Serving food that “isn’t overly fussy but is still done properly” Brett and his team offer Mediterranean food with a lot of British ingredients on a menu that changes three or four items a week. So you moved to London in 2010 what made you decide then was the time to move? I suppose it just came to that time. I’d been a head chef in Leeds at a couple of gastro pubs for three years already, at the time the restaurant scene wasn’t that exciting, I gather that it’s actually got a bit better since, but I just felt like I didn’t want to be a big fish in a small pond.Eelbrook_Interiors-57 I’d rather try out in London where all of the best restaurants are and where people make their names. So where are you originally from? I’m from Zimbabwe but I went to boarding school in Lancashire, then I moved to Leeds for university, which would have been 1999. I finished uni, got a job in a bank for a year and then hated it so I thought I’d try out cooking. When you did decide cooking was the route to go down what was the first job that you went for?
What’s your guilty pleasure? Occasionally, some of those really cheap Chinese noodles, like 30p a packet: they’re quite good. I do like some crap, like a kebab now and again. I don’t know if you could say peanut butter is a guilty pleasure but I eat a lot of it, normally just out of the jar. Top restaurants:
  • Bocca Di Lupo in Soho,
  • Brawn in Hackney,
  • The Star Inn in Yorkshire
Favourite cookbook: I’ve got a few hundred I’d say but favourite ones? That’s hard. Let me think of the classics: Simon Hopkinson.
I did consider going to cooking college but while I was waiting to enrol an apprentice job came up in a little bistro in Headingley which at the time was a good, busy, popular little place and the head chef had good credentials. He used to work at the Box Tree in Ilkley which Marco Pierre White worked at back in the day; it was a good place to learn the basics. Up until that point I knew absolutely nothing – just what I learned off TV and stuff. When did you go to work at Arbutus? That was my first job in London, which must have been 2009/2010. At the time I had eaten there and I considered it my favourite restaurant so I emailed them seeing if they had any jobs going, came down for a trial and started working there. How do you view your time there? Did you work quite closely with Antony Demetre? No, because at the time they were opening the big brasserie in Covent Garden, Les Deux Salons, so he was not around as much as I thought he would have been. But it didn’t really matter because the chefs under him, Alan the head chef and the sous chefs, were all so good. It was such a crazy working environment; I don’t feel that I missed out really by not working with Antony.  I learned loads and it was a good introduction to London, a hard one, but it was good. Is it right that you worked with Mark Hix as well?  Yeah, I was there for a while. I was at Hix for just a bit over two years at first and then I have always kept in touch. I was their event chef for a couple of months, then when I got back from Sweden I helped out there for another three months or so before I got this job here at Eelbrook’s. I have always kept a good relationship with the Hix guys.Eelbrook_Food 0022 Did you learn quite a lot then? Would you say that Mark Hix was someone that influenced you? Definitely, yeah. I was always very into the whole British thing, that’s what I did in Leeds anyway. All the ideas we had there all came through Mark Hix one-way or another. He is the one who really brought back the fashion for British food. I also learned a lot more about the business-side of running a restaurant when I was at Hix. I got a lot more involved in the financials and the GP, running the kitchen and staff costs and that sort of thing.  From there, when is it that you went to Ducksoup? Straight after Hix. The head chef job came up and then Kevin Gratton, who is the chef director at Hix now approached me saying that it had come up. He knew the owners, he said ‘I think you would be suitable, what do you think?’ So I went for it. What is the food style there at Ducksoup? Very different. It’s essentially a natural wine bar that does a lot of different small plates. It’s very much European/North African/Mediterranean; so it’s a completely different style of food but at the time that’s exactly what I wanted. I felt like I’d done the British thing to death so it was perfect for me really. Eelbrook_Food 0048Was your time there your first opportunity to have a bit more control over the menu?  Yeah, it was, certainly in London. I could do that in Leeds but it’s a different kettle of fish up there. It was my first London head chef job and I had more control over the menu and running the kitchen as a whole. It was a great little experience and perfect for what I needed at the time. What made you go over to Sweden? Who with and where did you work there? It was in Fäviken, which is in the middle of nowhere, 600km north of Stockholm. I think at the time it was 19th ranked in the world. I’d been there for dinner and thought it was incredible; one of the best experiences I’d ever had. Just the whole thing: the food, but also the setting and the restaurant is so unique. I felt it was time to move on from Ducksoup but I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I wanted to go to straight into a new job in London or do my own thing. so I emailed them and offered my services for free for a couple of months. Luckily they got back to me and I ended up going there. The idea being that I’d stay six weeks then come back but then they gave me a full time position which was nice so I got to do a lot more than I had bargained for. Sadly, I was still paying rent in London I could only stay about three and a half months before I had to come back because I couldn’t afford it but it made a great experience.Eelbrook_Interiors-26 (crop) When you did come back in 2014 did you think then was the perfect opportunity to open your own place? Is that how Eelbrook was formed? I actually met Robin (the owner) online while I was over in Sweden because I was still looking at opportunities in London and then we had a chat on Skype. As soon as I got back we talked about Eelbrook and ideas for it and then it just went from there really. Was it a joint decision to make it casual dining? I didn’t really want to do fine dining. I’ve enjoyed doing it in the past and it’s good to learn different techniques but it’s not really what I’m passionate about. To be honest, Robin was probably thinking for it to be even more casual so I think we came to a compromise where there is still a great level of cooking but it’s not too fancy or too fine dining. How long was the planning stage before you opened? We met in January and didn’t open until the middle of August. It should have been earlier but there Eelbrook_Food 0113was lots of hold-ups with the build, which was the main thing. Originally we were due to open April/May so it went on a bit, but it gave us plenty of time to go over stuff and recruit properly and get a better idea of what exactly we were going to even that changed a bit, but that’s how it goes. How easy was it to decide what type of food to focus on? Is it right that it’s a mix of British and Mediterranean? It’s mostly a Mediterranean menu with a lot of British ingredients – that’s where the British element comes in. We use a lot of the nice, continental, and different vegetables when they’re in season but in terms of meat we only use British and we use mostly British cheeses. When there’s British produce at its peak like asparagus or strawberries we use British as well; we only really use continental stuff when it’s not available here. Do you constantly change the menu and is it important to do that? Yeah, it is important. Not as much as we did at Ducksoup where we would change every day, but here we tend to change three or four items a week. It’s a constantly evolving thing depending on the seasons and what is popular. If we put something on and it doesn’t sell there’s no point putting it on. It’s a constant process and I think it keeps everyone interested in the kitchen and in the front of house. When I was in Sweden the menu was the same for three and a half months and I understand it because it keeps things consistent but it gets a bit boring after a while - doing the same jobs in the same order every day; it’s not as much fun really.Eelbrook_Interiors-113 Would you say then that’s one of the key things to keep your chefs happy – to regularly change the menu? It’s good to just keep them interested really, even for myself. It’s always exciting to put a new dish on and it’s part of why I like cooking – to play around with stuff and it’s exciting when something comes into season – that’s what it’s all about for me really. What kind of food do you personally like to cook? This is me really. When we opened Robin gave me the chance to cook what I wanted and that’s what I do really, it’s the sort of stuff I want. I’m not overly fussy but I still want things done properly. We’re lucky enough to have a charcoal grill and I just love grilled meat and fish. We’ve got a wooden charcoal grill and we do all of the meat and fish on that and a lot of the vegetables are done on that. It’s exactly what I like: quite fresh and fairly healthy. What’s your favourite dish on the menu? It’s hard because it always changes. At the moment, there’s a lamb dish that I really like: a chargrilled lamb rump. Grilled courgettes, fresh sheep’s ricotta which is nice with the lamb, it sounds a bit odd but it’s not. Then we do a sweet and sour broad bean relish with some pea shoots. It’s very spring/summer with grilled meat, grilled veg with a fresh, zingy relish. That sums up what we do really. The lamb is amazing. We get this lamb from Elwy Valley in Wales, which is delicious. Portland crab with marinda tomato, monksbeard and blood orangeYou said Eelbrook has changed from when it first opened so how would you say it has changed? We’re right slap-bang on Eelbrook Common so it’s a beautiful location but when we opened we bought a pastry chef on board and we used to do a massive display of cakes and pastries, which we thought would be perfect in the day time for the local ladies who lunch, but it never worked and I don’t know why. We also originally considered opening for breakfast every day but then realised quite quickly that there isn’t the footfall here really. It’s quite a residential area and normally for breakfast you want to be in a business area. In large it’s what we expected it to be but we just made a few tweaks here and there. We do brunch on a weekend but it’s heaving every Saturday and Sunday. What are your future plans?Brett Barnes (1) Head Chef at Eelbrook (low-res) For now we are preparing for a busy summer. Because of the location we’ve got space for about 30 people on the terrace so on a sunny day it gets pretty heaving here. We’ve got a new cocktail list and bar menu starting so people can just pop in for a drink and a snack, as opposed to a full meal if they want to. We’ve got new outside furniture so people can come and relax and have a bottle of wine or something. We can tell already that it’s picking up so I think this summer we’re going to have a busy one and reflect after. If you like the sound of working in London and want to follow in Brett's footsteps then head over to our jobs board where you will find plenty of London chef jobs - here
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd July 2015

Brett Barnes, head chef, Eelbrook, London