Luke French, chef and co-owner, Joro

The  Staff Canteen

Luke French, 30, is the chef and co-owner of Joro in Sheffield, with his partner Stacey Sherwood. This 50 cover restaurant is housed inside a shipping container and has already gained the attention of both the AA Restaurant Guide and the Michelin Guide UK.

Luke started as a kitchen porter in Cambridge and has worked in top kitchens including The Fat Duck, Midsummer House and Alimentum.
He took the plunge six months ago and opened Joro, he says it offers new Nordic cuisine and so far it’s been a real hit with Sheffield diners.
The Staff Canteen caught up with Luke to find out more about his journey as a chef, why his menu can change three times a day and how he would love to bring the first Michelin star to Sheffield city centre.

What made you want to be a chef?

Norwegian Cod black garlic & fermented cabbage taco

Norwegian Cod black garlic & fermented cabbage taco

cabbage taco

My first head chef was Stuart Trangmar, and I have him to thank for it all. I hated school, so I left early. I was working as a KP at The White Pheasant in Cambridge when I was 14 and then I got interested in what the chefs were doing.
I wanted to have a crack at it so I went full time into the restaurant after my GCSE’s. I did a week at Cambridge Regional College in the hospitality kitchens and absolutely hated it! I was making stocks and rouxs every day – looking back in hindsight now, that is how it has to be but at the time I felt I could learn quicker if I was full time in a restaurant.

You’ve worked in fine dining, outside catering, and Michelin-starred kitchens including Midsummer House and The Fat Duck. What were those experiences like?

I didn’t really enjoy Midsummer, I think I was too young and immature, I was only 18 and I definitely was not ready for it at that time. It’s a two-star kitchen and all the other lads were mid-twenties, who had been cooking in starred kitchens for a few years - I felt very out of my depth and it was a pretty intense environment. I gave up on it way too quickly.
The Fat Duck I did a stage there and then carried on working there for a little while. Everyone had very specific roles and there was a huge team; it was probably the most chilled out restaurant I’d ever been in. Everyone knew exactly what they were doing, day in, day out. There was no shouting, no swearing – it wasn’t a hostile environment at all. It was very educational and I met some amazing people there.

Rising Stars:

• Alex Bond, Alchemilla - opening in Nottingham later this year
• Tom Samworth - opening a new restaurant in Sheffield called NO NAME, later this year
• Tom Shepherd - popup dinners with Adam Degg, The Development Kitchen popup
• Tom Lawson - Rafters Restaurant, Sheffield
• Tom Spenceley - The Typing Room, London
• Leo Holden - sous chef at Ormer Mayfair

Guilty Pleasures:

• A bacon sarnie with thinly sliced cheap fake-smoked streaky bacon inside really shitty sliced white bread, proper squashed together, loads of ketchup.
• Fish Fingers with store-bought tartar sauce
• Fish and chips, mushy peas & curry sauce
• Bisto gravy granules

Top 5 restaurants:

• 108, Copenhagen
• Real, Copenhagen
• Ynyshir Hall, Powys
• Studio, Copenhagen
• L’enclume, Cartmel

Favourite Cookbook(s):

Relae - A Book of Ideas by Christian Puglisi
• The Big Fat Duck Cook Book - Heston Blumenthal
• Noma - A Work in Progress (Journal & Recipes) - Rene Redzepi
• Modernist Cuisine - The Art & Science of Cooking - Nathan Myhrvold
• Nose to Tail Eating - Fergus Henderson

You took some time out to travel before heading back to The White Pheasant as head chef, what was that first head chef position like?

I jumped at the opportunity, being so young I thought it would be really cool and I’d be my own boss etc. It was great at the time, I learnt a lot from it but I was still a bit naïve and I didn’t have my own cooking style so what I was cooking was a massive amalgamation of what I had seen or done at Alimentum, Midsummer and The Fat Duck. I think that’s probably how a lot of young chefs go about finding their own style.

You moved to Sheffield and joined The Milestone pub.

They were knocking out pretty decent gastro pub food, lots of covers, really busy place and the team was a lot of fun. I joined as a CDP to pass the time really until I found somewhere else but as default I got pushed up the ranks and ended up as head chef for two years. The business grew and became The Milestone Group when they expanded and opened Craft and Dough, they have a couple in the city now. I became a kind of exec group chef and I was with them for six years.


Joro opened six months ago – why did you decide it was the right time?

While I was working for Milestone I decided I was ready to do my own thing again, I felt a lot more sure about how I wanted to cook. I’d been reading a lot of books, eating out a lot and being massively inspired by the approach to cooking in Denmark and Norway. I was interested in how they cook, their approach towards ingredients - keeping it natural and really simple cooking.

That was a million miles away from what I had learnt previously. I really enjoy the freedom of that style of cooking – using really good ingredients, not doing too much with them and letting them sing for themselves.
We were offered the opportunity to take on a space made out of shipping containers, it sounded absolutely crazy trying to make a restaurant out of shipping containers but I thought bugger it.

Tell us a bit more about the restaurant?

The building is made out of 29 shipping containers which are all joined together and stacked on top of each other. From the outside, that’s exactly what it looks like but on the inside, you wouldn’t know you were in one.
The space is semi-permanent so we have a five-year lease, everything which is inside if I wanted to I could pull it all out and move it to another location. It’s not a pop-up by any means, we are here to stay. It was make or break when we opened, and we couldn’t have been better received by the locals which is really good. It was a bit of a risk.

Barbecued Yorkshire asparagus with pickled blackcurrant shoots and pickled spruce jam

Barbecued Yorkshire

asparagus with pickled

blackcurrant shoots

and pickled spruce jam

And what about the menu, is it still small plates?

We marketed ourselves as doing small plates but we also offer a few tasting menus and 99 percent of people who come through the door opts for the tasting menu. So we don’t actually do that many small plates!
The menu can change three times in a day, everything happens and evolves naturally in the restaurant. The whole team including the front of house, everyone is involved in dish development.

When we receive ingredients, we have a bit of brainstorm on what we can do with the ingredients and that’s how the dishes are naturally created. There are a few core things like we’ve got lamb on and it will stay on until it’s out of season but the garnish might change on a daily basis. We have a few guests who like what we do and they have allotments so they often drop veg and herbs in. And we do a lot of foraging as we are on the doorstep of the Peak District.

We preserve a lot of ingredients so we have a well-stocked larder when it comes to creating new dishes, and for the darker months when we are limited by nature I foraged things last year which we are just starting to use now.

You said earlier you had no idea what your style was as a young chef, so can you put a label on it now?

The thing is….what is modern British cooking? A lot of people have different ideas on what that is. For me, my main inspiration is nature because our food is so seasonal. To narrow it down to a cooking style people would recognise I’d say it was new Nordic cooking, that’s what the Michelin Guide told me at least! There are not many rules in our kitchen in regards to the cooking, except it has to be delicious. Nothing goes out unless it’s really tasty, which should be the main rule in any kitchen! But also keeping it simple and making ingredients look as natural as they can. I would say my style now is self-taught and is true cooking from my heart, as I have never actually worked anywhere cooking the Nordic style!

joro 3

Talk us through a few of the dishes on the menu now.

There’s an asparagus dish on, which has evolved throughout the season, it was first served with preserved pine & blackcurrant from last year. We now cook it on the barbeque and serve it with an emulsion of burnt butter and summer truffles with a fermented cep vinaigrette.

We’ve also got a strawberry dish on, so its Yorkshire strawberries with wild rose, lemon verbena and meringue. We juice some of the strawberries, mix them with lemon verbena oil and marinade the fresh strawberries in that. We make a strawberry jam and the marinated strawberries sit on top. We then puree some of the strawberries with pickled wild roses and that is turned into the sorbet. We make a meringue using Timut – Nepalese pepper, it’s a very citrusy flavoured pepper, with big grapefruit and lime hits. It gives you a slight numbing sensation on your lips and tongue – it’s quite fun to eat!

We love that you are in Sheffield, which is a very industrial city, but you’re serving very natural, locally sourced ingredients.

People thought we were mad and I heard that some restaurants thought we were crazy and that no one would enjoy it in Sheffield; so it’s nice now that even just six months on it has been very successful. We got 2 AA Rosettes in the first two months, Michelin were in within six weeks of us opening and loved what we were doing and we’ve had some really good national press.

The Blackcurrant Bush
The Blackcurrant Bush

So what are your future plans for Joro? Are you looking for accolades?

Firstly for me and my team is to just enjoy having a restaurant where we can be free and enjoy ourselves. I’ve been cooking for 15 years and for 13 of those years I didn’t know when my next day off would be, my salary was all over the place and work-life balance wasn’t good.
We shut three days a week and five weeks holiday every year so we all know when we are going to be off.

I obviously want a successful business and the bottom line is to make money but it’s a dream for most chefs to earn a star or more. We are not cooking for accolades we are just trying to better ourselves every day. I’d love to earn a Michelin star, especially in Sheffield because the city centre itself has never had one – I think it would make a lot of people happy! I asked the Michelin inspector if they would ever consider giving a star to a restaurant in a shipping container as I don’t think there is one at the minute and he said yes which, was a massive confidence boost.

Would you eventually look to open in a permanent location?

We like where we are and we have a great restaurant which is very quirky, in a very up and coming part of the city. However, I don’t want to be in a shipping container too long – our dream would be to find something similar to L’Enclume or The Black Swan at Oldstead, somewhere rural we can forage in and with a small holding to grow our own ingredients.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 1st June 2017

Luke French, chef and co-owner, Joro