Natasha Cooke, head chef, The Cross Keys, Chelsea

The  Staff Canteen
Natasha Cooke is a Oxford-born country girl who stumbled into cooking after deciding waitressing wasn’t for her. Having worked at The Glasshouse and the Michelin-starred Medlar she is now head chef at DM Group’s The Cross Keys in London’s prime location Chelsea. Having only re-opened recently the iconic pub is where Natasha is in control of keeping the locals happy and creating something unexpected with the classics that keep people coming back for more. How has it been since re-opening – busier than expected?Burger1 I personally think it’s as busy as expected perhaps a bit busier but we’ve had a lot of good feedback which has been nice. A lot of friends and family have got behind us and have been giving recommendations so I’m hoping it doesn’t die down too much. How much input did you have on the new menu? The menu is basically all mine with the help from the executive chef, Oliver Marlowe. We’ve worked together for six years now after meeting him when we worked together at The Glasshouse so I’d say the menu was developed from similar ideas, having worked in similar restaurants and knowing each other. We started planning it a couple of months before the opening but as it’s quite a fast moving menu the style has been there for about three, four months before but the food will be changing quite regularly. Especially being a pub you have to keep the locals happy and coming back without eating the same food over and over again. Confit Lamb Breast3So how would you describe the food? I’d like to say a mixture of European flavours. I worked in an Italian restaurant for a while so I guess there is a bit of an Italian influence but having worked for The Glasshouse and Chez Bruce there’s quite a heavy English/French influence as well. But I like take flavours really from all over the world, things that I’ve eaten and enjoyed –so I guess it is a mix really. Is that something you like to try and do – find out what’s out there and eat out? I do eat out a lot and whenever I travel anywhere I try and eat in a few restaurants from a local to any place with a star or accolade, in England as well as abroad. I think it’s important to be eating out all the time as you get to see what way food is moving and what people are wanting.
Guilty pleasures: Eating out – I spend all my money on eating out at restaurants Chipotle – I live right next to a chipotle take-out and I love Mexican food A good bottle of red wine Top 5 restaurants: Nut Tree in Oxford Midsummer House, Cambridge - I’ve been twice and I love everything about it, whether it be the food or the location, it’s a really nice place to go and eat away from London. Pierre Gagnaire, Paris Michel Bras Also I have a friend who owns a restaurant in Rome and he used to work for Koffmann (Pierre) back in the day but now he doesn’t want any of the accolades he just wants to cook for the locals. His food is spectacular and its English/Italian feel is always memorable.
Do you think it was important with the menu to cater for everyone, as is it right that the bar snacks are popular within the group? I think the Scotch egg is probably the most well-known within the group when it comes to the bar snacks. It’s nice to walk in during the day and see someone with a pint and a scotch egg, which is where we started from really and it’s led from there. I think it is important to cater for many people but to be careful not to confuse the menu too much, it’s nice to have the pub-like food but also my background which is more restaurant on there. What I like to do is to take a pub classic and make it almost unexpected for example we have an ale and oxtail pie on at the moment that is actually built as a little pithivier and comes with a side and a jug of sauce to be poured at the table. So it is pub food and tastes of pub food but there’s just that little bit more to it, so I hope people are pleasantly surprised when they come by getting something more than you’d expect in your average pub. Is the aim of the food and the style the same across all three within the group? Each head chef writes their menu but are influenced by the executive chef so I would say there are similarities with some of the more classic pub dishes like the fish and chips and the burgers but the slightly more restaurant-y dishes each head chef has their own influence on it. The style will slightly change but actually the backgrounds of all three head chefs are very similar, the head chef of The Brown Cow I’ve worked with previously and also similar at The Sands End, I worked with him at Medlar. What was your first position and did you always want to be a chef? It was never the intention to be a chef, I fell into it almost accidently. I was riding horses for a living and needed a bit of money so went into waitressing at Carluccios but didn’t really like that part of it so helped out in the kitchen. Cornish Mussels1It was by luck that I ended up in London but it was never the plan, I have always liked cooking and at school did cooking competitions and my parents love to cook; so cooking was always there but it wasn’t something that I had considered as a career. When you did realise you wanted to be a chef where was your first position? My first restaurant in London was Hush in Mayfair which I’d say was my first big job but the first more influential job I had was The Glasshouse in Kew Gardens and I’d heard of Chez Bruce and I knew of their background and their link with The Square and The Ledbury. That was where I realised that actually this was the career I wanted to do and that you had a respect for this style of cooking and for all the chefs that you met through the company. When were you at Medlar? About two years ago, I was at The Sands End after that as head chef. I started about three/four months before they got their star and then worked for them for just over a year and then left to go to The Sands End which then led onto here at The Cross Keys. How do you view you time at Medlar?THE CROSS KEYS-18 I went as junior sous, it was a really good time for expanding what I’d learnt from The Glasshouse and Chez Bruce. Even though it was similar food the head chef there had travelled around a bit and had been in Australia for about three years so had different ways of doing things. It was Medlar where I took my basic menu ideas and the ingredients that I’d put together but tweaked and expanded it a bit more. It was a good time and a nice place to work but it was difficult going from a restaurant to a pub, it was a big decision maker which a lot of people were trying to talk me out of but I wanted to give it a go. As The Cross Keys is steeped in history do you think there was a pressure for it to do well? Yes, I think it’s the most pressure I’ve ever been under in my life. There is an expectation that it’s going to be busy and it’s in such a prime location that you’re going to have some big names come in as well as the locals who want to spend their money on nice food. So actually I thought the first few weeks would be more relaxed but there was actually no real soft week, we just went straight in and had all the locals in and a lot of people coming in to talk to me. I think it’s going well and I hope that I meet expectations. Scotch Eggs & Sausage RollsWho would you say has taught you the most? I think it’s a combination of a few people. Oliver, the executive chef here, I’ve known him for quite  a long time so overall he’s been my biggest support and a good influence on me. Also my two head chefs from The Glasshouse, Anthony Boyd and Daniel Murtle, both were supportive and it was Daniel that said now is the time to leave as you need to go and spread your wings and learn something else. So it’s the humble ones that have been my biggest influence. What would you say is your favourite type of food to cook? Any type of game, when I was younger I used to shoot quite a lot and it’s something that even before I was a chef was my favourite thing was to pluck all the birds and then make a casserole; so game is probably my one true love. How many are there in your team? Not many at the moment but we’re looking to have about ten in the kitchen so we run a service with about five chefs. So it’s quite a small team so very much a big family rather than a brigade kitchen, it’s nice to keep it quite small and personal.THE CROSS KEYS-47 There is the notion that this is a male dominated industry have you noticed this and have you worked with many women previously? Not that many, I think there was one other girl at The Glasshouse and that’s pretty much been it. I actually now have three girls employed in my kitchen of which one is my sous chef. It has been quite strange as I’ve only really worked with men and having grown up with men I do find it hard being around a large group of girls now. I think it is starting to change, there are more females going into being a chef, I think it will be a lot easier as there’s a lot of support around and you have some big female names that you can look up to. I think it’s more accessible now and I don’t think men bat an eyelid now when they see a girl in the kitchen where as before I think they did. Homemade Vanilla YoghurtSo future plans… I think I’m very much open for suggestion at the moment, I do have a five year plan where I would like to own somewhere, whether it be in London or outside, as I’m from the country I do prefer it. But I think the ideas of where I want to be in the next five years has changed dramatically so I wouldn’t be able to put a dot on where I’m going to be in five years’ time. But I would think owning somewhere or running a group, not just being head chef but an executive chef of a group of four or five places. We’ll just see what happens.
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 4th June 2015

Natasha Cooke, head chef, The Cross Keys, Chelsea