'Being mediocre is something I've always been slightly petrified of'

The  Staff Canteen

"I don't see you cooking for Dot Cotton on Saturday Kitchen and asking her to like tarragon," Michael O'Hare said to Lee Tiernan, chef and founder of Black Axe Mangal, in what was intended as the highest of compliments. 

Michael's follow-up question was more straightforward, asking whether as a chef, Lee has always intentionally steered clear of convention.

"I don't know if it's a conscious thing," he replied, remembering something chef David Chang said at a MAD Symposium he attended in Copenhagen.

"He said 'life's too short to be mediocre,' or something along those lines." 

"And being mediocre is something I've always been slightly petrified of being." 

The aim for Black Axe Mangal, he explained, "was to appeal to the two percent rather than the 95 percent," of which "maybe two percent get it, like it and come back." 

"I just wanted to concentrate on a very small audience rather than a mass audience and try and please everybody, because you run a restaurant long enough, you realise that you can't please all the people all the time."

The chef explained that while internally he felt unsure about putting his food and his identity out into the public eye, "you come across as ultra confident, but I didn't really have an idea of what I was doing." 

And in that process, he continued, "I created loads of things that, if you couldn't put up with them, we weren't the place for you." 

From loud music to depictions of genitalia on the floors, "we just had the attitude of 'this is how it is, like it or lump it.'" 

While he doesn't doubt that some people might have thought he was arrogant for proceeding that way, for him, the metal and the graffiti "were like shields for me to hide behind." 

"I felt like I could hide behind the music, and then the music became part of the restaurant's identity." 

But, as Michael remarked, nobody gets their socks blown off at The Ivy. That's not what guests go to his own restaurant for, and that's not what guests go to Black Axe Mangal for. 

"It's more signalling the right people than it is blocking people out," he added.

It is hard to argue that conceptually the move from St John to Black Axe was quite a leap for Lee, and with that came the added constraints of working in a restricted space. 

While he has since increased the seat count from 17 to 24, his team still cooks with an oven, a grill and a deep fat fryer, meaning that there are physical constraints to what they can cook.

But what this has meant for the team at BAM is that everything that comes out of its little kitchen has to stand out from the crowd in other ways than at your typical fine dining operation.

"I'd always prioritise flavour over everything else," Lee said. "I would never compromise flavour to make something look better."

"I'll get an idea and work it out in my head, maybe bounce it off the other chefs, we'll come up with something organically over a couple of days, or we might have an idea in the morning and have it on the menu in the evening." 

"Sometimes we're developing things during service, and I like that a little bit - the pressure."

"I just like the spontaneity of it." 

"I want it to be fun, I just try not to over-analyse it - whilst overanalysing everything." 

Death Metal Turkish Barbecue

Lee may have been named "London's Most Provocative Chef" by travel publication Culture Trip but he maintains that this was never intentional. When probed, he shies away from the subject. 

"It's not that I sit at home with all the answers and I'm just reluctant to share them. I didn't set out to be the most provocative chef. Writers need stuff to write about and people need stuff to talk about, everyone is desperate to pigeon-hole things. Everything has got to fit in a certain box or a certain shelf in a certain way."

"One thing I've made a conscious effort to do since Tom Parker-Bowles reviewed us and said we were 'un-categorisable'," he said, (fact-check: the Mail on Sunday critic said it was "a new form of eating altogether, and near impossible to categorise – Turkish meets British meets Chinese meets Pakistani meets late nights and hungover mornings," and in another review called it "Death metal Turkish barbecue," but let's not dwell), "I really f***ing like that. It took him to make me realise that's what I wanted my restaurant to be. I wanted to continue to be 'un-categorisable'." 

"I don't want people to be able to work out what we're doing, because that will always put us on a certain path, in a certain direction."

"I want to be un-categorisable and I don't want to be mediocre - but I don't sit at home thinking that that's what I need to achieve." 

In the same breath, he added, "Ugh, I wish I didn't sound like such a wanker when I talk about myself." 

Boxes

Not to be misportrayed as being arrogant or as thinking he is superior, the chef explains that he tries to keep a positive outlook on the hospitality industry, where people are "just trying to make it, trying to do something good and working hard towards achieving that and running a business." 

And making a success of what can only be described as a dire situation (or insert other more profane descriptor) has been the only option for most if not all hospitality businesses this year.

The finish @ home model has been one way for chefs to continue cooking restaurant calibre food, and to put their food on plates further afield, and as things have unfolded talented chefs have pushed new frontiers in directions they wouldn't have had to go down. 

With a successful collaboration with BAO (BAM x BAO) and plans to roll out another of his own concepts on home restaurant experience app Big Night in the near future, he said: "It's only a matter of time before restaurants start really nailing that experience for people and understanding it. Deliveries and packaging will become more sleek and operations will become more efficient. Ultimately, the experience for the consumer will be better and better every time." 

What's next?

As restrictions are lifted, dealing with the small space they have, continuing to sell boxes could prove an importance source of revenue for Black Axe Mangal. 

"We might not be able to open everyday of the week, and having that option, click and collect and pre-orders," he continued, could "help us grow as a restaurant and employ more people."

Toying with other ideas, including a set menu, he said: "I'll have to see where I'm at, see where the country's at, see how I'm feeling, see how many staff I've got and just work from that." 

What he doesn't want to do, however, is regress back to where he was in the past, or lose the closeness he has reached with his three children in the past year.

"Although this is a difficult period for our industry, the country and the world as a whole, it's given me a lot of time to reflect and I'm in a much better physical and mental state now than I was this time last year, and I want to preserve that." 

"Hopefully we won't have to go through it again, but it's important for me not to go backwards and to try and maintain what I've gained from the pandemic." 

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 24th March 2021

'Being mediocre is something I've always been slightly petrified of'