James Lowe: 'Buzzwords wind me up, things like ‘farm to table’, McDonald's is farm to table!'

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th September 2019

At last month’s The Big Feastival, James Lowe, chef owner of Lyles and newly opened Flor, got straight to the point.

Alongside Cornerstone’s Tom Brown, he openly questioned people’s knowledge of provenance and sustainability in terms of ingredients, within the hospitality industry.

Interestingly they also discussed sustainability of relationships, both personal and professional, and how important they are to the success of a restaurant.  

James Lowe chef
James Lowe

“Buzzwords wind me up. Things like ‘farm to table’,” explained James. “McDonald's is farm to table! All food comes from a farm! It’s so meaningless.

“I also worry about the use of the word ‘sustainability’ because the more something is used, you would think the effect would be that it is more understood. I feel sometimes it’s the complete opposite with this. It’s become so overused people don’t know what it means. It’s so easy to say ‘yes, it’s all sustainable’.”

Tom feels there is more interest and focus on the provenance of ingredients, partly ‘because the guests are more interested’ but often suppliers, chefs and diners’ understanding of seasonality, especially with fish, is lacking.

He said: “With fish particularly I think seasonality is really important. I just got back from Spain and I wanted to do some Mojama, over there they do it with tuna loin and air dry it for a long time, I’d seen some bonito so I spoke to one of my suppliers and they said: ‘we do get this lovely, farmed, yellow fin tuna which comes in frozen from Australia…’.

“There’s no way we could get away with that, I would never want to and our guests wouldn’t want it on the menu."

“when people say: ‘yeah we are 95 percent sustainable now’ they can’t be, they are either wrong or very naive.”

“The staple fish we buy are grey mullet, gurnard, mackerel – great British fish, which go under the radar a lot of the time. To know the fish we use is from places which are close to the restaurant or close to where I grew up in Cornwall, is so important. It’s part of the dining experience.”

James added: “There’s a huge naivety about the future of sustainability, people don’t understand how complicated it is and they don’t understand how inherently difficult it is when you own a restaurant which is in a city like London. It’s incredibly hard and when people say: ‘yeah we are 95 percent sustainable now’ they can’t be, they are either wrong or very naive. There needs to be more education for restaurants because people want to be doing the right thing, they just don’t necessarily know how.”

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"Opening a restaurant costs so much money." James Lowe, Lyles 

The pair didn’t just discuss sustainable ingredients, they were also asked about how they sustain their relationships both personally and professionally. Working long unsociable hours in an industry which Tom says is ‘very selfish’ can make it difficult but the pair both agree that strong relationships are essential in order for you to succeed, especially when you own your own restaurant.

“It’s easy to say you just have to balance your life better but when you have hundreds of thousands of pound of debt it’s really hard.”

James explained that having his daughter was a turning point for him in looking at his work/life balance.

He said: “My daughter is the first thing which has forced me to try. The hours are ridiculous in the restaurant world – you want to be successful, and if you are open six days a week, which you have to in the city, it’s very hard not to be at the restaurant all the time.

“When we opened Lyles, my first place, which is five years-old now, I was there all the time. It was nine months before I took any time off – which is not good for relationships.”

He added: “My daughter is 19 months old and if I’d had her at the start of the restaurant (Lyles) I don’t know what would have happened. I love my time with her she is amazing but what if the restaurant had tanked?

“I think it was worth the sacrifice at the time but as soon as she was born I went to 4 days a week, which is what all my team were already working but I used to work more days just to be there.

“Opening a restaurant costs so much money, the risks and the overheads are so high. It’s easy to say you just have to balance your life better but when you have hundreds of thousands of pound of debt it’s really hard.”

“It’s a very selfish trade, you’re striving for perfection, you want to do well, you want to be the best and you want to do something that you are proud of. That very often doesn’t leave room for other people.”

Tom opened Cornerstone just 18 months ago and said: “It’s hard and it’s horrible and I’m only now really starting to get that balance where I can step away. I only have a girlfriend now because of how supportive she is, it’s not something that everyone can deal with and I know better than anyone that I’m an absolute nightmare at the best of times.

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Tom Brown 

“It’s so up and down and you are so invested in it emotionally so anything that happens affects you. We’ve had mad things happen at the restaurant - one day everything is fine and then suddenly overnight it seems like nothing is fine. Emotionally as a human being it’s very difficult to separate that.

“I’m the same as James, I didn’t take a day of for ages, I wouldn’t miss a service.

“Now, because my team is so great, and it takes a while to build that, I can take time – you can’t not because you can’t live like that. You’ll run yourself into the ground.”

In terms of staff and building those solid, professional relationships, James and Tom have both had their struggles.

“Getting staff is a nightmare,” explained James. “There are more and more restaurants opening and there are less and less people going into the restaurant industry. Chef schools are not particularly good and they don’t produce the good results you get in other countries like the programme in Australia. That’s amazing, if you get a chef from Australia come and work for you who has done four years of training, they are amazing, they get such a rounded education and that doesn’t exist in the UK.”

“You need support, you need the support of your team, the support of amazing people that keep you happy and give you a life outside the restaurant,” said Tom.

“It’s a very selfish trade, you’re striving for perfection, you want to do well, you want to be the best and you want to do something that you are proud of. That very often doesn’t leave room for other people so you are very lucky when you meet the right people that will allow you to do that and be there for you as well.”

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 13th September 2019

James Lowe: 'Buzzwords wind me up, things like ‘farm to table’, McDonald's is farm to table!'