Joe Mercer Nairne, Medlar restaurant, Chelsea

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th May 2013
Born in London with a Scottish family background and with spells living in the US, Scotland and Australia,  Joe Mercer Nairne has an international pedigree, something which is reflected in the menu at his Chelsea restaurant, Medlar, which he co-owns with friend and restaurant manager, David O’connor. The Staff Canteen caught up with 32-year-old chef patron, Joe, to talk about Medlar’s philosophy on food. What is the ethos behind your food here at Medlar? It’s kind of French/European brasserie food, maybe a bit more refined but not overly complicated and not too into chemicals. Basically I cook what I like to eat. I think that’s important because it means I enjoy what I do in the kitchen and I believe in what I do.  Some chefs, although they like what they do, wouldn’t necessarily want to eat at their own restaurant; they’d like to go to a pub or something simpler, whereas I’d like to go to Medlar. What have been your influences? I worked at Chez Bruce for four years. The reason I worked there so long is that I like the food they do and so it’s no surprise that there are some similarities between what we do and places like Chez Bruce and La Trompette although I think our food is slightly lighter than theirs. Something else I’ve taken from Chez Bruce is to be generous with portions. Our portions are big. And we’re also generous with the main ingredient. If someone asks for scallops it’s because they want scallops so it’s important that they get enough of that main ingredient. We have a prix fixe menu but we try not to put supplements on it because I think that’s annoying. All these things may mean that our GPs aren’t that great but we’re a new business and we want to make people happy and make them come back. You describe your food elsewhere as French-based but with influences from all over the world. Could you pick out a couple of dishes that reflect this? We had a scallop sashimi with a ponzu dressing which is obviously Asian influenced, that came from my time at Rockpool in Australia where they did a lot of Asian food. We also did a tuna tartare mixed with harissa and a date puree with preserved lemons which is very North African and the inspiration for that came from both Rockpool and also a restaurant in San Francisco. I think if you eat out a lot and travel widely, as we do, you carry all these influences around with you and one day you might remember a meal you enjoyed some time ago and you probably don’t remember it quite correctly, but that’s a good thing because then you put your own twist on it. How important is your relationship with your suppliers? Hugely important, they’re always giving us advice on what’s coming in. One of our fish suppliers is down in Cornwall. I’m always asking them what they think my next menu change should be. A few weeks ago for instance we had gurnard and pollock on the menu because they said they would be ample and good quality. I was a bit worried because we’re in Chelsea and I wondered whether people might turn their nose up at those kinds of fish but actually they’ve been very popular. We also have a guy down in Cornwall who grows us salads and vegetables and he’s very seasonal; he was the first guy to get us wild garlic this year. At the same time we have guys in Covent Garden bringing us stuff from all over the country and Europe. It’s important to have a big network so that if something goes wrong somewhere you can bring in the stuff you need from somewhere else. Do you have a favourite season food-wise? I like parts of all of them. Spring is exciting because everything you serve up in winter seems to be quite dark and brown colours and then suddenly you have the green shoots coming in and the first flowers and that’s great to inject a bit of colour. Summer is great because you start getting some really good vegetables from this country. I think autumn might be my favourite though; I love mushrooms; I love game; I love the autumnal fruits; I love the late berries, especially the Scottish berries. You spoke earlier about generosity being part of your ethos. Your prices are also very reasonable. How do you manage that as a business? We use all different kinds of cuts of meat, some of which are cheap and some more expensive so our GP takes a hit on some dishes and we try to make it up on others. For example, a while ago we had lamb breast as a starter and we were also using razor clams and skate as a starter; the lamb dish came in as a good GP and the other didn’t so it’s our job as a team to sell an even spread of dishes and then our GP will come out as reasonable. It’s a prix fixe menu so it’s all about training the front of house staff to sell evenly across the menu. At the end of the day our GP does take a hit but we have no shareholders to answer to and we’re a new business so we’re comfortable with the GP we’re running at the moment. It comes in at about 64-65% for food which I’m pretty happy about for a fine dining restaurant. I think if you’re achieving over 70% GP as a fine dining place then the customers will notice on the plate in terms of smaller portion sizes. What are you plans for the future? We’re always looking to move forward, to improve. We’ve just put in a hot starter section in the kitchen for instance which will give me more flexibility in writing menus. We’ve just put in a new oven and a new fridge. We’re also thinking of doing some service of dishes at the table. We’re always trying to do something new and different, something to make us stand out from the competition. We’re also thinking of opening up some new restaurants. We’re looking around at the moment and asking people about places but you can’t put a timetable on these things. After all, It took us two years to find this site!

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th May 2013

Joe Mercer Nairne, Medlar restaurant, Chelsea