Zac Whittle, head chef, Fenchurch, Sky Garden, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th May 2015

London’s latest restaurant with a view is Fenchurch. Located at the top of the Sky Garden this modern British restaurant has been under the watchful eye of head chef Zac Whittle since it opened in January.

The 29-year-old started working in the city at 16 and has worked for top chefs including André Garrett and The Galvins. The Staff Canteen caught up with Zac to talk about the menu, his passion for British ingredients and why the mackerel tartare is his favourite dish.

Becoming a chef and career to date

Rhubarb at Sky Garden - High Resolution37

What first attracted you to the industry?

Firstly, I wanted to get out of education as soon as I could! Secondly, I was really interested in travel and I knew if I could cook it would make it easier to do. But I’m yet to fulfil that interest, I’ve been in London since I started when I was 16. I kept getting opportunities that were too good to turn down but travel is still a plan.

Where did you start?

I started with Conran Restaurants, now D&D, on an apprenticeship. At 16 I was at Quaglino's – which is where I fell in love with cooking. In my second year I went to the Orrery, who weren’t really taking apprentices so, I asked a chef who knew André Garrett, who was the chef there at the time, if he would make an exception. I went for a trial and thankfully he took me on.

Top 5 ingredients:
  • Wye valley asparagus - Cooked in clarified butter then grilled, peelings used to infuse consommé’s
  • Peas - Podded, blanched, served with mint
  • Morels - Washed, sauted with smoked bacon, garlic and thyme
  • Lamb - Whole spring lambs from Suffolk: shoulders - braised, legs, neck and rumps - seamed, brined and roasted, short saddle - boned and rolled with kidneys and livers
  • Cockles - Cooked under a lid with a little white wine to create some steam.
Dish that hasn't come off the menu: Mackerel tartare

It was a really hard kitchen to work in, I was only 17 and everything was new but it put me on the right path in terms of knowledge and work ethic. Growing up in London I was a very fussy eater and I wasn’t exposed to high-end restaurants. I was learning every day and seeing things I hadn’t seen before and that’s what I still love about cooking – trying something new and being amazed by it.

Profile: André Garrett, Cliveden House, Buckinghamshire

You went on to work with André at Windows and then La Chapelle is that right?

Yes, I was part of the opening team for La Chapelle as a sous chef and after two years Jeff Galvin made me head chef. This industry is very close knit – I knew a lot about Jeff before I met him and I’d worked with Chris at Windows. I really enjoyed working with Jeff, he was there every day and he’s the hardest working person I’ve ever met in my life. That’s where I learnt a lot about the management side of things and looking after a whole team. I did four and a half years at La Chapelle and I am incredibly grateful for all that I learnt.

So, what attracted you to Fenchurch and the Sky Gardens?

I just thought it was a challenge and an incredible opportunity that I couldn’t miss. Obviously I had been head chef at La Chapelle but I was working really closely with Chris and Jeff, and although I was in charge of the day to day running of it, it was very much their name and I wanted to try something on my own. Here the menu and the kitchen side of things is completely my decision. I brought the whole team in and I found I have enjoyed it.

Creating a menu from scratch

As you’ve started from scratch what was the process for creating the menu and coming up with dishes?

Rhubarb are the company who own Fenchurch, they had a concept and an idea of how they wanted it. It sounded exciting and they already had a menu in place because they had to have one as part of their pitch to get the space. But the directors were very open to suggestion and they were happy for me to take it away and make any changes. I didn’t want to come in and give the impression that the dishes on there weren’t good enough, there was nothing wrong with the menu I just wanted to stamp my mark on it.Caramelised chocloate puff

So we went through the process of recipes, tastings, costings –for a whole menu it’s a long process! I’ve got a good relationship with them, we’ve built up the trust and I’ve changed the menu three times since January.

What is the style of food at Fenchurch?

It’s so hard to put a label on dishes these days, I suppose we do modern British. It’s basically seasonal produce, four or five components on a plate and it’s fresh. That’s how I like to run any restaurant I’m in charge of. I change things for different reasons – at the moment we are using pheasant eggs but they are only around for about a month. While things are at their best they will be on the menu. 

You get some dishes that work really well so you keep them on a bit longer, some if I’m honest there’s nothing wrong with them you just get a bit bored of them. It’s important for the boys as well to change the dishes, you’ve got to keep them moving and keep new things coming in the kitchen for the guys to see and do and keep them learning.

Dish inspiration and ingredients

Are you very passionate about British produce? New Season Lamb3

I still use produce you can’t get here like mangos or pineapple, but I like the fact that we are starting to wake up to the fact we don’t have to go to France for asparagus or peas for example. When I started out British produce was frowned upon in terms of quality. If the same product was in front of you but one was French and one was British you always thought the French would be better. But that’s not the case anymore. There’s been a real surge in focus on what we have on our own shores and I really like to showcase that.  

Are your dishes inspired by what’s in season?

Yes, definitely. So at the moment we’re using new season lamb, asparagus, peas, broad beans and tomatoes – the dishes stem from these ingredients and we work around them. I’m in close contact with all of my suppliers, we speak daily on the phone and if they see something new they let me know. It’s always a nice thing among chefs to be one of the first to get a new product. In London there are lots of suppliers but there are very few really good ones. In the summer our suppliers have invited us down to where they are, so I can show all the younger lads the other side – not just what’s in the boxes that turn up at the back door, they can see the whole process.

rabbit bolognese

Is that important to you, that your chefs get the chance to see where ingredients are coming from?

Oh yes! Besides cooking and serving the food, it’s as important. It teaches them respect when you see what someone has done and put in to grow any fruit or vegetable, or see the farmer who’s rearing his livestock. It really teaches them respect as they see the whole process, how long it is and how expensive it is. That’s why I get so upset when they over cook things – it’s a waste of someone’s time and money.

Do you have a favourite ingredient that you like to work with?

It depends on the time of year but I Iove lamb, it’s my favourite meat. I like spring, coming out of winter you’re quite limited on produce and for a few months you get the same things in and you keep trying different ways of doing it. When spring comes it’s like going to the shop and there being a load of new stuff in the window.

What dish on your menu would you champion at the moment?

Rhubarb at Sky Garden - High Resolution34We do a lovely mackerel tartare with a diced scallop, oyster cream, avocado, samphire, sea rosemary and salty fingers. Then we make salt and vinegar scraps, put them on top for texture with a Lovage oil – all served in a scallop shell on crushed ice and seaweed. I never get bored of it, it’s very fresh and it ticks all the boxes for me. It’s one of the dishes I’m really proud of but I love them all, it’s like asking which is your favourite child!

When you’re not working, where do you like to eat?

Typing Room is fantastic, it’s one of my favourite places to go. I was living in Brixton so I used to go to The Dairy quite a lot and Trinity. I like to go to Café à Vin, it’s a simple, French bistro style but amazing food.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th May 2015

Zac Whittle, head chef, Fenchurch, Sky Garden, London