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Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The London chefs who beat lockdown

Born from 2020’s furlough and financial disaster, these new culinary superstars of London’s restaurant scene are masters of transformation

By Angela Hui
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Former Coya chef Jake Finn was just about to open his first restaurant, Lila, when the pandemic hit. He sets the scene for 2020. 

It was March when I was finally ready to sign for the space. It was supposed to be the payoff from years of sweat and tears in kitchens and months of spreadsheets. Then this whole nightmare happened.

At first I sat at home doing puzzles. Then my girlfriend told me to just go and cook something, anything, for family or for friends. I bought catering trays online and started making things like shredded roast chicken with sticky caramelised onions and fluffy meatballs with tomato compote. The kind of food that feels like someone giving you a hug. Soon I was driving to each compass point of the capital three times a week to deliver to hungry Londoners.

We all became obsessed with food in lockdown. It’s one of those things that takes your mind off everything else. I found comfort in healthy, tasty things like a really nice pasta with prawns or roasted cauliflower salad, mixed up with tahini and slipped into a pita bread with a fried egg.

I’ve learned that you just have to stay fluid and ready to adapt. I’m doing catering and private dining and I just ran my first ever supper club. And I’ve started looking for a space again: small, easy to manage. Maybe my restaurant is still on its way…

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Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The Noo Yawker who became a part-time pizza slinger

From working on a Cornish farm to selling pizzas out of a window hatch, Pam Yung (head chef at Flor and Lyle’s) is one of the brains behind Asap Pizza

My first instinct when the UK went into lockdown was that I wanted to go home to New York. I wanted to be with all of my friends and family, but I was terrified of the idea of getting on a plane, catching something and infecting them, so I made the tough decision to sit it out.

Maybe I’m a little bit anal and have an overactive imagination. I was worried about the food supplies at the beginning, with the empty supermarket shelves. After I was furloughed, I saw a farmer on Instagram who was offering work and off I went for two months because there was food growing there and I knew I’d be able to eat. It was really an amazing place. I kept my mind occupied and my hands busy. I was lucky to be surrounded by nature.

I started thinking about a different food business model that required a minimal amount of staff. I thought about making Flor a food hub where people could get bread, pastries, groceries, as well as order pizzas for delivery and takeout. It didn’t happen, though. We stayed closed. A month and a half later, co-founder James Lowe said ‘Let’s do the pizza idea’, which is when I came back in late May. I felt like New York-style pizza was missing here in London. Personally, I love all kinds of styles, but I have such a fondness for New York-style having lived there for 13 years. The texture of the crust, the stringy cheese quality, the even colour on the crust and selling by the slice. Pizza has always been a passion of mine. I’ve never actually had a whole restaurant dedicated to it, but I’ve done pop-ups and specials.

It’s been a fun test-run. Opening in May, we were late to the lockdown takeaway game. We just had to do everything we could to get open: calling around for help from friends, adjusting suppliers, all the time not knowing how much demand there would be. We’ve reverted back to Flor for the winter. This doesn’t mean Asap Pizza is gone forever, though. We’ll keep it alive through special one-off pizza parties when Flor is closed and try to collaborate with other chefs and winemakers. It’s actually back next Sunday, 1pm until 9pm.

Photograph:
Photograph:
Photograph: Zoe's Ghana Kitchen

The streetfood legend who kept her neighbours fed

When Zoe Adjonyoh, founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, lost her main source of income overnight due to the pandemic, she used it as a chance to help others

When we went into lockdown I was days away from receiving final receipts for payment for events that were due in the next four weeks. My cashflow went to zero and I was fucked: 2020 was supposed to be our most profitable year. With the money I was supposed to earn I was planning to set up an online spice shop, finish my cookbook and launch Black Book, a platform for Bipoc in the food industry, but in the end, Covid sped everything up and I’m working on all those things now. At the time, I had no financial support from the government. I set up a crowdfunder to help cover losses, pay staff and use my kitchen to cook for NHS workers and vulnerable neighbours. I was blown away by the response; asking for help was something I don’t think I could’ve done a year ago. Not only did we feed people, we got people to enjoy their first experience of West African food.

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Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The pasta pro who turned shopkeeper

Head chef Mitshel Ibrahim at Ombra in Hackney turned his Venetian bacaro into an essentials grocery shop selling fresh pasta, vegetables, homemade cold cuts, wines and cook-at-home meal kits

We haven’t closed for a single day since March 18, which was the first official day of lockdown. We don’t want to take too much credit for what we were doing but we were fast and reactive to what was happening. It started with pizza boxes. Right from the start, we were making fresh pasta – like rigatoni and tagliatelle – and doing cold-cut meats for people to buy to eat at home, but we didn’t have any packaging early on, so we started biking it to people in takeaway containers.

Eventually, everything that was on the menu became available to take away. It was a way for us to keep supporting the suppliers and farms that we work with. When there was a flour shortage, we had access to flour. It was great to be able to provide a service and a sort of relief to the community, as opposed to people having to queue for two hours outside Sainsbury’s.

On Easter Sunday, we started to introduce bigger set menus to cook at home and they were such a massive hit. That’s when it started to get a bit too much and we had to rent a Zipcar because we couldn’t cope on bikes alone. Deliveroo? No way. Basically, we were doing all the deliveries ourselves, which meant we could keep more people on the payroll. We could also make sure that the stuff that we were delivering arrived safely because some delivery platforms may not be as careful or thoughtful. Fresh pasta is quite fragile, so some items needed to be handled in certain ways. It was back to proper basics 101. A friend helped me out and we were handing out flyers and posters to people in the parks telling people that we were doing deliveries. Customers would order directly on the website, then chat to us directly via Whatsapp. We’d have like 20 different conversations, which was really time-consuming and inevitable we’d miss stuff out. Our hard work has paid off.

Since reopening for dine-in in July, we have never been busier during all the years that Ombra has existed. I think many people didn’t even know we were here before. We’re thinking of getting a proper online shop now.

Photograph: Bao
Photograph: Bao
Photograph: Bao

The bun pioneer who did a carb switch

Bao’s Erchen Chang realised that the buns they were famous for weren’t going to survive delivery

There’s an award-winning grain of rice we use in all our restaurants that comes from a place called Chi Shang in Taiwan. So we had already had this idea about creating a restaurant with rice as the core product. It never came to anything at the time, but it ended up being the seed that became Rice Error. A lot of inspiration came from Chishang Biandang, the lunch boxes you’ll find all over Taiwan. We decided to fill bamboo boxes with the rice just like the lunchboxes, then top them with flavours from the Bao menus. We’ve been blown away by the response that Rice Error has had. We sell around 1,000 rice boxes weekly and we’ll keep it going for as long as possible.

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Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The Brat cook who started a pie factory

Will Lewis used to work at Brat and St John. When he was put on furlough he decided to get well into pastry

When the official lockdown was announced, Brat sacked the majority of its staff. The next day the government’s 80 percent furlough scheme came in and it was like, ‘You’re all getting jobs back but God knows what’s going to happen.’ I started making homemade pies. I went to the local butcher, seeing if he wanted any help in terms of selling meat or butchery work. He said: ‘I’ll give you a discount on the meat if you give me six pies a week to have in store.’ So I did.

I did the cooking and my best mate Tom did the deliveries. Once I helped out and cycled across town to East Acton to drop off six pies, which is probably not feasible in the long run. Now we’re selling a hundred pies a day. We’re selling out within the hour. We started at 30 pies a week, then it went up to 80 and the demand for it just kept growing, it was crazy. We still deliver by bike.

At the start, it was like Tetris trying to stack my fridge. We just had to accept that there was no food in the house. My oven is a piece of crap from the ’70s. Three of the hobs didn’t even work for a while. There are no recipes, it’s just how I’ve learned how to cook with different flavours. I think of them on the spot, really. At one stage I had 13 chickens on the go. Some were smoking out on the barbecue, some were roasting in the oven and others were poaching. It adds extra ‘oomph’ in a pie The pies are done in a drastic way. Every single one of them is slightly rustic and different. That’s what’s charming about it. They’re all handmade, I make the pastry and filling myself, while my girlfriend Jenny is an absolute tart queen and does all the desserts. Best-selling pie? Bone marrow, definitely. People like having a chunky bone poking out of pastry. They’re just obsessed with it.

Photograph: Jessica Jill Photography
Photograph: Jessica Jill Photography
Photograph: Jessica Jill Photography

The ‘MasterChef’ who finessed fried chicken

12:51 owner James Cochran launched Around the Cluck, a fried-chicken takeaway

When we first went live with delivery it was actually pretty overwhelming and we ran out of chicken! The buttermilk jerk chicken snack we serve at 12:51 is so popular, so it has always been an idea to build a concept around it. Lockdown provided that opportunity. In some ways it was pretty cool: we got to tweak and tailor our recipe to what people liked and didn’t like as we went along. It’s rare you get that. For me, fried chicken is the ultimate comfort food and one that transcends seasons. It’s good with a beer in the summer, but it’s great steaming out of a bag in the winter too. That smell! I’ve grown up with institutions like Morley’s, where I still drop in and have my standard order. For now, we are saying goodbye to Around the Cluck, but have introduced a BYO taster menu. Don’t worry, the fried chicken is still on the menu.

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