Let’s start at the beginning. Why open a Caribbean restaurant of this style?
My wife's [Michelle] parents are from Jamaica, and we’ve been travelling there for many years. I love the culture, the food, the vibe, the energy, the drinks. But when we got back to the UK, we never felt that there was a 'whole package', that would remind us of the energy of Jamaica.
For us it was about personal connection, but also reflecting the way that people tend to eat these days, with sharing plates and that sort of style. We also play music fairly loud, to keep it high energy, and there’s an open-plan jerk kitchen, with a traditional charcoal drum, that’s reminiscent of the outdoor 'jerk centres' in Jamaica. We’re trying to recreate that, but obviously in an environment that is conducive to London and the weather and culture we have here.
What would you say are the main differences between Caribbean food, and Jamaican specifically?
All the islands have their specialities. Jerk is quintessentially Jamaican, and there are also certain dishes such as ackee and saltfish, which is very Jamaican dish. Every island differs slightly. For us, it’s a bit like saying it's an Italian restaurant versus a Mediterranean restaurant. These days, people are seeking even more specific regional food than just a country ‒ such as Venetian rather than Italian. So we're focusing on what we can research and perfect best.
It is known for being a bold, spicy cuisine. Do you ever need to adapt it to the UK audience?
We never dumb anything down, but our menu is quite diverse. If you want spice, we have certain dishes that will be quite fiery. Peppered shrimp for example is a typical dish that is marinated in scotch bonnet for 24 hours.We use king prawns, and a sauce that will make most people gasp for air, but it's so tasty and moreish. We also have dishes that aren't really spicy at all; and offer sauces people can choose according to personal preference. I think that there is this misconception that every dish is fiery, but in fact, jerk in Jamaica, is generally quite mild. It’s the sauces that can be fiery.
How do you think the perception of Caribbean food in the UK has changed in the past few years?
I would say it has become much more mainstream. Leading the pack is Turtle Bay, which now has sites across the UK. That is proving that there is appetite for Caribbean food. I think in London there has also been quite exciting development happening over the past few years, with more interesting, trendy, cool, hip places popping up. Obviously, we like to think that Rudie's is one of those!
You've got a new head chef – Vernon Samuels - who has cooked in some impressive restaurants in the UK [including across Michelin-starred restaurants and D&D London sites such as Quaglino’s]. Would you agree that shows that the perception that Jamaican food is changing?
Obviously, the pool for getting good Caribbean chefs over here can be quite limited, but we have recently taken Vernon on board, and he is effectively a two-Michelin-star-trained chef, with a long career. He's UK-born and raised, but his parents are Jamaican. His mother is a great home cook, and he's basically learned Caribbean-Jamaican food cooking from her. When I met him, I realised straight away that he had technical ability, but also had a passion. At Rudie's we want food that has got the soul and tradition of home cooking, but elevated to a much more interesting format and standard.
What does that mean for the actual dishes?
A combination of things. Our ethos is that the flavours must be reminiscent of what you would expect to eat in a traditional home in Jamaica, using real fresh authentic ingredients. In terms of presentation, where possible we try to push the boundaries. For example, we're in the process of updating our menu for February, and at a recent tasting there was an ackee and saltfish dish, where it's wrapped in pastry in the shape of a cigar. So it looks like a large spring roll, but you cut into it and realise immediately it's ackee and saltfish. We have traditional calamari, but with jerk spices, and polenta - an Italian influence - which makes it crispy rather than greasy.
We also have goat cutlets. Goat is very popular in Jamaica, but people generally eat curried goat, which is very traditional. But our cutlets are served with yam chips, and callaloo [a spinach-like Jamaican vegetable].
So you're taking the traditional elements of the recipes and putting a refined twist on them?
Absolutely. It's like any cuisine - it's always evolving. You always have the traditional classics, and if we do them - say, curried goat - we don't play around with them. But then, at the same time, you can take the ingredients that are synonymous with the island, and bring in European influences and serve them in a way that people can share.
Do you source ingredients from Jamaica, or are you able to source everything closer to the UK and London?
We do have suppliers who specialise in Caribbean ingredients, and can often get hold of some very exotic ingredients, which was a good surprise for us. We try to use fresh ingredients as much as possible, but ackee and callaloo are difficult to get here. Sometimes, rather than using tinned callaloo, we’ll use kale, and the texture and the taste is virtually the same. We don't pretend that we're serving something else, but we’ll give it a bit of a twist.
Cocktails are also a key part of Rudie’s. What is it about them that makes them so important?
Rum is synonymous with the Caribbean, and each island has its own rums and takes real pride in it. There's a lot of history there. Jamaica has some of the oldest rums, and we like to think that we have one of the largest collections in London at the moment. It’s sweet, so it balances the spice and the jerk, and each of our drinks tells a story of Jamaican history, starting with 1495, with the arrival of Columbus, and then a Negroni that combines Jamaican elements with influences from the Italian explorers in the Caribbean.
Your immediate plans are to create a new bar and extended kitchen in your basement, and then to expand to a second site, right?
Yes, we are planning to increase our capacity. Currently we have 50-60 seats, but in our busy periods, we've never been able to accommodate everyone. So, we are about to start work, to get an expanded kitchen, and an extended capacity bar. That should be open before Easter, and will give us an extra 20-30 covers, which is pretty significant, and also allow us to do private parties and events too.
You're also hoping to open a new site in London Bridge?
Yes. We're waiting to hear a decision from Network Rail at London Bridge station. I think London Bridge and the Borough Market area has gone through amazing transformation in the past 10 years, and there are some incredible food concepts there. We think that it will open us up to daytime trade too, as in Dalston it's very much focused on evening and weekend, whereas London Bridge, potentially will be much more about lunch and after-work time. It’ll be great exposure for us.
Are you hoping to expand further? How many sites would you like in an ideal world?
We’ve also been getting information about Peckham, Shepherd's Bush, King's Cross, Tooting, Balham, Camden, Kentish Town…We're 18 months into the experience [since opening in Dalston], and we think the cuisine and the format could be rolled out quite easily. We get people coming from far across London asking when we're going to open somewhere closer to them. We think it's scalable. We'd love to have a few scattered across London, but we don't have a number in mind as such. I think it's about finding the right sites and demographic.
Would you consider outside of London?
Perhaps; I wouldn't say it's just a London concept. Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol; there are big centres there right now. I think we will certainly consider in future if we're in a position to do so, but the moment, we know London.
Where does your funding for this come from, is it organic or is it from an outside backer?
We are currently in the process of hopefully closing a deal with some investors. That will allow us to do the expansion that we talked about, our current work, and our next site. It's private investment.
What's your own background, you're haven’t been traditionally working in restaurants…?
My background is in property project management. At one point I wanted to be a chef, and I still am a keen cook, and it's always been a passion. Now, combining what I've experienced in Jamaica, and being able to do a restaurant; that was the dream and that's how I've gone into it. It's where my real passion is - the food, the culture, the music.
You also offer delivery, which is a growing sector in the restaurant scene right now. Do you think that restaurants have to offer delivery to stay competitive?
Absolutely. It is probably one of the biggest revolutions happening right now. Six months in we decided to give delivery a try, and almost immediately, it just took off. We aren't even able to keep up with it, and that's why we're looking to expand our kitchen. I would say over 25% of our sales is through delivery, and there is scope to do more. We're not against the idea of opening a lock-up kitchen without a public-facing high-street restaurant, to increase the range of where we can deliver. Delivery is a fundamental gamechanger.
Will the delivery growth affect your restaurant plans?
There is the question of whether people will not come to the restaurant if they can get delivery, and we were surprised at how popular it was becoming. But delivery will never be able to replace good restaurants. If you order Rudie's jerk chicken, it will be nice and good, but if you come to Rudie's and have the jerk chicken, you're also getting the energy. That social element will always be there. It’s all about the real Jamaican smell and the noise and the music and vibe.