The front runner in Brighton and Hove’s race to win a Michelin star isn’t a chef who’s appeared on Great British Menu or Masterchef: The Professionals. Nor is it an eco-warrior who’s stolen headlines with his zero-waste restaurant and, more recently, landed himself in hot water for proclaiming the city is not ready for his progressive food.
In fact, unless you’re familiar with Brighton and Hove’s restaurant scene you probably haven’t heard of Duncan Ray and The Little Fish Market, although the 40-year-old must have the city’s most impressive cheffing CV. He has worked under Marco Pierre White, John Burton Race, Martin Blunos and – most notably – cooked for four years at The Fat Duck during the period the Bray restaurant evolved from a basic bistro to a boundary-pushing, globally recognised establishment.
In Ray’s tiny basement kitchen in Hove, a young Pierre White – gaunt, fag-in-mouth, iconic – looks down at his former employee from an old cover of Observer Food Monthly sellotaped to the ventilation ducting. To its left is a quote from Nico Ladenis scrawled on a piece of now tatty notepaper – ‘precision, simplicity, restraint… and a good sauce’.
Though it would serve any chef well, this advice is especially apt for Ray, who until recently worked solo in his kitchen. Last year he splashed out and employed a kitchen porter, bringing The Little Fish Market’s total number of staff up to three. The third member of Ray’s team is restaurant manager and Ben Whishaw lookalike Rob Smith, whose casual yet personable service style has contributed much to the backstreet fish restaurant’s stellar reputation.
A one-man band
Despite this recent HR extravagance, Ray remains one of a handful of high-reaching British chefs to cook virtually unaided. Other notable soloists include Berkshire chef Simon Bonwick and Shuan Hill when he was at Ludlow’s Merchant House. Ray reveals – somewhat reluctantly – that he managed to get The Little Fish Market off the ground for the grand total of £100. Upon arriving in the city he spotted a Gumtree post for a chef to take on a small restaurant in Hove with no capital required.
“The place was a mess. A couple had opened it as a hybrid between a fishmongers and coffee and cake shop. They had three tiny tables covered in green vinyl next to the fish counter,” Ray recalls. “Needless to say it wasn’t doing very well and to make matters worse their relationship had just ended.”
The pair gave him the first week rent-free and Ray used his takings to pay for the second. If that sounds a bit fishy it’s because it was. The pair were subletting The Little Fish Market to Ray and were rumbled when the landlord arrived unannounced and asked the new chef if he could see the owners.
“I said they didn’t work here anymore. Then I asked him who he was and he said ‘the landlord, who are you?’. I was like ‘oh, shit’,” says Ray, who now rents the building directly from the landlord.
Begged, borrowed and stolen
Everything in the restaurant was – and to some extent still is – begged, borrowed and stolen. Ray bought his chairs from a defunct banqueting operation and reupholstered them using fabric from a old pair of Ikea curtains. Many of the fixtures and fittings have been fashioned from reclaimed wood that Ray acquired for virtually nothing and he re-tiled parts of the restaurant’s floor himself using grout that he found on the street.
But the thrift on display in the dining room is nothing compared to Little Fish Market’s subterranean kitchen. That Ray can produce such high quality food here is nothing short of miraculous.
There is a single prep area that doubles as a pass and the lid of the flour bin becomes a canapé station during service. His main fridge broke some three years ago but it’s too big to get up the stairs (how it was negotiated down there in the first place remains a mystery) so he smashed the door off it with a sledge hammer and now uses it to store his battered assortment of pots and pans.
Though he recently splashed out on a salamander grill, Ray’s main heat source remains a domestic Zanussi electric cooker with a halogen hob. “Some chefs spend £25,000 on stove, I think mine was £250. It’s totally fine for what I do in here. It heats up and cools down instantly, which is good because the kitchen gets very hot during service.” Ray even plans to buy exactly the same model when it eventually gives up the ghost.
There is no dishwasher or combi-oven. Even if there was room – which there isn’t – the building would not have enough power to run them. “We don’t have three phase. All the lights are LED, if we draw too much power everything goes off. Our plumbing is domestic too, so we need to be very careful when we drain the sinks,” says Ray, who likens his precarious kitchen setup to that of the early days of The Fat Duck.
“Everything was held together with string there too. It’s funny to think because it’s now one of the word’s most high-tech, well-equipped kitchens.”
One day Ray will refit his kitchen, but he says he’s very well aware of how volatile the restaurant industry is. “I don’t want to risk the restaurant and my family’s future just to make my working environment a bit nicer.”
Setting out solo
Ray had the idea for The Little Fish Market well before he saw the site. “I wanted to create a restaurant where the chef was always there. I don’t like it when the quality of food varies according to who is working. It’s not fair to the customer. I knew that I wanted to cook on my own.”
So although he certainly has the name for it, Ray became a fish specialist out of necessity rather than a love for the product. “Don’t get me wrong. I like working with fish but I also like working with meat,” he says. “Fish lends itself to running a kitchen solo because it cooks quickly. If I was cooking mostly with meat I’d spend the whole time with my head in the oven.”
The restaurant was a success from day one, but its popularity proved difficult to manage. Would be walk-ins could not get their heads around the fact that the restaurant – which is located on an attractive side street just off Western Road close to the Brighton-Hove border – could be close to empty, but could not seat any more diners.
“In the early days we only accepted one table every half an hour,” says Smith, who started at the restaurant in early 2013 a few months after it opened. “At 7pm we’d have one table in and people would try and sit down. When we tried to explain that the restaurant was run by just two people and that we could only handle a small amount of diners at once they just didn’t get it. My role was one part waiter, one part riot control. People have got more used to it now.”
Ray eased Brighton and Hove in gradually, starting with a low-cost à la carte menu comprised of accessible dishes. “It was basic stuff cooked well, a take on fish and chips, mackerel salad, that sort of thing,” he says. “But offering 4-4-4 à la carte was a nightmare. When you’re cooking on your own and a table of four orders one of each dish it’s carnage.”
A tasting menu was introduced three years ago but initially had to be offered alongside à la carte, which made Ray’s life even more difficult. “There was smoke coming off my heels. I was binning food. It was totally unworkable,” he says, still clearly traumatised by the six months the two menus were offered concurrently.
Once the pair hit a split of 70/30 in favour of tasting menu they took the decision to go tasting-menu-only. “It’s was always where I wanted to be,” says Ray. “But if I’d opened it as a tasting-menu-only restaurant from the off I would have gone bust, no question. At the time there was barely anyone in Brighton offering a tasting menu and certainly nobody that was tasting menu only.”
“It was a tricky period,” interjects Smith. “We lost all of our à la carte customers overnight. Some people love the idea of being able to walk into a restaurant and put the menu in the restaurant’s hand. Others don’t like being told what to eat. It took us a year to get the 30% back and it was all new customers.”
A little known establishment
Part of the reasons you probably haven’t heard of Ray is that Little Fish Market has never done any PR. The tiny venue would struggle to afford one, but it’s not just about cash. “PR has the potential to bring in the wrong kind of customers. If we get covered in more mainstream publications we get a load of people coming in that can’t fathom out a restaurant run by two people that serves ‘tiny portions’ and doesn’t do sides. We find simple word of mouth works best,” says Smith.
“We want the business to grow organically. We want it to be real. There are moments when I look at the coverage the city’s other chefs are getting and I feel frustrated. But then I take a step back and think ‘they’ve had to pay a lot for that’,” adds Ray.
The Little Fish Market’s limited opening hours – evenings-only from Tuesday through to Saturday – means it can only seat a maximum of 100 diners a week anyway (the restaurant is currently averaging a healthy 87).
Smith has now changed the way tables are staggered to create a better atmosphere at the beginning of the night. “We used to have a big problem with customers turning up for their booking, seeing the restaurant was empty and wandering off for a drink. We now split service into three one-hour blocks, seating around six covers per hour,” says Smith, whose constant presence is one of The Little Fish Market’s USPs – how many restaurants can guarantee that you’ll be served by the same person no matter when you come?
“I look at the restaurant as my front room,” says Ray. “A lot of restaurants have a ‘get ’em in, get ’em out’ mentality. What we have is something more personal.”
A whizz bang-free zone
A former The Fat Duck chef offering only a tasting menu would lead most to assume that The Little Fish Market was big on modern technique. But Ray doesn’t do whizzbang, in fact his most eyebrow-rising technique is using his aforementioned Zanussi cooker as a makeshift plancha, cooking some ingredients directly on its halogen hob.
“There is the odd thing I use from those days but I’m a very traditional chef at heart.” Dishes on the current five-course, £65 tasting menu include cockle and bacon soup; and turbot partnered with a rich shellfish sauce.
Ray remembers the day The Fat Duck became the first UK restaurant to experiment with a waterbath. “We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. At first we used it to poach ingredients in stock without using a bag. It was a nightmare but we could tell we were on to something. In terms of fish cookery, waterbaths are great if you have junior staff but I don’t need one because I cook everything myself and can get better results on the stove or in the oven.”
Working on your own is not for everybody, but those of the right temperament have one big, and rather obvious, advantage over traditional brigades: consistency. It is more often than not the magic ingredient for Michelin, so it could be argued that Ray’s decision to work alone gives him the edge over his peers.
“I’ve spent my life working in Michelin-starred restaurants. Of course I’d love to be the first chef in the city to win a Michelin star,” says Ray, who is understandably cautious when talking about the little red book. “It is one of my goals. I do cook around that level and I believe we are in with shout. But the reason I don’t currently have a star here is because we’re not good enough at the moment.”
Brighton and Hove has not had a Michelin-starred restaurant since the early 1980s when Kemptown’s Le Francais closed. Could Ray’s low-key establishment be the one to finally bring one home?
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the December issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.