Native's Ivan Tisdall-Downes: "We've always been ‘zero-waste’, we just didn’t shout about it"

By Georgia Bronte contact

- Last updated on GMT

"We've always been ‘zero-waste’...we just didn’t shout about it": Ivan Tisdall-Downes on the relaunch of Native
Much-loved foraging-focused restaurant Native recently relocated from Neal’s Yard to London Bridge following council issues. BigHospitality spoke to co-founder Ivan Tisdall-Downes about the new site, his plans for the future, and why sustainability has always been at the core of his business.

What’s your background?
I'm completely self-taught as a chef. I taught myself by watching food programmes, so you could say Jamie Oliver taught me how to cook. I thought it was the best education you can get, watching YouTube and reading all the books.

How did you get into foraging?
I grew up in London and knew nothing about food aside from turkey twizzlers and Quavers. My parents moved out of London to the countryside, so I spent holidays with them there and started picking berries, starting with blackberries. Then I went on to sloe berries, hawthorn berries, wild garlic, and my interest evolved from there. It began as a way to entertain myself, and I was a student and couldn’t afford exciting produce to cook with until I realised I could go out and pick it for free.

How did you get into cooking as a business?
I started off in street food, testing the concept of Native and playing with flavours. I was lucky enough to secure a stage at River Cottage, which was amazing. I lived on the farm, and would walk across the courtyard straight into the kitchen each day. That’s where I learned about flavours and eating things at the height of the season when they’re at their best. When I create dishes now they always hark back to the memories of that.

Why did Native close?
To cut a long story short, Camden Council decided that there were too many restaurants in Covent Garden, for some reason. They wouldn't grant us a permanent restaurant license- or at least, that's what we were told. It’s the centre of London, so it was quite mad to say that there were too many restaurants, especially as we were just 30 seats. I could touch the two walls of the kitchen it was so small, and we were causing no trouble at all.  The council made an example of us, because we were an easy target. 

Had you had trouble with the council?
We did have a tough time with them from the start. We had an hour long licensing hearing to get our alcohol licence, which is make-or-break for your first restaurant. The businesses before and after us were in there for five minutes, but we were in there for an hour. They took us to the cleaners. I think that we were an easy target because we didn’t and still don’t have any big backers. Luckily, it all had a happy ending. 

How do you feel about leaving the site?
For us, it did its job. It was our first restaurant and it was the perfect size for us. Our food isn't mass produced, it's foraged and you can't do 200 covers on the supply we were doing. It got us the following we have now. 

How have you learned to manage a larger restaurant?
I jumped on a plane and went to Blue Hill Farm in the States. Because we planned to open a bigger site than at Neal’s Yard, I knew that I needed to learn how to run a larger kitchen with a bigger brigade. It taught me how to interact with the diners and give them an experience instead of just being a place that serves food. 

How are you finding the new restaurant?
It is double the covers. With supply, we used to get deliveries in daily, but now we get a whole cow in and butcher it ourselves to make it last longer. We take whole deer and cows now, which we couldn’t do before. We always wanted to work like this because it really is the most sustainable way. 

Would you expand in London?
It would be tricky to manage what we do with more than one site. With our foraging, there are some ingredients we have to make sure we get to before the birds do. Sometimes, a deer hasn’t been shot so we can’t serve it.

Would you expand elsewhere?
Our plan is to keep a ‘Native in the City’, but then also have a farm out in the countryside where we can rear and grow our own produce and have a smaller restaurant out there. We could call it Native in the Countryside. I really want to have a bakery too, because that’s one of my passions. Under the Native brand we could have a few more places, but they wouldn’t be rolled out as such. We would never sacrifice our ethos or beliefs. We are dictated by the land.

So you’re passionate about sustainability…
For us it's not a trend, it's a way of life and it is how our restaurant has always run. We've always been ‘zero-waste’, we just didn’t shout about it.

Why did you start out with that ethos?
I did a business degree and I came to the industry with a different point of view to a lot of chefs. Using every part of the vegetable and animal makes business sense for a start, but also when you forage something yourself or know the supplier and have seen the farm, it's natural to want to do as much as you can with it out of respect for the produce. 

What about your business partner?
Imogen [Davies] is a falconer. We're like town mouse and country mouse. She grew up in the countryside and her family business is falconry. Her dad would bring roadkill home for the family to eat and she grew up eating fruit from the hedgerows. She taught me the foraging life, and the country life.

How do you implement that at Native?
We do Zero Waste Snacks, where all the chefs take turns going through the fridge. The chef create their own snacks, because it’s not a dictatorship here and we all work together on the menu. At the moment we've got courgette stalks on the menu, which a lot of people don’t know you can eat. We use the leaves, stalks and flowers. I borrowed that idea from Blue Hill Farm. 

Does that translate into the offering at Native?
Imogen flies a falcon to scare away the pigeons on her parents’ land as a form of an environmentally friendly pest control. In previous times, falcons would have been used to catch game, which features heavily on our menu. We haven’t served a hawk-caught a pigeon yet but maybe one day…

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