The frog prince: Handling on his enormous new Hoxton restaurant

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Adam Handling The Frog Hoxton

Related tags: Adam Handling, Chefs, London, Fine dining

With his new multifaceted Hoxton venue and a high-end hotel project in the offing, Adam Handling has proved he has a restaurant brand with legs. Just don’t mention Covent Garden.

Adam Handling’s new restaurant in Hoxton is so big that it has two postcodes. This might sound like the restaurateur version of a playground insult, but in the case of The Frog Hoxton, the multifaceted venue the chef opened late last month, it is true. 

Not only that, Handling’s latest project – the biggest he’ll ever do, he says – has three separate entrances for each of the venue’s different components. There’s the main one to The Frog restaurant itself, on Hoxton Square (N1 postcode), the double wooden doors to his subterranean bar The Iron Stag on Rufus Street, and then the entrance to Bean & Wheat, his zero-waste coffee shop and deli that is also part of the same building, round the corner on Old Street (EC1 postcode). 

The site, which until recently was a Byron, is something of a find for the chef. He had been looking to relocate his original The Frog E1 restaurant in Shoreditch as well as put a bar in to a new location, so describes being able to move his Bean & Wheat concept in as well, and with its own entrance, as “an amazing coincidence”. Under Byron, the bar below had been empty and the space now taken up by Bean & Wheat most likely used as a staff room (the doors leading to Old Street were blacked out). And yet, it took a bit of soul-searching to take it.

Handling says he was approached last January by the agents but that he wasn’t initially convinced. “Three places on Hoxton Square were up for sale,” he recalls. “I’m thinking, I’m not moving to a restaurant where so many places are for sale on one tiny square. But I looked again and saw how busy it was. If two more good restaurants come in then people that can’t get into one will go to another, and people who have been to one and liked it might try another. Restaurants want to be surrounded by great restaurants.”

Dining-Room

The 60-cover dining room has a modern, stripped-back feel

Second best, not second-best
Make no mistake, Handling wants The Frog Hoxton to be a great restaurant, and the Scottish chef has left nothing to chance. On the ground floor, the 60-cover dining room (with a further 20 seats outside the front) will continue where The Frog E1 left off, serving the casual fine dining style of food for which he has built a name over the past few years. The room is understated and informal in feel, but with statement walls continuing the graffiti theme that began in Shoreditch, and a large open kitchen providing clear views of the chefs at work.

Downstairs at the Scots-themed Iron Stag, he’s brought in the expertise of award-winning bartenders Rich Woods and Matt Whiley (aka The Talented Mr Fox) to create a whisky-led drinks menu to complement a separate bar food menu. The 120-cover venue features booths where cocktails on tap can be served by the customer themselves and there’s also a stage for a live jazz band.

As well as offering à la carte and tasting menus, Hoxton has a focus on large sharing plates, created with the east London crowd in mind who, according to Handling, “don’t care for poncified stuff”. These include whole monkfish with a curry emulsion and a dish called ‘respect of lamb’ – a whole lamb served on a platter in different ways, including the shoulder broken down into shepherd’s pie, popcorn made from sweetbreads, and crispy lamb belly.

At Iron Stag, a snacks menu provides a little insight into what is served upstairs, but then there’s also the ‘fat bastard’ section – a tongue-in-cheek nod to the morbidly obese Scottish henchman from Austin Powers – where everything is fried and served on brioche buns, including chicken, a pulled lamb fritter with harissa, and mac n cheese. There’s also one dessert: a deep-fried Mars bar with soft serve honeycomb ice cream and salted peanuts described as a “heart attack on a plate”.

Iron-Stag-Sign

Stag do: The Frog Hoxton has a large subterranean bar

Making his mark
Fans of Handling up until now might be quite surprised by the latter menu. Not only is the Scotsman not known for his humour, he has hitherto distanced himself from any Celtic slant in his restaurants, both in design and cuisine. The Frog’s food is typically modern British with European and Asian influences, with not even a cursory glance to the motherland, and yet at Iron Stag the whisky and fried food has been unleashed. So what’s going on?

It’s because with Hoxton Handling is opening his own restaurant, he says. While both Shoreditch and his second venture, in Covent Garden, were only possible with the aid of investors and were created with the help of many various teams, this is his baby, using his money and his own creative input.

“This site is mine. I own the company, it is not run by investors. I’m the CEO, the director and the biggest shareholder. Adam Handling Ltd is owned by Adam Handling.”

“I’ve designed everything myself,” he adds, proudly pointing to the striking art he has had commissioned for Iron Stag – including a picture of Margaret Thatcher, chosen, he says, just to be provocative in east London. “I picked the wall colours, the furniture; nothing was done without my say so. I always say be true to yourself – this is the true interpretation of Adam Handling. It has taken me three years to be able to finally say this is home.”

For the personal cocktail taps, where customers pick a draught cocktail and can then serve themselves at the table, Handling even sacrificed his holiday this year. “We had no money to do it, my board told me we wouldn’t be doing them. So I used my own personal money to do it. My holiday paid for these taps.”

A leap of faith
To understand how a 29-year-old chef has the means to open his own restaurant in Hoxton without too much reliance on shareholders, you need to go back to May 2016, when he was still working at Adam Handling at Caxton in Westminster’s St Ermin’s Hotel. Despite having his name above the door, Handling says he was effectively pushed out of the restaurant when the owners wanted to change the style of the restaurant. Choosing the latter, Handling immediately handed in his resignation and was forced to expedite his plans to launch his own restaurant. “Out of my 27 staff I told them I could only take five with me,” he recalls. “I was heartbroken.”

The original plan, he says, was to open a restaurant serving “chilled out as hell food” but the episode left such a bad taste in his mouth that an entirely new concept was spawned.
This turned out to be The Frog, which Handling decided to open in Shoreditch “to get away from rich people”.

So why The Frog? A friend of his, who worked at design agency Fat Punk Studio, came up with a logo based on his current situation. The amphibian represents the chef’s leap across London, with the graffiti symbolising the move from a posh postcode to somewhere a bit more edgy. He was impressed. “Now our motto is ‘because every journey starts with a leap,’” he says.

Funding for the restaurant was surprisingly straightforward. While still at St Ermin’s, he cooked a meal for a pair of businessmen who had previously expressed interest in investing in him. The meal went well, and the next day one of them fired over an email asking to see Handling’s business plan. “He looked at it and told me it was shit, but he still said he’d do me a deal,” he says.

Smoked-Mussel-Red-Onion-Herbs

Sending smoke signals: Mussels with red onion and herbs

The pair both invested £150,000 each, with Handling settling on a site in the Old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch to launch The Frog just a few months after leaving St Ermin’s. Slightly rough around the edges, things were kept simple at the 68-cover restaurant, which Handling says was always going to be a temporary venue. If Shoreditch was a test, he passed with flying colours. “It was forecasted to make £800,000 in its first year, but it made £1.4m. That’s when [Seers] said ‘now I’ll be one of your investors’.”

Trouble in the Garden
A year on and with the backing of his investors, Handling opened his flagship restaurant in Covent Garden in summer 2017. Called Frog by Adam Handling, the two-storey restaurant was part of the business plan of opening five restaurants in five years that was required by his investors if they were to stump up the cash.

Looking westwards for a more salubrious venue for a signature restaurant, he says he fell in love with the building, which now houses a 40-cover restaurant upstairs and a 20-cover PDR below, as well as a downstairs cocktail bar with space for 100 people called Eve. It’s a beautiful space – with the PDR having its own open kitchen – and successful too, with Handling saying it is full every night. So when discussing it, his response is nothing short of shocking.

“If I could blow that building up I would. It was the worst experience of my goddam fucking life. If I could go back and do things again, I would not open Covent Garden.”

This needs unpicking. The issue, it turns out, is with the architects on the project, who Handling holds to account for its problems (he is currently in arbitration with them). “It was never supposed to be the way it was,” he says. “It was supposed to be exactly the same as Shoreditch, with a 70-seater restaurant upstairs, but we had to change the design. I was in tears in the middle of the first service and I locked myself in the disabled toilet after having had two hours sleep.”

On the very first day of Covent Garden he says he had to sleep in the restaurant because he didn’t have the keys to the front door. “The building was phenomenal, I’ll go where the buildings are lovely, but that restaurant broke me. Don’t get me wrong – when you’re sitting as a customer and eating the food it’s perfect, but for the chefs it’s horrible. I hate it big time.”

Keeping control
There was a key takeaway that Handling got from the Covent Garden episode: control. This is why The Frog Hoxton is his in many ways – in design but also financially. He has pumped a lot of the restaurant’s earnings back into the business, giving him a solid financial basis on which to open. Yes, he still has shareholders, and yes he still leans on his investors for money, but not at the expense of giving away equity.

He describes the investment he received for Covent Garden as “quite a lot” but says Hoxton is very different. “Every time we are in the shit and need a cash injection, instead of having to sell shares and get more and more diluted, [my investors] say ‘here’s £50,000, we want it back in two months’ time’. I am so lucky to have a board like that.

“I don’t have a car or expensive tastes so everything I have I put back in. And the more I do, the less I have to give away. Three years down the line all my shareholders will be bought out and it will be mine.”

A zero tolerance to waste
Handling also has strict control over the operational side of things, particularly in the kitchen. And woe betide anyone who doesn’t meet his exacting – some might argue draconian – standards. Take his zero waste policy, which extends beyond just launching Bean & Wheat, where food is served made from offcuts and by-products not used in his restaurants. In Handling’s kitchens, chefs waste nothing. Period.

“When you’re using your own money there’s nothing to fall back on. We’re using whole animals and our zero waste policy came in not because I’m trying to save the world but because I want to keep the restaurant afloat. It’s a respect thing. It’s silly the amount of food that gets chucked out in kitchens,” says the chef, who trained as an apprentice at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland before working at Malmaison Hotel in Newcastle and then returning to Scotland to become the Fairmont group’s youngest ever head chef at the Fairmont St Andrews.

He rules with an iron rod on this issue. If a waiter drops a glass because they are being careless, they pay for the breakage out of their own pocket. Likewise for a chef who ruins a dish because they are not concentrating.

“If you make a chocolate mousse, it’s a 3kg bag of chocolate. If you split or burn your mousse because you’re not paying attention, or because I caught you on your phone, you’ll pay for a whole fucking bag of chocolate, not just the kilo you threw in the bin. Why should I pay for the stuff you throw away because you’re lazy, you’re stupid or because you were silly? This is exactly how I was trained. How much do your respect us as a group if you’re just chucking stuff in the bin?”

How does that go down? “I don’t waste very much any more,” he says with a grin. He is also outspoken on what he describes as the poor skills level of many young chefs looking for work. “The industry these days is becoming far too soft. It’s bad to shout at somebody now. I’m not saying grab them by the throat like how I was trained, but there is too much pussyfooting around.

“Most young chefs coming through the doors want to be like you without working and their skill level is appalling – cutting on the wrong board or not ironing their chefs whites. Have some respect for yourself. I won’t tolerate any of that bullshit unless they have a massive smile and they clearly haven’t been taught and so know no different, then that is acceptable. When they don’t give a fuck they are out – I’ll fire people immediately.”

With such an approach, you’d think Handling might struggle to find and keep staff, particularly in a time of well-documented staff shortages. Yet it is the opposite, with the chef saying he gets around 10 CVs a day from prospective chefs. All but one of the remaining kitchen brigade at St Ermin’s moved over to Covent Garden – the one who didn’t moved back to Scotland with her boyfriend – and all the front of house staff who came with him from the hotel are still with him today.

Posh-Baked-Potato

Rich man, poor man: Posh baked potato with caviar 

“People that get in the shit for staff bubble wrap everybody. They say ‘yes you can have another day off’, or ‘yes put it in the bin, don’t worry, we can make it better’. People think they’ve got their boss by the balls and they can get another pound an hour out of them. Get them out, do the job yourself like a proper chef should do, prove that you don’t need people dragging you down and then you inspire the people around you. Then they want to inspire everybody else.”

Those loyal to Handling can expect the same in kind. Senior staff, as well as those who helped him launch The Frog E1, are given a shareholding, and the chef will encourage them to realise that investment for themselves. “Chefs who work with me for five years can use their shareholding. I will double it and they can use it to open their own place. It’s not an investment for equity but a loan. I want them to run their own business.”

A return to hotels
Given the control thing, and the manner in which he moved away from hotels, Handling’s next project seems to be an opening of old wounds. As executive chef at Belmond Cadogan Hotel, due to open in Chelsea this December, not only is he making a return to the hotel world but he will also once again be serving the ‘posh people’ he made the leap to Shoreditch to avoid.

It’s a point not lost on him. “I wasn’t easily persuaded. I went a few times and moaned about things,” he says. “I thought it could be fun but I fucking hated hotels.”
Cadogan’s plans for the 54-room hotel, and the fact it wanted a restaurant operator to run all F&B, eventually swung it for him. He will oversee the food and drink at the main restaurant and the Bar and Terrace, as well as the Tea Lounge, which will serve a specially crafted tea service. The food, he says, will be like The Frog’s but on finer china – and there will likely be less graffiti in the restaurant design.

Raymond Blanc was rumoured to have been linked to the project in its early days, and Handling is more than happy to take it on. He’s set to announce a big name chef in the kitchen – which we aren’t yet allowed to reveal – with the team developing dishes on site from September.

The hotel brings Handling’s portfolio to three, so can we expect two more restaurants from him in the next two years? The answer is no, with the expected revenue from the three equating to the projected revenue that five would have generated. In two years’ time he does intend to do one last project, but that might be it. “I need a few years to pay my debts and shareholders off. There’s a route people who open restaurants too quickly go down –people like creativity and individuality but when you’re opening up restaurants left, right and centre your eyes are no longer on the customer. I will never fucking do that.”

Wise words from a chef turned restaurateur who only entered the industry to avoid university, against his mother’s wishes. By way of compromise, she told him to get an apprenticeship “somewhere decent”. What job might he now be doing had it not worked out?

“Having the motivation so that my mother couldn’t say ‘I told you so’ means I probably would never have failed. My whole inspiration is to never let people down. If I’d done a mechanic apprenticeship I can guarantee I’d be doing very well at that now. Give me the road to be on and I will run down that motherfucker.”

This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the June 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​​​. 

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