How did you form such an impressive team? (it includes Bad Sports owner Liam Davy, Max and Noel Venning of Dalston cocktail bar Three Sheets, Guardian wine critic Fiona Beckett. and former Noble Rot sommelier Lucy Ward)
Without being too much of an ass, I know a lot of people in the industry, and I canvassed opinion and drew on contacts to find my dream team. Liam is obviously ex Hawksmoor, Colin I know from Meatopia, and Fiona has been a friend since we wrote the first Hawksmoor At Home Cookbook together in 2010.
Why open in a hotel?
Hotels are waking up to the fact that diners tastes have changed and evolved, and a more casual approach is favoured. I’ve known and admired the Ong family (the hotel’s owners) for some time and stayed in their hotels so when I was approached to create Gridiron I jumped at the chance. I’ve been working on it for two and a half years. We were initially considering doing it in Bangkok (where COMO also has a hotel) but we chose London as I could focus on it a bit more. When it works we will then do it in Bangkok.
Why the long gestation period?
The Ong family is incredibly busy (it also owns Mulberry) and the project fell by the wayside. I had to open a few more Hawksmoors in the meantime.
How does it differ from the other businesses you’re involved in?
We try not to compete - the brief for Blacklock is that we’ve got to be different to Hawksmoor. It has a lower spend for a start. If it does feel too similar we rein it back in. PittCue is completely different and Gridiron is different again - it is more fine dining and a little bit fancy. It’s a bit more refined because of Colin. His CV is pretty serious - he’s worked for Heston Blumenthal and Angela Hartnett - so we meet in the middle. Gridiron is a product of 15 years of live fire cookery but it is very much about Colin's style, training and technique with a little guidance and restraint from me.
What is behind the popularity of live fire cooking?
The flavour of grilled meat, fish and vegetables is unique and addictive because of complex Maillard reactions occurring as ingredients hit a hot grill combined with the juices hitting the charcoal. When fats and juices drip on to the hot charcoal, they combust into smoke and flame and rise to coat the ingredients in a mixture of aromatic flavour compounds. Maillard is the chemical reaction that occurs when meat and fish is browned and is one of the main reasons why grilled and roasted meat and fish tastes so delicious. There are two types of live fire cooking: one involves grilling the food close to hot charcoal to caramelise and give smoky tinge, the other low-and-slow smoking.
How do you feel about other London restaurants adopting the style of cooking you’ve championed?
I’m very pleased it has come of age. It’s a spark that I started 15 years ago and now chefs such as Andrew Clarke and Jackson Boxer [at St Leonards] are embracing it. But the cooking style is 1,000 years old, it’s not new. I’m glad it has made its way into London restaurants - the Spanish were cooking this way when I was a boy but I have led a resurgence of it in London.
How should chefs approach cooking in this way?
It’s about managing heat - there’s no cooking dial of one to 10. You need to feel the heat. It’s like a Jedi ninja approach to cooking. It takes a lot of practice. Without wanting to sound naff, people like Tomos [Parry, of Brat] and Andrew [Clarke] are at one with the heat source. It’s really difficult to start with but over time it becomes instinctive.
Is the Mayfair dining scene changing – how does this style of restaurant fit with this?
In truth I haven’t eaten out in Mayfair very much, it’s not my manor, but with the team we have involved I have no doubt we’ll be bringing something different to the area. The whole dining scene in London has changed beyond recognition, simpler more ingredients led food is on the up, and complex cheffy cooking is on the wane. And any restaurant without cocktails is missing something.
What’s going to be on the menu?
Dishes on the launch menu include wood roast scallops with bone marrow XO; smoked eel with braised shin of beef; roast turbot with chicken salt and butter; roast red mullet with gentleman’s relish; and salt-baked celeriac with wild mushroom and brown butter crumb. It will evolve; after Christmas it will be totally different, and in a year’s time the menu will have changed a lot. I’ll also be serving a burger - the greatest dish known to man - but it won’t be on the menu.
Gridiron opens in the COMO hotel London at the start of November