Quite a lot has changed for James Knappett since I first met him at his restaurant, Kitchen Table in Fitzrovia, at the end of 2016. That day, a clean shaven Knappett prepped with his brigade while we talked shop, his wife and business partner Sandia Chang sped round setting up for dinner service and their loyal dog Noodle made sure that everything was running smoothly from his perch on one of the 20 seats around the horseshoe bar top.
Three years on, the now bearded Knappett’s restaurant is the talk of the town (it won two stars in this year’s Michelin Guide). Sandia is pregnant, yet still as mobile as ever. Noodle has sadly left us, but a new canine companion, Paxo, has ably taken his place as kitchen overseer. And, this time, I was in the kitchen with the five-strong brigade and Knappett, who slapped on The Strokes first thing and got to tasting a number of different cheeses from his supplier La Fromagerie, with a broad smile.
Along with Paxo, a CDP named Max was charged with directing me during prep. And at Kitchen Table, it’s all about portioning. First, I sliced pickled gooseberries into quarters and was told I was to tackle no more than 45 of them. This meant 180 perfect gooseberry quarters and it was up to me to keep count. I also portioned out slivers of Grelot onions (65 of them), which were marinating in rice vinegar, collected only the smallest leaves of thyme (100 of them) for the cheese course and even found myself in the walk-in freezer carefully grating exactly 400g of frozen Beauvale cheese without letting it thaw even for a moment (or drop into the one of the buckets of ice underneath).
“We have a daily changing menu here (at Kitchen Table). I don’t think we’ve done the same menu twice for a good few years,” Knappett told me as I defrosted back in the kitchen. “We’re constantly foraging and have such a good relationship with a number of top suppliers who give us some amazing ingredients. And what we don’t use we preserve.” He was holding a small bag of shapely morels at the time and, after a wistful look down at them, said: “But if I could forage these, I’d retire!"
Kitchen Table is only open for dinner and the pre-booked guests come in waves of two (half the diners start at 6pm and the other half start at 7:30pm). After we switched into white aprons, the first wave arrived through the curtains and I fully realised the intimacy of Kitchen Table as I was able to identify the colour of a cat hair on one particular diner’s jumper as he took his seat at the bar top, such is the close proximity.
I initially had the feeling that it was like being on stage, but it was more than that. It was as if we were an art installation. And it was exhilarating. There were 12 savoury courses on the Kitchen Table tasting menu that evening and my role as the stagiaire was to observe and help plate at the pass.
After the second course – hay smoked and pickled quail egg, raw mushrooms, black truffle-infused black vinegar, black garlic purée and crispy potatoes – was served, I was asked to organise the third course, which meant carefully spreading a layer of rosemary-infused butter onto freshly baked chicken skin and then topping it with homemade bacon jam.
Standing idle is not an option at Kitchen Table. Not to say that a chef can ever be static during service, but with 40 eyes and a good few cameras constantly trained on you, looking busy at all times is of paramount importance. So, with the chicken skins served and introduced by Knappett, who acted as ringmaster, I helped make rochers of homemade butter to go with the Parker House bread course, and then helped plate Cornish mackerel which had been cured in sugar and salt. It was to be wrapped in forced rhubarb, topped with thinly sliced shiso and balanced on horseradish emulsion and a salsa of seaweeds.
A three-part langoustine dish, beef with smoked bone marrow and some of the prized morels, scallop with a three cornered garlic sauce, and pigeon (which Knappett confidently claimed he’d foraged from Leicester Square) all followed as the brigade switched into third gear, with Tom Spenceley, the head chef, and Knappett on the grill and us remaining chefs painting pictures on the pass.
I remembered Knappett telling me all those years ago that his style of kitchen was born from a weariness of being locked away in hot, windowless kitchens under dining rooms. “I wanted diners to know how hard we’d worked to source ingredients on our days off, how long we’d slaved over the garnish,” he had said. “I wanted to share in my passion with those tasting it, making a dinner service that is fun and engaging for everyone involved, every night.”
A lot has changed for Knappett in the past three years, but his philosophy clearly hasn’t.