Accessed via an unpromising looking alley off the Chinatown end of Rupert Street, Evelyn’s Table occupies the subterranean space that was once home to The Blue Posts’ beer cellar.
Those on the right hand side of the restaurant’s 12-seater counter will notice the street-level trap door and associated apparatus – including a thick length of rope and a pile of jute sacks – that continues to facilitate the pub’s beer delivery.
The space is carefully done out but is far from being luxe with an overall aesthetic that’s more dive bar than gastronomic destination. Yet that’s exactly what it is now the Selby brothers have finally started cooking there in earnest following a long delay brought about by the - yep, you guessed it - Coronavirus crisis.
The trio – Luke (29), Nathaniel (27) and Theo (25) – were most recently employed by Hide, a flash Mayfair restaurant that has rather more sophisticated solutions for moving things between its floors, including a car lift that allows the most moneyed of its patrons to dine completely incognito by whisking vehicles up to a secluded PDR.
“They’ve both got three floors. That’s where the comparisons end,” Theo wryly observes as we enter The Blue Posts’ ground level bar.
The trio is led by older brother Luke, a formidable and highly-driven culinary talent who has held senior roles at some of the country’s best known restaurants, often assisted by his younger siblings, and is the only chef to have won The Roux Scholarship and The National Chef of the Year cooking competitions in the same year (see Taking on all comers).
Our interview is conducted over the counter, with the clean-cut, freshly-showered trio standing in the kitchen. Though amiable and welcoming, they are clearly desperate to get on with their mise en place. “I can’t ever get them to sit still,” the group’s press person confides with a sigh as a photographer attempts to take a portrait shot of the trio.
Evelyn’s Table is far from being an obvious move for a chef of Luke’s background. Though its owner the Palomar Group is highly regarded – its The Palomar and The Barbary restaurants have both appeared on Restaurant magazine’s list of the top 100 places to eat in the UK – it operates in a part of the restaurant sector that feels far removed from star-chasing luxury dining and cooking competitions.
Perhaps this was part of the appeal. Indeed, the Selbys’ decision to take on Evelyn’s Table – which was launched in 2017 shortly after The Palomar Group’s owners Layo and Zoë Paskin took on and transformed The Blue Posts – could even be seen as rebellious; a two-fingered salute to the fine dining establishment.
“I was offered huge salaries to cook at hotels where we would have been responsible for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. But for me it was always about quality. I knew I would not be happy in a huge restaurant, even if I was getting paid loads of money,” says Luke.
Though he’s cautious not to come across as critical of his former employer, reading between the lines it appears that his experience at Hide was a big factor behind the brothers choosing such a small, low-key venue.
“At a seven day operation like Hide you’re churning through produce and covers. It’s very hard to see everything. Here we can have complete control,” says Luke, who wrote a business plan for a counter restaurant with a comparable number of covers to Evelyn’s Table upon leaving Hide.
“We were originally looking to do something by ourselves but you get laughed out the door if you say you want to do something with such a small number of covers,” he continues. “Financially it’s just not sustainable, especially in central London.”
The brothers find themselves at The Blue Posts because of a single Instagram message. Palomar Group HR and recruitment manager Josh Blinston Jones simply asked Luke what he was up to and whether he wanted to pop in for a chat about the space. The deal that was struck – it apparently only took a couple of meetings with the Paskins – is described as a ‘partnership of sorts’.
“It’s everything I have ever wanted in a restaurant,” says Luke, surveying his tiny new domain. “I was looking for something low cover and really focused on quality. It’s also much better for work-life balance. We want to offer sustainability on the plate but also in terms of the team.”
“We’ll have to be clever as chefs. We will still source the
very best but we won’t be able to afford things
like lobster and white truffles"
Evelyn’s Table will continue to be evenings-only – the Paskins feel the edgy experience of walking down an alley and entering the bouncer-manned side door of a pub’s semi-secret restaurant doesn’t work nearly so well during the day – and will switch from three sittings six evenings a week to two sittings Tuesday to Saturday.
Social distancing has seen the total number of covers drop from 12 to 10. Not ideal, but not a disaster either. London’s current Tier 2 restrictions will be less of an issue too, as most bookings for counter dining places are for two (Evelyn’s Table can accommodate a party of up to four on one end of the counter).
As originally planned, there will be two sittings: an early one running from 6pm to 8pm and a later one that starts a little after 8pm. Due to the 10pm curfew, the latter sitting will end earlier than originally planned but late seating guests can start their evening in The Blue Posts’ first floor cocktail bar The Mulwray and early seating guests can finish their evenings there too.
Retaining the name
Evelyn’s Table will retain its name despite the brother’s enviable profile. “It’s a new chapter for us because we’re cooking for ourselves, but it’s also a new chapter for Evelyn’s Table,” explains Luke. “We did not want the restaurant to lose its identity. What they have done so far has been fantastic. We want it to evolve naturally, we didn’t want to come crashing in throwing our name around. It’s not about me or my brothers, it’s about the whole team working together to make something amazing.”
As one would expect, the kitchen will be headed by Luke supported by his two brothers as sous chefs. Increasingly influential sommelier Honey Spencer (pre-pandemic Megan O’Rahilly was down to do it, but she has returned to her former employer Noble Rot).
The five course ‘prix fixe’ menu will cost just £55 and guests can expect a few little extras too, a big step away from what they were doing previously at Hide Above, where the average price for a main course is in excess of £40.
“I want to give value on the plate and I don’t want to charge a huge amount of money on opening. I feel like we have to prove ourselves,” says Luke. “We’re paring it back and focusing on getting it right while also being accessible. We don’t want to go in all guns blazing.”
For obvious economic reasons, the menu won’t be dripping with luxurious ingredients. “We’ll have to be clever as chefs,” he continues. “We will still source the very best but we won’t be able to afford things like lobster and white truffles. We’ll have to work harder to deliver great flavour with more humble ingredients. Success will be down to our skill and technique.”
It’s a sourcing policy that’s not too dissimilar to that taken at Dabbous, the Fitzrovia restaurant at which Luke worked and which served fantastic produce but tended to avoid ultra-luxurious produce in order to offer a comparatively approachable price point.
Combining French and Japanese
The food is billed as British produce cooked with French and Japanese influences. “It will be my style, which has been influenced by the places at which I have worked,” says Luke. “When I say French and Japanese, that’s more in terms of attitude and technique than ingredients and dishes. I’ll be drawing on my training to create new things.”
The launch menu is set to include dishes such as marinated mackerel, plum umeboshi and shisho; squid noodles with mushroom dashi; venison, chestnut and sansho; and a dessert of tarte tatin with clotted cream, and miso, with dishes changing on a monthly basis.
In another similarity to Dabbous, the Selbys will be sticking with Evelyn’s Table’s somewhat spartan kitchen setup. “We don’t have much space anyway,” says Nathaniel looking round the tiny kitchen. “We have stoves, a combi-oven and a blender, but that’s pretty much it.”
“There’s no waterbath either,” interjects Luke. “A lot of chefs my age rely on those gadgets to cook. We’re going to be cooking properly and will be relying on pan work and roasting instead. Sometimes it feels like old school technique is dying out.”
Born to a Filipino mother and a British father, the brothers grew up in Steyning, a rural town half an hour north west of Brighton. Having been raised on a rice farm in the Philippines, the Selby’s mother was a keen forager and a good cook, but it wasn’t a foodie household.
“We all enjoyed our food but it was functional. There were three hungry boys to feed. We ate some Filipino food – there was always rice on the table – but there were a lot of baked beans and frozen chicken kievs too,” recalls Theo.
Luke wanted to be a chef from a young age. Indeed, he says can’t remember wanting to do anything else, but his parents weren’t keen. “My mum wanted me to go to university. In her culture higher education was an almost unobtainable luxury. I had the opportunity and she wanted me to take it. She had it all planned out: she wanted one of us to be a pilot, one of us to be a priest and one of us to be a doctor. That’s a very Filipino mum thing.”
"I knew I would not be happy in a huge restaurant,
even if I was being paid loads of money"
His father was a little more supportive, advising him to learn his craft properly by training with the very best. At just 14 Luke was knocking out breakfasts at a local hotel but soon moved over to Steyning’s Whites Bar & Kitchen, which was at the time helmed by ex-Gordon Ramsay chef Stuart Dove.
“He was old school and used to push me around. But it was good for me. I learnt fast,” says Luke who, in a concession to his parents, managed to fit his A-Levels around his kitchen work. Immediately after college he left home to work at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and was eventually joined by his two younger brothers: first Theo, who unlike his older sibling had opted to go to catering college, and later Nathaniel who had just finished an illustration degree.
“I was keen for them to come and work there with me as I knew how good the training was. Gary Jones and Raymond Blanc were good at giving chefs structure,” says Luke, who at one point towards the end of his six-year stint at the iconic Oxfordshire hotel and restaurant ran a section as a sous chef supported by his two younger brothers (Theo was there for three years and Nathaniel for a little under two).
Following a brief stint at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Luke became head chef at Ollie Dabbous’ eponymous restaurant and in 2018 helped him open Yevgeny Chichvarkin’s big money restaurant Hide, overseeing its flagship restaurant Above assisted by his two younger brothers, now junior sous chefs.
Hide received a Michelin star five months after opening, an achievement Luke puts down to himself and Dabbous being surrounded by the right people. “I had my brothers and the rest of the team was largely made up of ex Le Manoir and Dabbous people. A lot of the senior chefs had been with us for five years. I was supported greatly in that role by them. They helped me absorb the pressure.”
The brothers stayed at Hide for a little under two years including the six or so months of pre-opening. Shortly afterwards, they sought to build their profile as a trio with a one month pop-up at Fitzrovia’s Mortimer House.
Working together as siblings
Three siblings cooking together is a nice PR hook, but it also has practical benefits. “As siblings you understand each other better,” says Theo. “We can anticipate what each other’s needs are and even our movements, which is very important in a tight space like this.”
“They know exactly what I want because we’ve grown up together,” says Luke. “We’ve worked together for a long time. In a professional sense, they can tell from a look what’s going on and what I need from them. They just get it. As the chef in charge of a kitchen, to be that closely connected with your sous chefs is very rare.”
As an older brother, he admits that to get to this point he had to be a bit harder on them in the early days at Le Manoir. “I wanted to get the best out of them and that meant I was more on them,” says Luke, who in common with a lot of his peers has changed his approach to kitchen discipline over the past few years.
“There has to be respect. I’ve worked in shouty kitchens and I have shouted in the past. I don’t anymore, although I can be blunt. We’re right in front of our guests here so we need to conduct ourselves in the right way. It’s about control here, and that means controlling myself too.”
Chefs cooking at the Selbys’ level are rarely within touching distance of their guests, at least not in this country. The one exception to this being James Knappett’s Kitchen Table, which was awarded a second star in the 2019 Michelin guide.
“We can anticipate what each other’s needs are
and even our movements, which is very important
in a tight space like this”
Luke became interested in the counter dining format while working in Japan as part of his Roux Scholarship prize. “Counter dining places were problematic in the first instance because it wouldn’t have been possible for me to work in a restaurant that had that setup because they go through so much training to be able to serve the guests,” says Luke, who ended up at Nihonryori Ryugin, a Tokyo three-star that’s also a regular on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants lists.
“But going to some of those restaurants while I was there opened my eyes to how unique that sort of experience is. It’s not just about the food it’s about the interaction with the chefs too. It’s a theatre performance.”
Given his achievements so far, one might expect Luke to have set himself clear goals for Evelyn’s Table in terms of its progression and accolades, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
“This is the first time I’ve been on my own without a named chef above me,” he says. “It’s basically just me and my brothers now. I just want to come to work and feel happy and positive and do the job I love to do.”
Taking on all comers
Luke Selby has won three of the industry’s most high-profile cooking competitions: Young National Chef of the Year, National Chef of the Year and The Roux Scholarship. That on its own would be very impressive indeed, but to win the latter two in the same year - 2017 - marked him out as a truly exceptional talent and got him on people’s radars early on in his career (he was only 26 at the time).
While he acknowledges that competitions have been a big part of his career he doesn’t want to be labelled as a competition chef. “I’m a cook. A restaurant chef that has worked at some good places,” he says. “But competitions have played a big part in my career. I met Raymond Blanc while doing a Rotary Club young chef competition when I was 14 years old. That ultimately led to a job at Le Manoir. I’ve been able to experience and learn things that are unique because of competitions; not least living in Japan and training at a three-star. It’s opened doors. But I still don’t want to be defined by it.”
Last year, he competed against three other UK chefs in the Bocuse d’Or preselections. Though he was the clear favourite, it was The Ritz sous chef Ian Musgrave who ended up being chosen to represent the UK at the competition’s European Final next month. How does he feel about this?
“Things happen for a reason,” is the measured response. “Doing the Bocuse d’Or would have been competitions taking over. It was too much. I’m glad things have turned out this way.”