“I’m really fucking tired,” says Hot 4 U co-founder Matthew Scott, with a grin that somewhat belies his statement. The former Cub chef is reflecting on what has been a rather eventful year.
In May 2020, the then-furloughed Scott, in a bid to break free of lockdown fatigue, met up with his friend and fellow chef Eddy Tejada in the disused kitchen of what was once Monty’s Deli’s flagship site in London’s Hoxton with a plan that would give them both the chance to get back behind the stoves.
His idea was innovative. The pair would create a weekly changing, five-course set menu of 'playful' dishes that drew from a range of global inspirations and focused on nose-to-tail eating. The boys would do the prep, and vac pack the different food elements for delivery. All the customer had to do was heat up and plate the final dishes.
At the time, the now-burgeoning meal kit space was just starting to gain momentum, and was dominated by casual dining players like Pizza Pilgrims and Patty & Bun, which were offering customers the chance to recreate their iconic dishes at home. By contrast, Hot 4 U brought something more original to London’s locked-down diners. “When we started the landscape was very different,” explains Scott. “There weren’t many other chef-led meal kit experiences available at that time. Now, of course, it’s such a saturated market; it’s humbling to have been a part of the foundations of it.”
"We just hit the ground running, and never stopped”
Scott and Tejada had no long-term plan for the business when they started. What drove them was a simple desire to cook. “It was never about making money or getting rich quick,” says Scott. “All we wanted was a chance to do what we love and have some fun with it. We put together some dishes, wrote a menu, and posted it on Instagram. And from there, it blew up so quickly.”
That first week, the duo received around 20 orders; nine weeks later, it was 120. Then, as the sector unlocked over the summer, a slew of temporary residencies followed, which took Hot 4 U not only to different corners of the capital, but also abroad, taking over the kitchen of the Michelin-recommended 4850 restaurant and wine bar in Amsterdam. Now, just over a year since starting out, Hot 4 U operates a pair of permanent pub residencies in east London, as well as a weekly stall at Westgate Street Market.
“We never envisioned it would lead to this,” adds Scott, still smiling. “Trying to make a long-term plan was always impossible, because the horizon was so foggy. We just hit the ground running, and never stopped.”
Tejada, whose CV includes stints at St John and Silo, has in the last month decided to step away from Hot 4 U to deal with personal issues and pursue his passion for ceramics. In an Instagram post he described the last year as ‘a massive whirlwind’. “The pandemic allowed Matthew and I to create something new and much bigger than ourselves,” he said. “It's been amazing to see it grow from cooking out of friends restaurants to operating out of three sites.”
As such, Scott is now the solo frontman. Behind him is small team of chefs that has grown steadily as the business has progressed. They include Jack Coggins, who now oversees Hot 4 U’s residency at The Plough pub in Homerton; and Luke Bradley, who’s heading up the residency at The Prince Arthur in London Fields having been involved with Hot 4 U on an ad hoc basis since its inception.
“People who work for us don’t always have a lot of practise in a professional environment, but they do give a fuck about food"
From the start, Scott says a key focus of Hot 4 U has been supporting people in the industry, many of whom have seen their livelihoods torn to shreds by the pandemic. “A driving force throughout has been showing care and empathy to our sector. Through the meal kits, we were able to give work to friends who had lost their income. And as the business has progressed, it’s allowed us to help give those who love to cook, but perhaps don’t have much proper kitchen experience, a leg up in the industry.
“People who work for us don’t always have a lot of practise in a professional environment, but they do give a fuck about food. They want to be there, and they care, which is so important to have.”
While Scott now oversees the entire Hot 4 U operation on his own, he’s keen to retain the same collaborative spirit that drove his partnership with Tejada. “It’s important to me that the team have the freedom to do their own thing.
“During those first weeks doing the meal kits, we didn’t have a prep list ready in advance. We made dishes based on the ingredients we could get hold of, and if it was good we included it in the kits. And we’ve carried that spirit through to now. I largely manage the menu development across the three sites, but the teams in the kitchens have plenty of input and are always coming up with their own dishes. And if they think it’s good enough to serve, then so do I.”
Fun, saucy and recognisable
The name Hot 4 U took a while to workshop, and initially jarred with the actual concept (it has the ring of a premium rate chat number to it). “When we were delivering the meal kits, the food wasn’t even hot – you had to warm it up yourself at home,” says Scott, chuckling. “We struggled for ages trying to come up with the name, but this felt right as soon as we heard it. It’s fun, easily recognisable, and a little bit saucy.”
Scott is a lively character: confident, cheeky and full of energy, which is reflected in the concept. The cooking at Hot 4 U is wildly eclectic and visually imaginative. One of the most popular dishes at the moment is a builder’s tea-infused Basque cheesecake that’s made using Yorkshire Tea (of course), drizzled with condensed milk and served with a Rich Tea biscuit sticking out of the top.
An earlier trendsetter during the meal kit days, meanwhile, was a bone marrow whiskey luge – a roasted bone marrow halved lengthwise and topped with a herb crumb. Served with a shot of scotch, the idea was to drink the liquor down the meat-speckled flume once it had been scraped out.
From the beginning, Hot 4 U’s irreverent style has caught people’s imagination, but for Scott the main emphasis is on serving food that puts his passion for high-grade produce at the forefront. “There’s a fickle nature to trends. We’ll always have those more garish dishes on the menu, but Hot 4 U is about so much more. We want to offer great food that has a wide appeal, is accessible, and shows plenty of love and consideration to our suppliers and producers.”
The pub residencies have given him a greater culinary freedom to concentrate on maintaining a closed-loop cooking system. Seasonality and sustainability play crucial roles, with ingredients shared between the two sites and waste kept to a minimum.
Menus change weekly. The Plough has a looser, brasher atmosphere, with example dishes including oysters with green glitter sabayon; chicken offal skewer with smoked mayonnaise; grilled salsify with romesco sauce and aged cheese; and a sharing plate of halibut head with preserved lemon and pepperdulse tapenade. By contrast, The Prince Arthur is intended as a more refined, neighbourhood spot that serves small plates that pair well with the pub’s regularly changing natural wine selection, although the food is no less original. Example dishes include burrata with cedrat lemon; fried prawn heads with yuzu and allium; fried dough topped with smoked ricotta and gooseberry escabeche; and pig’s head with anchovy and dandelion.
A fluid approach
Creating the dishes for Hot 4 U has never posed a real challenge to Scott, even in the early meal kit days. “Coming up with the food is the easy bit; the hard shit is everything else. In the early days everything was so new and unknown; finding the drivers and setting up a delivery line without any foundation to work from was a real challenge.
“The approach has always had to be very fluid, but that’s really benefitted us in the long run. We’ve become very impulsive and anarchistic as we’ve driven the company forwards, and that’s helped us when choosing where to take the brand next.”
It’s that freewheeling nature that landed Hot 4 U its most recent location; a stall at Westgate Street Market that features an ever-changing menu. “When you go to a market there’s this obvious, bastardised process where an operator sells the same thing week in week out, and we want to break down that wall,” says Scott.
Featuring three or four new dishes every week, the menu is hardly what you’d describe as typical street food fare. Popular dishes to feature so far include smoked pig trotters; Nashville sweetbreads; curry corndog made with mutton merguez; and deep-fried chicken topped with caviar.
“I really love the market stall,” continues Scott. “It’s a chance to be really creative with the food, but it’s also a great networking tool. It’s giving us the opportunity to meet other operators, some of whom have their own lockdown stories.”
Taking the brand further
Before the pandemic, Scott, who cooked at butcher-cum-cookshop Hill & Szrok prior to Cub, had never really thought about branching out on his own. “These things happen, and it just changes your direction completely,” he muses. “The pandemic has been devastating, but it’s also brought huge opportunities for people in our industry like me to go and do something new and hone their individual passions.”
"We don’t want to cut ourselves short and say yes to everything that comes our way”
Opportunities to take Hot 4 U further are coming in thick and fast, with pop ups at Soho House, Taste of London and Mortimer House all under consideration. It’s an exciting time, but Scott is keen to not overburden himself and his team.
“We need to know we’re ready for it. Now we have the two pubs and the market, we don’t want to cut ourselves short and say yes to everything that comes our way.”
What could the future hold, though? A bricks and mortar site seems inevitable, but Scott is so far undecided about what form it would take. “It would be nice to treat Hot 4 U as an umbrella opportunity to try out different concepts and ideas. I would love to try and have a greasy spoon in Margate; or a cocktail bar in London. There’s lots of potential about where to take the brand, but I have to know that the idea is right.”