Sven-Hanson Britt lives life by a simple mantra. “People often hear me say ‘nothing is impossible’,” he says, confidently. “I’ve always believed that. So many people have told me opening my own restaurant would be impossible; that I’d need a lot capital and private investment to make it happen. But I’ve never agreed with that.”
That we are sat in a dining room that will soon be home to Britt’s debut restaurant is a testament to the strength of his belief and will. It marks the culmination of a near decade-long journey for the chef, who was a finalist on MasterChef: The Professionals back in 2014 and winner of the show’s 2019 Rematch special.
“I always wanted to open my own restaurant, and to do something a bit different,” he continues, reflectively. “At the time I appeared on MasterChef I was finding myself disillusioned with the industry. I felt that so many chefs, particularly those working for some of the larger high-end groups, were completely detached from the food they served.
“Obviously it’s not always the case, but there have been so many places that pitch themselves as trying to tell a story through their food, but never engage their chefs and staff with where the ingredients they prepare or serve come from. I wanted to build a restaurant that would cut away all of the bullshit, show the team where everything comes from and make them part of that journey.”
Building a more considered relationship with food for both staff and guests is at the very heart of Oxeye, the fine-dining restaurant Britt will open in Embassy Gardens, part of south London’s high-profile Nine Elms development, later this month. It’s an idea he had already nurtured for some years before appearing on MasterChef, having been inspired by his travels around France in the early days of his career.
“I grew up in rural Hampshire, and so had always liked the idea of farm-to-table food,” he explains. “Much of my training came from the classical French-style of cookery [Britt spent years at The Ritz cooking under the unimpeachable eye of John Williams, first as a young apprentice and later as sous chef]. I had a love of French food, and so decided to spend a year over there: working in restaurants, doing stagiaires, and visiting the country’s smaller, less-known regions.
“People’s attitude towards farming and agriculture in France is so different to how it is in the UK. It was eye-opening. Everyone is so close to their food system; it’s important to them and they’re all passionate about it. Immediately it started creating an itch I wanted to scratch. There’s a huge amount of history and heritage of farming in this country, and I wanted to learn as much as I could and reflect that through the food I serve.”
Forming a farming partnership
Britt originally aspired to open Oxeye as a destination restaurant in rural Derbyshire and came close to doing so in early 2017 when he submitted a planning application to take over a disused building at Hardley Hill Farm, near Sutton on the Hill. Unfortunately, though, the plans fell through after the financial cost of the venture became clearer: “We went from needing to raise a few hundred thousand to needing a few million to renovate someone else’s estate for them.”
"I’m driven by inquisitiveness and finding people who offer a great quality product and want to tell others about it"
It was while working on Hardley Hill, though, that Britt came into contact and began to work with Tori and Ben Stanley of Park Farm on the nearby Melbourne Estate. The pair took over the tenancy of the land in 2015, but the farm dates back hundreds of years and is said to have been part of King Richard II’s hunting estate in the 1300s.
“That’s where the Oxeye of today was born,” says Britt, with an infectious zeal. “Some of the locals had told me that Park Farm produced the country’s best beef, and Ben was kind enough to give me a tour and show me all around the land after I reached out to him. We became good friends and I ended up spending a lot of time working with him and Tori on the farm. They taught me all the elements of livestock production.”
Britt’s friendship with the Stanleys has blossomed into a burgeoning partnership, and many of the dishes on Oxeye’s ever-changing tasting menu will be dictated strongly by the produce received by Park Farm. The beef in question is longhorn, which will initially feature as one of the two main meat options on the eight-course launch menu, served with preserved seeds and a rouennaise sauce.
Oxeye could fairly be described as a modern British restaurant, but Britt’s canvas is much broader than that. Alongside the Stanleys, the chef is working with a small, carefully cultivated group of artisanal farmers, producers and suppliers he’s met over the years. “Every dish on the menu has a story and is there for a reason. I’ve spent a long time going all over the country trying to find the best, most delicious ingredients to use.
“I’m driven by inquisitiveness and finding people who offer a great quality product and want to tell others about it. Be it the sustainable production methods used by Blackthorn Salt in Scotland, or the hydroponic lettuces being grown for us close-by in London; it all feeds into the narrative of the menu.”
An intimate dining experience
Oxeye’s dining room is small and unassuming. It’s an intimate space, with just six tables and room for a maximum of 16 guests per service. The restaurant will host just six sittings a week – three lunches and three dinners between Thursdays and Saturdays.
For a restaurant so modest in its availability, Oxeye is brimming with an ambition that brings to mind the work of Simon Rogan, whose two Michelin-starred Cartmel flagship L'Enclume is famed for creatively harnessing the connection between food and nature. Britt welcomes the comparison, noting how Rogan’s work has influenced his own approach.
“Simon has this amazing ability to take an ingredient and let it shine, and not put too much into it to hide or mask the flavour. His food is very delicate and the dishes he creates are crisp, clean and offer purity of flavour; that’s what I want to achieve.”
While dishes will change regularly, sometimes daily, the structure of the menu will remain consistent. It begins with a generous selection of snacks, followed by six to eight to courses depending on supplements. The standard tasting menu will cost £99 per head, rising to £139 with extras.
The snacks section is certainly robust, with nine canapés in total. At launch they will include Cornish yarg churros with fresh nettles and sea beet; candied smoked potato with an oxidised grenache vinegar; raw razor clam with apple marigold, Egremont russet and Tokyo turnip; and Irish coast sea urchin with a potato dumpling and smoked butter.
Alongside the longhorn beef, the menu’s main courses primarily centre on meat, fish and vegetables, with inflections of Britt’s classical French training visible throughout. Dishes include hen of the woods glazed in jus gras with wild onion, braised smoked eel, kampot pepper and sauce chivry; red prawn cooked in brown butter with black truffle; Baron Bigod baked in hay with espresso, truffle, medlar and tawny port; and Arhuaco Businchari cocoa, Blackthorn sea salt, birch syrup and buckwheat praline.
Seasonality will play a significant role in how the menu changes day to day, with Britt saying a guest could dine at the restaurant on Thursday and then again on Saturday and find that at least two of the courses are completely new. Indeed, as we speak he’s already planning changes to the launch menu, despite the fact the restaurant doesn’t open for nearly three weeks.
However, he’s also keen to ensure Oxeye is available to everyone, with menus able to be tailored around a guest’s tastes, dietary preferences and allergen requirements. “Having that flexibility is key to making sure the business works. I’m not driven by ego; I want a full restaurant with a great atmosphere and every single person to leave feeling special because they came into our house for a few hours and had an amazing time. That’s what this is all about.
“There’s some amazing people in this country doing incredible farm-to-fork dining, and this my interpretation of it. A lot of time over the last few years has gone into this, so it’s really important that I get it right.”
Championing English wine
One dish that Britt says will remain on the menu throughout the year is the ‘signature’ Cornish turbot, braised on the bone ‘bonne femme style’ with oxidised wine and Nyetimber Tillington Single Vineyard sparkling wine from West Sussex, as well as plenty of herbs. Once the fish is cooked, the sauce is finished at the table and served on the plate with mushroom, sea kale and cauliflower. A supplement of Oscietra caviar served alongside the fish is available.
The use of an English wine in the cooking – not least a bottle that retails at £99 a pop – exemplifies another key area of British gastronomy that Britt is keen to champion through Oxeye. “There are so many delicious wines available in this country and that needs more recognition,” he says, earnestly. “There’s thousands of people who want to drink it, yet most restaurants only have one on by the glass.”
As if to further underline his point, Britt will serve a ‘British class’ drinks flight primarily consisting of sparkling and still white English wine – “What England does lack in at the moment is red wine. It’s very hard to get something good that’s worth pouring, especially by the glass” – that will cost £99. Alternatively, there will be a higher end ‘world class’ flight that comes in at a much punchier £250 and includes ‘iconic’ vintage bins from across the globe.
Domestic wine will also be at the forefront of Bar Rex, the informal bar and retail area that will sit adjacent to the restaurant in Oxeye’s multifaceted space, which also includes an upstairs art gallery, terrace and private dining room. The bar will feature an extensive selection of more than 300 British wines chosen by Britt and his head of wine, Katrina Smith. Well known producers including Nyetimber and Hambledon will sit alongside smaller wineries like London-based Blackbook, and Harrow & Hope in Buckinghamshire.
“We’re going to showcase wines from across the whole of the UK, which literally nobody does. It blows my mind that nobody has really launched anywhere in London that celebrates our own wines. It’s such a win-win deal.”
Britt sees Bar Rex as more of a neighbourhood-style destination, designed to appeal to Nine Elms’ growing community. Open Wednesday to Saturday and available for walk-ins, it’s certainly a much more accessible pitch. Wines will start at £5 a glass and be available alongside a short ‘grazing’ menu of small plates priced between £2 and £20. Dishes will still reflect Oxeye’s farm-to-fork philosophy and include British shellfish; charcuterie that will be cured in-house; and a cheeseboard.
From Derbyshire to Nine Elms
It might not be the farmstead that he originally envisaged, but Britt is more than happy with Oxeye’s Embassy Gardens location and is confident it will work for his business. “I used to live is this area, and it really means something to now be able to open my own restaurant here. It’s close to central London and [with the opening of Nine Elms tube station nearby] very easily accessible, but it’s also a growing district. There’s a real sense of community here, and post-pandemic more people in London are looking towards their local area when going out.”
Previously, Britt had looked at taking on a more conventionally central location. In January 2020 he launched a Kickstart campaign to raise money for what was billed at the time as a ‘restaurant residency’ for Oxeye in London intended to build momentum before launching a permanent site in Derbyshire. More than 200 backers pledged support, with £36,380 raised in total over 20 days. Then, the pandemic hit.
"I nearly signed a deal with the wrong people in the wrong location, and only hindsight has shown me how lucky I was to avoid that"
“In a sense that’s one of the best things that has happened to Oxeye,” he says, recalling the roller-coaster of the past 20 months. “I nearly signed a deal with the wrong people in the wrong location, and only hindsight has shown me how lucky I was to avoid that.
“Yes, it’s been frustrating; and yes, there were some very down, sad days when I thought Oxeye was over. But I’ve had a lot of support from the Kickstarter backers, and that helped push me to a site that ticked all the boxes. If I was going to go through all this, it had to be right.”
In his own words, Britt managed to secure the Embassy Gardens spot through ‘persistence and badgering’. Having scored a one-hour audience with the landlord (the development is a joint venture between EcoWorld and Ballymore), he used the opportunity to cook a handful of dishes, including the braised turbot, and offer a snapshot of what the restaurant was about. The meeting ended up lasting three hours, and the next day Britt had the keys in his hand.
“If I’d opened in central London, I would have been paying twice the rent for half the space in a site that would probably have been fraught with endless issues. Instead, I’ve got a place that’s brand new, where the landlord brings you in and wants to help support and nurture your business.”
Britt’s decision to pursue Oxeye London as a permanent venture has as much to do with the impact of the pandemic as it does with changes in his own life. He has a family now - his partner Kae Shibata, who owns chocolate brand Cartografie on London City Island, will be executive pastry chef at Oxeye - and he says he needs to make decisions for them. He also insists that he ‘definitely’ still plans to open somewhere in Derbyshire, a farm restaurant with rooms, maybe, but that it will be a project for further down the line.
Sustainable and supportive
Early in Britt’s career, John Williams told him something that he’s never forgotten. “After I returned from France, I was so impatient about wanting to get on and open my own place, and it was John who showed me the importance of slowing down and taking my time. He said the best chefs get experience in their teens, use their twenties for learning and development, and then put it into action in their thirties. Those who rush to do it earlier often don’t have that base level of maturity, knowledge and expertise to run both a business and a team.”
The subject of staffing is one which Britt has been outspoken on, and amid the ongoing labour shortage across the sector he’s been a vocal advocate of a more sustainable and supportive working model. All employees at Oxeye and Bar Rex will work a set shift pattern of four days on (Wednesday to Saturday) and three days off (Sunday to Tuesday). While the bar will be open on the Wednesday, the restaurant will be closed, giving the team regular opportunities to visit the farms and restaurant suppliers as a group and learn more about the ingredients they’re working with, as well as the space and time to focus on the food preparation back at the restaurant.
"We’ve created an industry that’s detrimental to everyone’s health and wellbeing, and that needs to change"
“We’re doing all sorts of craft-based projects around food and drink, and they need time,” explains Britt. “We’re aging our own meats and spirits, making our own charcuteries, producing our own vermouths, and our staff can’t be running around like headless chickens never creating anything perfect because there isn’t enough time.
“It’s also about looking after people. We’ve created an industry that’s detrimental to everyone’s health and wellbeing, and that needs to change. Lots of restaurants are doing four days on and three days off now. We want to show that it’s a viable system that hospitality can run on.”
He won’t be drawn too deeply on the financial specifics of his business, but insists that the sums add up; thanks much in part to the site’s favourable rent. “There was a time when I was looking at sites in Soho and Marylebone and thinking that if we pushed and worked hard for five days we could probably break even. Instead, this space allows us to open just three days a week and concentrate on quality.
“I’m not driven by ego; I have big aspirations and I want to achieve a lot. Having full days to prep, source ingredients and go the farm is more than I could have ever imagined. And we’ll use that time to learn about everything we’re serving, and then pass it on to customers so we can offer a more complete experience.”