Work of art: the group redefining the relationship between restaurants and creatives

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

How Cabin Studio is redefining the relationship between restaurants and creatives Florence Knight Jonny Gent Sessions Arts Club Boath House

Related tags: Cabin Studio, Florence Knight, Jonny Gent, Restaurant, Sessions Art Club, Boath House, Chef

With Sessions Arts Club and the recently launched Boath House, Cabin Studio founder Jonny Gent and chef Florence Knight are combining their shared love of art and hospitality

For Florence Knight, Sessions Arts Club is more than just a restaurant; it’s a studio. Forget about palettes of paints and acrylics, though, at Sessions you’ll find tubes of fresh squid and calamarata artfully plated so as to appear indistinguishable from each other and served with a delicately moreish tomato sauce; or long, crisp panisses strewn deliberately on a dish ever-so-slightly too small to hold them, seasoned liberally with lemon thyme and sea salt, and perhaps served with a satisfying dollop of cod’s roe.

Situated on the fourth floor of Old Sessions House, the impressive 18th century Grade II-listed former courthouse in London’s Clerkenwell where Oliver Twist was tried for stealing a pocket watch in Dickens’ seminal novel, Sessions Arts Club is a place you want to get lost in; a restaurant that one year on from opening still feels fresh and new thanks to its stunning setting and Knight’s confident cooking.

“When I walked into Sessions, I loved it,” recalls Knight. “It was so me.”

The restaurant is certainly a sight to behold. The 60-seat dining room is flooded with light from a series of magnificent arched windows looking out onto the rooftop. The interior elements and furniture have been sourced from various markets and salvage yards, creating an eclectic yet comfortable aesthetic, which is coupled with a series of green leather banquettes reflecting the courthouse’s past. On the walls, meanwhile, you’ll find an ever-changing selection of contemporary canvases by artists including the New York-based painter Ann Craven.

Where food meets art

Launched last summer, Sessions Arts Club was the first project for Cabin Studio, the group led by artist and entrepreneur Jonny Gent and architect Russell Potter. Founded by Gent in 2016, Cabin Studio’s mission statement has been to ‘create spaces built on the pillars of art, food and supplies’.

“Art underpins everything we do, every decision, every choice,” explains Gent. “The dream is that the menu and the canvas bleed into one another, whether that’s colours, seasons, paint. That’s the place we’re trying to get to.”

Bringing in Knight, who prior to Sessions Arts Club was known best for her time leading the kitchen at Venetian-inspired Soho restaurant Polpetto, has proven to be a masterstroke. Over the course of its first year, the restaurant has captured the zeitgeist of London’s food scene. It recently ranked at number 30 on the 2022 Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards top100 list​ and has received rave reviews from critics including The Guardian​’s Grace Dent and Tatler​’s Fay Maschler. Getting a reservation can be a challenge.

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Indeed, so successful has the restaurant been that Cabin Studio has launched a second venture with Knight in Scotland; a Highlands hotel located near the rural town of Nairn called Boath House. And more openings are planned, including further sites in London and international outposts in both Europe and the US.

“I was convinced [Sessions Arts Club] would be amazing, but I couldn’t have predicted the love people would have had for it,” says Gent. “I remember on our first day one guest said this is what they ‘needed’, and that really struck me. People are desperate for this type of thing.”

An artist’s eye

It’s a blistering summer’s day in central London when I meet Gent and Knight for a lunchtime coffee on the rooftop terrace of Sessions Arts Club. Despite the sunshine, Gent arrives in a black cashmere jumper having just returned from Boath House that morning. He’s an affable, bookish sort; disarmingly passionate and engaging. While we wait for Knight, who’s been waylaid deboning and prepping quails ahead of evening service, he shows off some interior shots from Boath, and regales me with tales of fly fishing and foraging in the Scottish wilderness.

Gent and Potter launched Sessions Arts Club in partnership with brothers Ted and Oliver Grebelius of Sätila Studios, which owns the lease to Old Sessions House; and restaurant consultant Jon Spiteri, who has since stepped back from the project. From the beginning, Gent wanted Knight to run the kitchen. “She has an artist’s eye, which is an integral part of any project we do,” he says.

 “There’s a pursuit of romance in everything Florence does”

“It’s not just the food itself, which is outrageously good, but also the way she presents it, and her thought process behind it. There’s a pursuit of romance in everything she does. It was a no brainer.”

Knight has long focused her style on getting the most out of just a few central ingredients. “I see food in almost filmic terms,” she wrote in her 2013 cookbook One: A Cook and her Cupboard​. “A good story always has a single lead, normally with two supporting roles. Any more and the plot becomes confusing and overly elaborate.”

Her early career saw her work for Raymond Blanc, first at Le Manoir in Oxford and later as a pastry chef at his Diamond Club within the Emirates Stadium in London. She then became head chef at St Clement’s, a private restaurant in London’s Middle Temple, before opening Polpetto on Dean Street in Soho with Polpo founders Russell Norman and her now-husband Richard Beatty in 2010.

It was there that Knight first established herself as one of the leading talents of London’s restaurant scene, with Polpetto quickly gaining a critical following and a large number of foodie fans. However, the 23-cover venue proved too small, and the restaurant subsequently relocated to a larger premises on nearby Berwick Street, which Knight also oversaw until 2015 when she left to start a family.

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The intervening years have seen Knight turn her attention to writing, with regular food columns in The Times ​and The Guardian​, among others, but her love of the professional kitchen never waned. “It’s a very different shift writing about food and recipes and cooking at home, and I missed kitchens and service,” she says, reflectively, when she joins us on the terrace.

“There’s more creativity, and having a team means you can bounce off people. When you have been doing it since you’re 19, like me, it’s part of who you are and without that adrenaline and teamwork, it’s lonely.”

For Sessions Arts Club, Knight’s aim was to create a juxtaposition between her food and the grandeur of the dining room. “On the surface it feels like the sort of space where you could expect steak and chips - a stiffer, less creative concept,” she continues. “We wanted to play with that idea, and mess around with it.”

True romance

There’s an alluring sense of theatricality when dining at Sessions Arts Club. Accessed by a little red door on the ground floor of Old Sessions House, the only clue to the restaurant’s entrance is a small menu box affixed to the railings. When you arrive, you are required to ring a doorbell in order to enter the building and are then ushered into a lift that transports you to the restaurant’s floor. Having emerged, you are faced with a dense, velvet curtain, which is pulled aside almost stage-like to reveal the dramatic restaurant space beyond.

“There’s an old-world romance and mystery to what we create”

“What we really nailed is the romance, which runs throughout everything we do; and people’s appetite for that,” says Gent. “There’s an old-world romance and mystery to what we create. Sure, there’s plenty of contemporary touches in terms of the shows and music collaborations we host [both Ed Sheeran and Florence Welch have performed at Sessions Arts Club], but the service, feeling and food have a sense of something more classical, and guests have really responded to that.”

The menu takes its cues from British, French and Italian cooking, with Knight drawing on her preference for simple food made using carefully grown and sourced ingredients. Dishes change daily, but can include cured sea bream served with fig leaf and sorrel; lamb sweetbreads with lettuce and lovage; and grilled friggitelli with cannellini and chard.

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Service, meanwhile, is designed to be warm and friendly, with the youthful waiting staff – led by Thamsin Andrews and Liam Anderson, both veterans of private members' club The Groucho in Soho – encouraged to bring their own sense of style and personality to the table. “I think there’s something really nice about our front of house approach,” adds Knight. “It’s not clinical. They’re passionate and proud, and a great team to work with.”

A sanctuary for creatives

Sessions Arts Club has provided a perfect jumping-off point for Cabin Studio, but it’s the group’s recently launched second venture, Boath House in Scotland, which is better reflective of Gent’s long-term plans.

“People regularly ask if they can stay at Sessions Arts Club and assume there are rooms. This is our chance to properly explore that space - how you capture someone’s attention and what you could provide in that time,” he says. “I have always been fascinated by that 24-hour experience.”

Acquired by the group in January this year, Boath House was relaunched quietly by Cabin Studio in May having operated as a hotel since the 90s. Located in the Highlands near the bay of Findhorn and housed within a Grade A-listed Georgian mansion, it has 10 bedrooms and an indoor restaurant space, with the extensive grounds featuring a 400-year-old walled garden complete with a café, store, and work studio that includes a cabin and sauna.

Boath

“The heartbeat of the whole Cabin Studio business will be Boath House,” continues Gent. “That’s the aim.”

Even more so than at Sessions Arts Club, art and expression have been integral to the development of the Boath House concept. Billed as 'a sanctuary for creatives', the hotel is set to launch an exclusive artist residency programme in October, which will see a handpicked selection of multi-disciplinary artists, writers and musicians invited to take up residence in the house and grounds. Scottish indie pop band Belle and Sebastian are set to be among the first to take part.

“Of course, [Boath House] needs to be a business with a fully functioning hotel and restaurant, but it also needs to remain true to what we’re trying to do, which is create a studio and a place where everyone is loose and free to create something.”

“The heartbeat of the whole Cabin Studio business will be Boath House”

With residencies lasting between three and five days, each artist will receive accommodation, travel to Boath House and all food and drink included. Days will be spent working in the garden and vegetable plot and fishing for salmon, with time also given for painting, writing, thinking, or recording in the studio. In return, each artist is asked to ‘leave something behind’.

“That feeds into our decision not to dress Boath House too much,” continues Gent. “Instead, there are places all over where people can leave a note, or maybe a drawing. The idea is slowly over time, the memories of people’s stays will become the design of the house.”

Reaching a broader audience

Launching a second venture more than 500 miles from your first is certainly bold, but despite its vastly rural setting Gent describes Boath House as being more reachable than people may expect, with guests able to easily journey there by either train or plane. Furthermore, he notes that the initial response has been better than expected, with the hotel consistently at around 90% occupancy.

“I thought the hotel would be the tricky thing, but it’s running really easily. It’s full, and a big part of that is because of the team I’ve inherited, who are great. And having Sessions has helped in terms of promoting it.”

The primary focus for Gent at the moment is getting Boath House’s two restaurant spaces ‘right’. Only the Garden Café is currently open, with the main mansion Dining Room not expected to launch until the autumn. While Knight has an involvement in the food offer in an ostensive executive chef role, the day-to-day running of it will be overseen by newly appointed head chef Lindsay Mackay, previously of The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle.

Like Sessions Arts Club, Boath House will have a heavily seasonal food focus with ingredients carefully cultivated from the walled garden, which stretches some 35 acres, and sourced from local farms and suppliers. “The hardest thing has been working out how we make the restaurants accessible to a broader audience, while remaining true to our ethos and aesthetic,” says Gent. “Particularly with regard to the local community.

Boath-2

“We’re inheriting their perception of what they want and what they think we should be doing. And that’s quite tricky. On the one hand you want to go in and change something, because there’s no point on taking on a project like this if you don’t want to do that. But it’s about working out how we relate to the locals.

“At the end of the day, the community is the most important thing, and they will be the ones we want to come out in the winter months. It’ll be them who will keep us afloat. We want the Garden Café to be a hub for them, as well as a place for guests.”

Additionally, plans are being put in place for a seasonal guest chef programme that will see chefs based outside of the UK invited to cook at Boath House. The idea is that they will filter through the artist residency programme, with conversations having already taken place with chefs in Paris and LA. Each chef would be tasked with hosting a celebration dinner in the Dining Room restaurant that puts local, seasonal ingredients front and centre.

Encouraging artistic flair

While getting guests to Boath House has proved manageable, finding staff has been a tougher task. “In all my time, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” says Knight, an audible note of frustration cutting through her bubbly personality. “And it makes the job so much harder.”

Gent adds that despite the struggles with staff at both Boath House and Sessions Arts Club, each site does now have a fully operational team. “What’s been amazing is there’s not been much churn either,” he continues. “They’re staying because they’re so deeply rooted to the business and that connection comes through their service style and attitude.”

“There’s something really nice about our front of house approach”

From the beginning, it’s been important to Gent that the staff he employs through Cabin Studio are also given the space and encouragement to explore their own creative passions. They include chefs who moonlight as actors; sommeliers who are also writers; and front of house staff that have a passion for photography.

“A lot of people are drawn to the artistry of the business,” he says. “It’s not just pushing them in terms of the job they do for us. It’s about finding out what they want to achieve and seeing how we can help facilitate that, and hoping they go on and fulfil themselves. And we want to allow them the time and space to do that alongside their job.”

Going global

As an artist, Gent has had studios in 20 countries around the world, and he has long harboured the ambition of turning Cabin Studio into a global business. Now, with Boath House open, his focus is shifting onto making that a reality. Potential outposts in Majorca, the south of France and New York are currently being considered, as well as further sites in the UK. When we speak, Gent reveals that the group is in negotiations to acquire a site in Soho for its first London hotel; and is also looking at locations elsewhere in the city.

The Soho hotel will have up to 20 bedrooms, as well as a ground floor restaurant with space for around 70 covers, a basement bar, and an outside garden. As with Boath House, Knight is expected to be involved with the food offering at all future Cabin Studio sites, both in London and across the globe, as executive chef.

Similarly to Boath House, the forthcoming Soho site could also represent a further evolution of the Cabin Studio business, with Gent saying that the group is considering the introduction of a members-only element.

“There feels something natural about moving into the membership space and exploring that now. I took on Boath because I wanted to move into the 24-hour experience, and becoming members only feels like another natural progression.”

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Such a move wouldn’t be without challenges, but it certainly appears to fit Cabin Studio’s brand image. In her review of Sessions Arts Club, Grace Dent wrote​ that she was reminded of being at a private members’ club. “It has the feel of some of the best ones from the 1980s and 1990s, back when such places were secretive and insalubrious boltholes,” she said.

Gent believes moving into the private members space would be a great world to jump into, but questions remain as to whether the new Soho site is the right place to make such a move. “We’re consulting on it at the moment,” he continues.

“It’s a difficult business plan to get your head around. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen but it’s definitely something we’re exploring.”

Related topics: Business Profile, Restaurant

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