Chief pie-maker, Holborn Dining Room, London
Nokx Majozi remembers well the very first pie she cooked at the Holborn Dining Room. “It was a grouse, chicken mousse and girolles pithivier,” she says, looking slightly misty-eyed at the memory. That was back in 2014.
Today, aged 42, she is number two to executive chef Calum Franklin. She runs the famed Pie Room with its slab marble work surfaces and its shiny copper moulds. The production of the bronzed pastry-clad wonders filled with pork or mutton or cheese and onion and many other things besides is down to her. She also regularly runs service for the whole dining room. “We call her Chief Pie Maker,” Franklin says simply.
It’s all a very long way from her beginnings in Durban, South Africa. “My father was the one who cooked when I was kid,” Majozi says. “I started cooking with him because it meant I got to spend time alone with him away from my four siblings.” Not that her parents were delighted when the kitchen became her choice of career. “They wanted me to be a nurse or a doctor.” But she was determined. She finished her training and went to work in hotels first in South Africa, then at Disney World in Florida before coming to London. “It was closest to France, but it was also a place where I spoke the language.”
She stayed, putting in serious time at both the Intercontinental and then the Landmark hotels before arriving at the Holborn Dining Room and learning the way of the pie. “It’s the detail I love,” she says. “And the creativity. To be honest I now feel the pie room is mine. Not to be cocky but it’s my small palace.” She also runs the pie-making classes. “The first time I did that I did wonder how that had happened. But the people in the class just want to learn and don’t care where you have come from.”
She recognises, however, that where she has come from and who she is, makes her a role model. There are not many women in such senior positions in London restaurant kitchens, let alone black African women. “Kitchens can be much more aggressive places when they are just men,” she says. “Half our brigade are women and they are from all over the world. It makes it a much calmer place. I want women to think of this as a career. We are here and we are doing it.” So, what of the future? “I would like my own cookery school back in South Africa,” she says. But that, she adds, is still some way in the future. She still has so much more to give to London.
Holborn Dining Room, 252 High Holborn, London WC1; holborndiningroom.com
Head chef, Bubala, London
Helen Graham does not have a classic chef origin story. She did not learn to roll gnocchi with her mother, or make tarte tatin with her grandmother. “There were no spices in my house when I was growing up,” she says now, of her north-west London childhood home. Instead, she had to teach herself: at Bristol University where she focused more on cooking elaborate meals with like-minded friends than her art history course. Later, she worked as a freelance food stylist and recipe developer for Yotam Ottolenghi, before moving into restaurant kitchens. That began with a bang at the Palomar, London sibling of the cult Jerusalem restaurant Machneyuda.
“I was terrified of going into a professional kitchen,” she says. “It was a hardcore kitchen.” But she held her own. That experience combined neatly with time at Berber & Q, the Good Egg and Barbary, all dovetailing with her own Ashkenazi Jewish background and developing interest in the food of the Middle East. It led, in the autumn of 2019, at the age of 31, to her first head chef role at the vegetarian Middle Eastern restaurant Bubala, in London’s Spitalfields; to an engrossing menu of hummus with burnt butter and pine nuts, fried aubergine with zhoug and date syrup or halloumi with black seed honey. You notice the huge flavours first and the fact it’s meat-free second, so that it feels like vegetarianism by stealth. It has won her a huge and loyal fanbase.
The meat-free idea for Bubala came, she says, from her partner in the business, restaurateur Marc Summers, though neither of them is fully vegetarian. “He’d worked out there was a gap in the market. It was clear from the start it was going to be vegetarian.” The impact of that decision has been felt far beyond just the words on the menu. “As soon as we started, I realised the kitchen was so much calmer,” Graham says. “I’m very protective of the Bubala kitchen as a vegetarian space. You can’t even bring a smoked salmon bagel in there.”
Asked to nominate a dish that defines her cooking, she chooses pumpkin with braised dandelion, smoked harissa and a pumpkin seed salsa. “It employs some classic techniques I’ve picked up over the years. Italian vegetables such as violino pumpkin and chicory catalogna contrast bitter, sweet and spicy in a way that I love.” This, she says, is the right food for the times. “I’m really proud of what we’ve done. I hope there are more vegetarian restaurants like this.”
Other Bubalas may be among them. “I can’t say much about that, but we are looking to expand. And there will definitely be a cookbook at some point.” No, Helen Graham may not have a grandiose origin story, a place where she started, but she knows exactly where she’s going.
Bubala, 65 Commercial Street, London E1; bubala.co.uk
Head chef, Erst, Manchester
Patrick Withington recognises the appeal of his story: that until he was 27 years old, he was a plumber; that he gave it all up and went into cooking professionally because he loved food more than he loved fitting radiators and calibrating boilers. But in truth, he says, he’d like the food he cooks at Erst, a wine bar and small plates restaurant in Manchester’s Ancoats, to be the thing that tells his story. “It’s about flavour,” he says. “It’s about the confidence to keep things simple.”
And he does keep it simple, to dramatic effect: diners have swooned over his bubbled and blistered flatbreads, smeared with the glistening pulp of the very best of tomatoes, or with garlic butter and a quenelle of whipped lardo; over his beef tartare with tonnato sauce and his baked, then deep-fried potatoes, bursting lasciviously from their skins, or a pitch perfect bay leaf panna cotta.
It’s a short menu, built on first principles. “There’s always a cured fish dish and a tartare and maybe a braised dish. And the flatbreads are always there.” Many of these dishes, he says, are ones he started cooking at supper clubs when he was working at Trove, the bakery in Levenshulme that he joined after deciding on a career change. Food has always been a part of his family’s culture. His dad was a big cook. At primary school, when required to give a talk, Withington decided to tell his classmates how to make a curry. The move into professional kitchens later in life seemed like a logical one to him.
“When I got to Trove, I found like-minded people who were all in the same boat,” he says. “We’d all done other things first so we were all learning together. We had the freedom to do what we wanted to do.” That meant learning on the job. “For me it was about cooking my way through the Eagle cookbook or the Moro cookbook.” The interest in the Middle East and Spain provided by the latter, very much remains. And then there are the trips abroad. “I’d go to somewhere like Málaga and find my way to these unexpected and special places.”
Erst, which opened in its stone and steel space in 2018, was designed to be one of those special places. “There was just nowhere in Manchester that was really informal,” Withington says. “Somewhere you could just go and have a plate or two of good food and leave.” At first it wasn’t easy. “We were really quiet. I’d go look at other restaurants doing more business and think, ‘We’re better than these places.’” But with time, customers found their way to his deft and direct cooking.
“Too many places are constantly changing what they’re doing to try to please an imagined customer,” Withington says. Now 35, he’s determined to keep the business steady, while expanding his own culinary horizons and skills by looking to the classics. “Right now, I’m digging into the books of Marcella Hazan.” Those of us who have already had the pleasure of Withington’s cooking will be thrilled to see where that exploration takes him.
Erst, 9 Murray Street, Ancoats, Manchester; erst-mcr.co.uk
Head chef, Mangal 2, London
When Sertaç Dirik was a kid, he was made to work in his father’s north London Turkish grill restaurant, Mangal 2, as a punishment. “If I’d got into trouble,” he says. “I’d be sentenced to work there at weekends for three months. A bit of meze. A bit of front of house.” Today, aged 25, he is that restaurant’s head chef. By melding his Turkish heritage with his culinary experiences both here and in Copenhagen, he has made it one of the most talked about restaurants in London.
The extensive grill menu of kebabs and dips, familiar not just to the original Mangal 2 but the many other Turkish restaurants that surround it in Dalston, has gone. It has been replaced by something pared back and refined. Yes, there is hummus, but it has a deep, rustic funk and comes with the pepperiest of olive oils. Grilled sweetbreads come glazed with pomegranate molasses. Vine leaves are stuffed with rice, but they are spun through with brown crab meat and decorated with scribbles of a langoustine cream. Lamb is on the menu but it comes from deeply flavoured Cornish Cull Yaw, or old ewes. It is all rich, restless and compelling.
“The whole experience has been about finding our own identity,” says Dirik, whose brother Ferhat runs front of house. “We grew up with our parents’ food but also amid London’s burgeoning restaurant scene.” His father Ali came to London in 1987 to open his restaurants, escaping impoverished beginnings in Turkey. “I wanted to make linkages between where they started and the food preserving techniques they learned, and my own experiences in London,” Dirik says. “It’s all about not wasting things.”
Getting to this point has not been straightforward. Dirik dropped out of university at 20. His older brother told him to travel, a journey that took him to Copenhagen and work experience at Restaurant 108, sibling to the world-renowned Noma. “Most of my knowledge was then Turkish grill cooking,” he says. “I was probably quite difficult to work with.” In the spring of 2020 Ferhat asked him to come back to help with the restaurant that he had taken over from his father amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. “We realised this was our moment,” Dirik says. “Ferhat and I knew what we wanted to do in terms of feeling. For years we’d bought in the hummus and taramasalata. Now we were going to make everything. It was going to be more of a Turkish bistro. Our dad was a bit scared because the restaurant supports so many livelihoods.” There was also an early backlash from regular customers and from other Turkish restaurants on the strip.
But with time comes acceptance. “We’re getting a lot of love now,” Dirik says. That is not the end of the story, however. “We’re not even at 20% of where we can be,” he says. “I don’t ever want us to stop evolving.” There is, he says, still a lot of work to be done.
Mangal 2, 4 Stoke Newington Road, London N16; mangal2.com
Co-head chefs, Land, Birmingham
Adrian Luck and Tony Cridland are unlikely pioneers of meat-free cookery. Neither is vegan. Neither planned to become a culinary disrupter. But in Land, the small vegan restaurant they run in Birmingham, they have created a model for just how bold, striking and innovative plant-based cooking can be. Cridland, 31, had a standard classical training and worked his way around upmarket hotels before arriving at what was then the vegetarian Restaurant 1847. Luck, 35, was just looking for a job after a stint teaching English in Indonesia, when Cridland employed him. “To be honest I didn’t even know it was vegetarian when I came on board,” says Luck, who is self-taught.
Not long after Luck joined, they took over the space inside Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade from its original owners. They renamed it Land, and decided to work as co-head chefs. Recently they crowdfunded a move to a smaller site within the same arcade, reducing the covers from 36 to a mere 22. “We just wanted to make it a better restaurant,” Luck says. “And so far, it’s worked. I actually think we’re doing better.” A meal at Land might start with crescents of roasted onion squash, on a bed of puy lentils, some of them deep fried to crisp, all of it bound in a mustard dressing. Or there could be Indian spiced carrots on a sweet-sour carrot and ginger puree, dressed with roasted seeds. It’s about sweet potato with a deep dark Mexican mole, or king oyster mushrooms with a white bean cassoulet.
“I was pretty terrible at this sort of cooking at first,” Cridland says, honestly. Without the crutch of a lump of animal protein, he says, “you’ve got to be a lot more creative and thoughtful. It’s about putting depth and umami into a dish, about using fermentation and so on.” What it’s not about is using meat alternatives. “We don’t use any fake meats,” says Luck. “We want to showcase vegetables as best we can. We’ve developed a great repertoire of things we can use for texture. In truth we don’t even think of it as being vegan food any more. We’re just trying to make good food.”
Today they offer a couple of tasting menus and divide up the dishes between themselves. Asked to describe a dish that exemplifies their food, Luck chooses wild mushrooms, slow cooked in dashi. “Then we add mushroom ketchup, parsley and tarragon and finish it with crisps of bean curd.” For Cridland it’s caramelised cauliflower with a spiced sauce and paprika oil. “Then we add puffed wild rice and dehydrated cauliflower leaves.” Both agree that they’d like national recognition for what they’re doing. “But that’s not the endgame,” Luck says. “It’s about the customer being happy.” Going by the healthy state of bookings, that goal has more than been achieved.
Land, 30 Great Western Arcade, Colmore Row, Birmingham; land.restaurant