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A Christmas potluck party with nine top chefs

It was meant to be small. An end-of-year knees-up with FT Magazine regulars — Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich of Honey & Co, Ravinder Bhogal and Tim Hayward — before catering to other people’s good times overwhelmed their festive schedules. Everyone would bring a dish. We’d kick back and moan about office Christmas party bookings and the price of bread.

But a chef’s idea of “just a few of us” is as generous as a locust’s. Itamar and Sarit suggested we invite Melissa Thompson of Fowl Mouth Foods, assuring me that the recipe and food writer would bring great food and good chat. Tim wanted to invite Hoppers’ Karan Gokani — “incredibly clever, and a rabid enthusiast”. Everyone said that a party (was it a party?) wouldn’t be complete without Angela Hartnett and that, if I invited Angela, I’d be an idiot not to invite her husband Neil Borthwick, who runs Soho institution The French House. I invited Jackson Boxer because I’d heard good things about him and at this point, why not?

And so it was that all nine descended on the back room of Honey & Co’s new Bloomsbury café — on a Monday, of course — carrying huge gastro trays and tiny Tupperwares of garnish. It was the sort of happy chaos that chefs are inured to. Sarit looked the other way as we hung tinsel from the restaurant’s very lovely new light fittings. Tim wore what he claimed was his first ever Christmas hat and threatened to wrestle both Itamar (on the usefulness of blanching) and Jackson (on the merit of savoury desserts). Chefs kept disappearing and would invariably be found staring lustfully at the kitchen’s walk-in freezers.

It’s been a very difficult year for the hospitality industry, and not the first. A problem shared is a problem halved (ninthed?) and it felt good to provide a space where some of the country’s smartest, most talked-about “hospos” could tell it to each other straight. We ate, drank, gossiped and bickered like old married couples — which four of the chefs are. What follows is a heavily edited and ever so slightly sanitised transcript of our conversation.

The guest list

Sarit Packer
FT recipe writer, and our host at Honey & Co Daily

Melissa Thompson
Food writer and author of “Motherland: A Jamaican Cookbook”

Karan Gokani
Co-founder of Hoppers

Ravinder Bhogal
FT recipe writer and chef-patron of Jikoni

Jackson Boxer
Chef-proprietor of Orasay and Brunswick House, chef consultant at Cowley Manor and resident chef at Jackson Boxer at The Corner, Selfridges

Angela Hartnett
Chef-patron of Cafe Murano

Neil Borthwick
Head chef at The French House

Itamar Srulovich
FT recipe writer, and our host at Honey & Co Daily

Tim Hayward
FT restaurant writer and co-owner of the Fitzbillies bakeries in Cambridge

I’d like to know how your year has gone. What are you hoping to leave behind?

Itamar: I’m over blanching things. I don’t want to “shock anything in cold water” ever again. It’s fine in a restaurant, but not at home. And sourdough. It’s like crunching into glass. Haven’t we done enough chewing?

Tim: There are so many other sexy breads and not enough days in the year to eat them.

Itamar: There aren’t enough days because you’re chewing sourdough all the time.

Karan: It’s time to leave behind truffle oil, and using truffle as an excuse to charge £10 more.

Harriet: Does anyone have truffle oil on their menu?

[If they do, no one admits to it.]

Ravinder: I’m done with £25 cookies, like at that bakery [Cédric Grolet at The Berkeley, where a large cookie costs £25]. They can go in the bin.

Itamar: All of Knightsbridge as a culinary destination.

Melissa: Contractions or shortenings — “noods” [noodles], “sprunions” [spring onions, presumably]. It annoys me more than it should. I feel my heart racing and my temperature rising.

Itamar: This is the first I’ve heard of sprunions and I love it so deeply. This is your gift to me.

Neil: I think we should lose “I’ve got some friends . . . they’re real foodies”.

[The table erupts in agreement.]

Itamar: I would also make a strong case for “umami” being dropped.

Tim: If we lose umami, we’ve also got to lose tasting menus. The only reason I dislike umami is because of the number of places I’ve been, largely with male chefs, where every single thing is designed to have extra umami. And I’ll have a separate mention for boy chefs and their desserts. Boy chefs don’t do good desserts.

Sarit: They do shit desserts.

Jackson: [Politely] Shut up.

Harriet: Are there any “boy chefs” at this table?

Tim: No! [Gestures towards Karan and Jackson.] Neither of you would put miso on a dessert menu.

Sarit: I did . . . 

Jackson: Desserts need many more savoury elements! Sugar is the least interesting ingredient in a kitchen. It’s completely flat, it’s bland, it lacks any definition. Attempting to draw out light and complexity through the use of savoury counterpoints is one of the few ways you can actually make sugar interesting. I think what Claude does with mushrooms is incredibly interesting. [Claude Bosi’s restaurant at Bibendum has “Scottish cep, banana and crème fraîche” on the dessert menu.]

Neil: I have to compliment you Jackson for using so many big words in such a short space of time. But does it fucking taste good or does it not!

[Chaos returns. Fists are banged.]

What’s been tough this year?

Everyone: Everything.

Karan: It’s been the perfect storm.

Sarit: Honestly, what a shit show.

Jackson: I think the hardest thing about the past two years has been that young people can no longer afford to eat in restaurants. Young people have fewer preconceptions about what they expect for a dish. They like mushrooms on their pudding! It’s why there are lots of very respectable and highly commendable restaurants that have opened this year, but in terms of ones that have pushed the language of food . . . 

Tim: Zero. [On reflection, everyone seems to agree that Adejoké Bakare’s west African restaurant Chishuru may be the exception.]

Melissa: Have you really noticed a demographic shift in your restaurants?

Jackson: I’m afraid so. I mean, we’ve spent more time this year working out how to put things on our menu that are cheaper purely so that we can maintain those regulars who are younger. Things like the pork jowl dish that feeds four people for £40. [This is at Brunswick House. Prices at Jackson’s Selfridges residency are somewhat steeper.] It’s been a real creative challenge to find ways to write menus that can still allow people who have been really struggling to pay the rent to eat out.

Melissa with her roasted squash dish © Issy Croker. Styling by Emily Ezekiel
Ravinder tops up Angela and Neil’s glasses © Issy Croker. Styling by Emily Ezekiel

Tim: It’s very difficult for me to agree with Jackson on anything, but I agree. I can’t tell you how many restaurants I’ve been to this year where I’ve been the youngest person in the room, and that’s really scary.

Sarit: But when I started off cheffing it was the same. I used to work at two Michelin-starred places in London 25 years ago and I could not afford to eat a single dish on those menus. I was paid £600 a month for working 80 hours a week.

Itamar: We all know that this beautiful boom of creativity in London was fuelled by cheap labour from Europe. Now we don’t have the cheap labour.

Ravinder: It’s the government landing us with things and saying “you deal with it”. Minimum wage is going up. We’re still recovering from the pandemic. Rents are really high. The cost of labour, food . . . 

Neil: And no one in government is getting paid less.

Tim: Six months ago, we went past the stage where you could afford to cook a loaf and sell it at a price that people were prepared to pay. I don’t know how anyone is getting bread right now. We’re subsidising it for you.

Itamar: Artichokes cost us more in garbage collection than it costs to buy them.

Sarit: Everyone around this table, we all believe that people should pay more for food. We want to be able to pay our staff. We want to be able to pay our rents, and we want to — at the end — not be poor from it because we didn’t work for 25 years to finish off as a charity.

Harriet: How much more do prices need to go up?

Neil: Another 50 per cent.

Angela: No, shut up. We’re going to outprice ourselves. I look at my menus and think, “Bloody hell we’ve gone up from where we started.” You’ve got to have affordable stuff on there. People wonder why tourists are going to Pret for a sandwich instead of going out to eat — it’s because it’s all they can afford.

Jackson: I think everyone around this table probably understands that no one’s making any profit at the moment. We need to put up prices 20 to 25 per cent, but if we did that, we’d get very quiet and we’d haemorrhage money. So actually the best thing at the moment is to stay as busy as possible and retain as much of our loyal audience as possible. Keep feeding them, keep making them happy. Try not to go bust, and hope that once everyone gets used to inflation, they’ll start to pay more.

Harriet: Does everyone here feel fairly represented by the statement no one is making any money?

[Awkward silence from some corners of the table.]

Let’s lighten the tone. Who here is planning on cooking on Christmas Day?

Ravinder: I love cooking on Christmas Day. The quiet luxury of my own kitchen.

Angela: We always host Christmas in one of the restaurants. I end up with the waifs and strays. I’ll crack open a bottle of wine, put on Radio 4 and tell everyone to get out of the kitchen.

Tim: When I started writing about food, I always imagined it would be like that. You and Neil are living the dream and it’s bloody lovely.

Angela: If you can cook for 10, you can cook for 30.

Karan: Where can we buy tickets!

Tim: I used to cook every year and I was so controlling about it, until a few years ago when I couldn’t do it. [Tim was hospitalised with Covid in November 2020 and spent 10 days on life support.] My daughter had to cook and she did a better job than me! She’s done it every year since. I’ve learnt it is possible to just go outside, sit in the corner and watch the telly.

Jackson: When I was a kid, I used to take over from my parents because they got so distracted by the sociability of it, and the drinking, so everything would start to go slightly wrong. What’s very touching is now it’s come full circle and they refuse to let me do it. But I really struggle with the munificence of the Christmas feast. I want a perfectly cooked piece of meat, a few perfectly cooked vegetables and one nice sauce. Whereas, of course, what my family really want is hundreds of vegetables that are all slightly overcooked with 10 sauces piled on the same plate. I’ve got to be relaxed about that too — they want to eat slop, that’s fine!

Itamar and Sarit steal a kiss under the mistletoe © Issy Croker. Styling by Emily Ezekiel
Jackson serves up his poached trout © Issy Croker. Styling by Emily Ezekiel

Karan: My favourite memory of Christmas was 2020, when no one could go out. We opened up Hoppers King’s Cross and got chef friends to come in, and we did the traditional roast for 200 people, all boxed up as takeaway. People could come and take as many as they wanted.

Sarit: Our Christmas starts with leftovers. On the 24th, when we close the restaurant, all the trimmings will be in a cab home, then on the 25th whoever’s around comes over — “waifs and strays”, same as Angela. We tend to cook on Boxing Day once we’ve slept off the craziness.

Tim: This is a trade secret we probably shouldn’t talk about. Shutting down at the end of service on the last night — I’ll be walking around grabbing half sacks of peas, and then trying to work out what to do with them on Christmas Day. Isn’t it weird?

Itamar: Who here would rather be in the kitchen than at the table?

[Everyone, apart from Neil and Angela, raises their hand. Both claim, touchingly, to be happy relaxing if the other one is cooking — but absolutely not if it’s Angela’s brother in charge.]

What do you cook at Christmas?

Karan: I like traditional Christmas Day, I love the romanticism of everyone being excited about this bird they only see on one day of the year. But I do about three or four versions of Christmas. A few days before, we always have a goose, cooked in a way that is more Asian-inspired. We’ll also do some Indian- or Sri Lankan-inspired dinners, like a large curry or biryani for friends.

Ravinder: One of the most joyful things that we have at Christmas is we always have birthday cake because it was my late father’s birthday on Christmas Eve. We commemorate him every year.

Jackson: I love cooking on Christmas Eve. We always do a ham. Rather than having everything on Christmas Day — it’s nice to break the protein up. You get your ham on Christmas Eve, your turkey on Christmas Day, then Boxing Day is a leftovers extravaganza. Then maybe a steak and kidney pie the following day.

Tim: I’ve been prepping for Christmas since spring. I’ve got a little pear tree on my terrace and I cut it back except for one pear, which I put a bottle over and will use to make poire williams. [The pear grows inside the bottle, like a mini greenhouse, and the bottle is then filled with brandy.] I always try to persuade people we ought to have a duck or a goose but we end up with a large chicken.

Angela: So, a capon. [Capons are castrated cockerels and illegal in the UK, but a suspicious proportion of the chefs seem familiar with cooking them.]

What’s the secret to having a good time at your own party?

Ravinder: Get someone else to do the washing up.

Sarit: Cook in advance.

Melissa: No! Cook on a barbecue. Then you can excuse yourself. You’re in the garden and no one will come out because it’s cold. And delegate a little bit. Give people tasks, even just peeling carrots.

Neil: But if they don’t peel the carrots right . . . Get out!

Tim: The secret is, you get a bottle of gin, you take 10 per cent out of the top of it, you top that up with vermouth and put it in a freezer. Then you hide in the kitchen the entire time and drink martinis.

Angela: We’re all sounding really antisocial and like none of us care about our businesses that are all in hospitality. I think basically the secret is less is more. Do what you can, don’t try to be clever. A cold starter, a dessert that’s ready. We always do a salad — it’s one less thing to worry about.

What’s the best new restaurant of 2023?

Melissa: Chishuru in Soho

Jackson: Chishuru

Karan: Kolae in Borough Market

Ravinder: Canton Blue at The Peninsula Hotel in Knightsbridge

Neil: The White Horse in Churton, near Liverpool

Angela: The Devonshire, Soho

Tim: Lasdun [the new National Theatre restaurant]

Sarit and Itamar: Lasdun

Neil: Maybe Angela’s selling herself a bit short. There was one Christmas when the Scottish contingent were down, and the food was cooking at Murano while we spent the day at home in east London. I asked Angela, “Are you sure the goose is going to be OK?” We got back to Murano and it was . . . definitely cooked. We said, “You’d better get down to the Esso garage on Park Lane and see if they’ve got some hoisin sauce for duck pancakes.”

Angela: It was so crispy. My mum pushed it away and said, “I think maybe do chicken next year.”

A chefs’ feast: poached trout, Caesar salad, mushroom vol-au-vents, terrine and . . .  © Issy Croker. Styling by Emily Ezekiel
The Society’s Celebration Crémant de Loire 2020

Karan: Menu planning is key. Most people get screwed because they’ve only got one oven. In our restaurant kitchens, you’d never design a menu where everything is coming from one section. The moment you’ve got a menu with five things coming from the fryer you think, “OK, stop!”

Ravinder: Everything should come from the fryer!

Tim: The privilege of self-confidence and experience is to say, “Take it easy, it’ll be fine.” Whereas for a lot of people it still has that edge of panic — I remember my mum in tears over something in the kitchen. Now, nothing’s going to make us cry.

Neil: There’s no point crying over an overcooked Brussels sprout, mum.

Melissa: Also, use really hot gravy.

Tim: Ah, yes, the working-class nan tip. It warms everything up.

Tell me about your hopes and dreams for next year.

Sarit: People are back dining in restaurants. That’s positive.

Angela: Hopes for next year? No more rail strikes. It kills London. And I’d love Labour to get in because I think they’d listen to our industry more.

[Generalised agreement.]

Melissa: There is always a burgeoning, exciting food scene happening in places, right? This weekend I was eating Trini fried chicken in Copeland Park in Peckham at a Nigerian brewery that is just opening [Eko Brewery, one of only two Black-owned breweries in the UK] and bakeries are flourishing because people can go out and have a nice time but not spend a lot . . . I think there are the foundations of a really exciting food scene.

Jackson: As seasoned pros, we’re bemoaning the end of the old order. But this sundering with the status quo creates an opportunity for young people who don’t have any preconceptions and who just see the world for what it is right now. I started Brunswick House in 2009, because of the financial crash. Lassco weren’t selling any chandeliers so they needed someone to do something with that huge building.

Tim: When I joined this industry, it had a weird rackety amateurishness to it. Bright, cool young people who maybe didn’t fit in anywhere else, coming in and working really hard to make a life out of it. And the people I’m seeing coming in at the moment are like that. As long as we can keep them off the tequila and the cocaine, they might be as cool as us one day! The industry is battered and beaten, but if my daughter said, “I’m going to open a restaurant,” I’d be immensely proud.

Jackson: It makes people happy. What a fantastic thing to devote your life to.

Tim: National service . . . in the service industries!

Harriet Fitch Little is the FT’s food and drink editor

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