FIRE IN THE BELLY
As soon as it opened, the Chiltern Firehouse restaurant became a magnet for the rich and famous, but the glamour of some of its diners is possibly the least interesting thing about it. Executive chef Nuno Mendes and head chef Richard Foster talk to the Journal about the subjects that really matter: the food and the philosophy that underpins it
Words: Clare Finney
Images: Emma Lee, Orlando Smith, Peden And Munk
Forty-seven thousand. That’s how many portions of crab doughnuts Chiltern Firehouse has sold since it opened its gates to international acclaim bordering on hysteria. Its refusal to court publicity had, as someone in owner André Balazs’s marketing department must have predicted, somehow courted more publicity than any hotel restaurant opening London had ever seen. The story was that getting a table had become instantly impossible. You had to be somebody, or know somebody, simply to get standing room in the bar area. Yet while the media gorged themselves on snaps of celebrities approaching, entering, or—best of all—stumbling out of the iconic black gates, within the Firehouse walls a smart, understated and altogether more sophisticated crowd of regulars were quietly gathering.
They were the locals: Marylebone residents and workers who, unphased by the famous faces, knew a good thing when they saw one. Yes, you were as likely to bump into Kate Moss in there as your neighbour, but the dining room was chic, the bar beautiful, the staff warm and inviting, and the kitchen—a gleaming, buzzing open plan affair with dining seats at the counter for front row action—overseen by none other than Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes. They loved his food—a bold and enticing blend of cuisines and flavours with a North American thread running throughout—and they loved the drinks list, which had been created with just as much searing attention to detail.
“We are a destination restaurant, but from the start our offer has been geared toward local people—to the neighbourhood. We’re a neighbourhood restaurant that has become destination.” I’m having a flat white with Nuno and his right-hand man, head chef Richard Foster, in one of the plush private dining rooms tucked away next to the restaurant. The pair shrug when I mention celebrities. “The clientele is the clientele. Our team is passionate about hospitality, and we pride ourselves on looking after the guests and giving them all a good time,” says Nuno. To be dining or drinking here is to feel like the most important person in the room, regardless of whether you actually are. The service, the environment, the menu—all are geared toward your entertainment: and while a plate of the famous crab doughnuts would work beautifully in isolation, it’s this holy trinity that sets the Firehouse ablaze.
The secret, it seems, is North America. Loth though we often are to acknowledge it, there are areas in which the States’ huge bearing on our culture and food has proved positive. The Firehouse is one of them: a living, fire-breathing testimony to the merits of a restaurant in which hospitality, taste and above all enjoyment are the primary concerns. Nuno is Portuguese by birth, but he cut his teeth in the Big Apple: home of quality brasseries and busy, beautiful hotel restaurants. “I spent 15 years in North America, and most of my experience was in those kinds of places: amazing for a good night out, loud and social—but with a cool and interesting menu. I never found that in London.” Times have changed now, but if you think about it, not so long ago the choice over here was really between a formal, fine-dining experience or TGI Friday’s.
Life is hectic
“Don’t get me wrong: I like Michelin-starred restaurants. There’s definitely a place for them,” says Nuno. “But life is hectic, we are busy, and when you get time off, you want a place to have fun in.”
“I went for lunch at a reputed fine-dining restaurant a few months ago,” Richard interjects. “We were there for four hours, emptied our pockets—and had no fun at all. We couldn’t really chat because waiters were constantly interrupting us with more and more courses—and I’m just bored of that,” he exclaims. Richard has worked at some of the capital’s most acclaimed restaurants, but he’s found his home at the Firehouse. “There were 200 people in the restaurant last night. Two hundred. On a Wednesday in August in Marylebone. And the buzz, the noise, made your hair stand on end.”
“It was the sound of happiness!” Nuno chips in proudly, unable to disguise his joy.
The Chiltern Firehouse pulls tourists, like anywhere associated with fame and celebrity—which makes its popularity with locals all the more remarkable. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to for this magazine over the last four years has mentioned the Firehouse as a haunt. Some people go daily. “We have many guests to whom we can just say, the usual? And I love that. It’s something we’ve been working toward since we opened,” says Nuno. “I also think people come back because they can have a different experience every time. They can have a quick lunch in 20 minutes. They can relax in the afternoon in the courtyard with some oysters. They can rent the bar at night for a party or hire a private dining room for a big dinner,” adds Richard. “They can have a luxurious or a fairly economical experience.”
Sun sweet melon comes with kelp and Piouet olive oil. Smoked eel comes with potato purée, yuzu and torched onion. The obligatory burrata is there of course—but instead of importing from Italy, the chefs source the cheese from the La Latteria dairy, here in London. “They make our burrata and stracciatella fresh every day in Acton. We love to work with producers like that,” says Nuno, who dresses the Firehouse burrata in chilli jam and heritage tomatoes. Local produce, Japanese sauces, Indian spices, southern US ingredients and European techniques are scattered throughout the menu, and there is certainly more than a hint of fusion flying around here—although Nuno is wary of what he calls “fusion confusion”. His approach, and Richard’s too, is very much that of a well-travelled, Michelin-starred Portuguese chef who has worked in the global cities of North America and the UK.
The New York pantry
Nuno calls it “the New York pantry”: “In a kitchen in New York or San Francisco, the product is the driver, but the way you dress it can be from all four corners. Somewhere like Gramercy Tavern will have French technique, Mexican ingredients, Japanese ingredients—and I like that. It’s a fun way to eat.” The produce is British (“at least 90 per cent”), but the pantry is cosmopolitan. It is here, Richard points out, that you can see Nuno’s Portuguese heritage. “What struck me, when I was travelling, was how easily the Portuguese cuisine fits in with others. Malaysia, Macau in China, the Philippines, Africa, South America, parts of India—all were at some point a part of the Portuguese empire, and you’ll find that in the food.”
Richard, who took six months out from working at the Firehouse to travel around Asia and Africa, was struck by the extent of Portugal’s culinary influence. “I was in Goa in India, and they have this pork sausage made with loads of spices, which they serve in a curry. Pork isn’t usually big in India, but where the Portuguese travelled they used local ingredients to recreate their dishes. Seeing that gets your brain thinking about how you can fuse different cuisines.” For Nuno, a culinary nod to Portugal is a point of pride as well as palate. “I’m not nationalistic, but I am very proud of what has happened in my country. I think for a long time we hid our cuisine and served what we thought tourists were looking for. Now we have started taking more pride in our produce and dishes, and there’s been a revolution in rural areas in Portugal, with young people rejuvenating old traditions in making wine and cheese.”
In Lisbon and Porto, restaurants serving spag bol and pizza have been replaced with tascas and petisqueiras serving up traditional (and, increasingly, highly modern) Portuguese dishes. It’s come over to London too: Nuno himself has opened Taberna de Mercado in Spitalfields, and you’ll find petiscos—the Portuguese answer to tapas—all across London. “Spain, France and Italy have done a very good job at marketing their cuisine. It is recognisable. When you travel to those countries you want to try it. And I think we have made the step of coming out and saying, this is Portuguese.”
A passion for Japan
Though he had “no idea they would be such a hit; I just thought they’d be tasty”, Nuno’s crab doughnuts are a prime example of his innovative approach. “There is American, there’s Portuguese—there are references to all sorts of things in there,” he enthuses. Served with egg and wasabi, there is also a touch of another of Nuno’s favourite countries, one whose food also blends remarkably well with that of Portugal. “I have a passion for Japanese cuisine. It marries really well with Portuguese, so there is Japanese technique as well as ingredients throughout the menu.” For Richard it is India, “the smells, the spices, the colours, the street food”, that gets his juices going. “I love to try to match those to European techniques and ingredients.” As indeed he has achieved in the Firehouse’s tandoori salmon and lamb massaman curry.
As of this month, the menu will start changing—not drastically; the doughnuts are safe for now, I’m told—to enable the incorporation of one-off dishes. “This will give us the freedom to work directly with our suppliers so that if they have some great produce which will only serve one or two days we can have it on the menu for that time.” They’ll be embracing the game season, rare cuts, hyper-seasonal produce, and the opportunity for everyone in the kitchen to get involved in creating new dishes. “Though we’re a big restaurant, I like to keep that small restaurant feel, where the team feels like a family, there’s interaction with the menu and interaction with the suppliers. We have suppliers visit every single day here, and if they turn up with something really cool, it’s nice to say we can work with it,” says Nuno. The chefs remain motivated (“If someone is working a 55-hour week in a demanding environment it’s really important they feel nurtured and engaged in the creative process,” observes Richard) and the diners can enjoy venison, new-season plums and rich roasted partridge.
The Firehouse’s famous oyster cart will be joined by two more stands: one of cheese and the other of charcuterie. “It’s such visceral produce. You want them on display, not hidden somewhere in a fridge,” says Nuno. Having toyed with the idea of having an all-British selection, he decided there were plenty of places doing that already in London, and that they should also showcase other countries: after all, you don’t spend 20-odd years travelling the world working in food without befriending a few artisans. “We have some amazing friends doing amazing projects,” he enthuses. “I want to have some British cheese, of course, but we aren’t a British restaurant. Italy, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Germany—they’re all doing interesting stuff, and we want to share their story.”
‘Make it new’ was the maxim of 20th century writer Ezra Pound—but it could equally be said of Nuno Mendes and his approach to restaurants. Soon after coming to London in 2007, he founded the Loft Project, the cult pop-up for which the chef cooked at their own home and guests dined communally around their kitchen table, because nothing like it existed. He opened Viajante, his first Michelin-starred restaurant, and Taberna do Mercado, for the same reason. “I enjoy doing projects that are new to London—not for the sake of it, but because they add another layer to the food scene. I keep lots of notes of ideas I want to develop—in fact, I actually wrote that I wanted to do a North American-style project years before André asked me about this place...” He smiles knowingly.
I’m prepared to accept this prophetic chef’s foretelling of the Firehouse. But even he cannot have predicted the popularity of crab doughnuts with the denizens of Marylebone.