Q&A: KURT ZDESAR & JORDAN SCLARE
The owner and executive chef of Fucina on travelling the world, straddling multiple cuisines, and trying to tell Italians how to cook Italian
Interview: Clare Finney
Interview: Clare Finney
You have a Peruvian-Japanese restaurant, a Hawaiian poké restaurant, and Fucina, which is Italian. How do you manage to straddle so many cuisines—none of which are indigenous to either of you?
Kurt: I think it is about having an appreciation of good quality food. Whether it’s Indian, Chinese or Italian, I know what good food looks like. The second thing is travelling—we do a lot of research before opening a new restaurant in any cuisine. When I was young, we were a very well-travelled family. I went to nine different schools, in Singapore, Spain, Austria and England. I left school at 14. My parents never put any emphasis on schooling—they thought learning life through experience was of more value.
Jordan: I have classical French training and worked for years at The Savoy and Gordon Ramsay before being head chef at Nobu. I think having classical training is essential, whatever cuisine you are working in. Then it’s experience and passion. I have a deep love for South Asian and Italian food.
How much research did you do for Fucina?
K: We did Tuscany, Milan, Venice, Rome—I had every location laid out. We’d do two lunches and two dinners a day. We did do three dinners once, but that was just stupid. I don’t want to throw food away, and the food was so good we found it impossible to just taste it and wait for the next course. You can’t stop when it is food like that.
J: We did six restaurants in one day, once. It was horrendous. I was so full I was depressed.
Had you always wanted to work in food?
K: I wanted to be a boatbuilder—though as a child I was fascinated with food. We lived in quite a diverse neighbourhood and at the weekend I would decide who I wanted to hang out with according to how their parents could cook. My mother was a terrible cook. I think she’d agree: I had six brothers and sisters, so she had to cook for eight people, sometimes three times a day. It was a horrible chore. By the time I was nine, I’d decided I would marry an Italian woman—except when I went to my friend George Li’s house, when I changed my mind to a Chinese woman. Food was very important, but I only got a job in a kitchen as a stopgap while I worked out how to get into the boatbuilding industry.
J: I remember, as part of a school project, we had to cook breakfast for our family. I only did scrambled eggs, but I remember seeing the appreciation on my family’s faces. That was when I started to get into cooking for people. I have so many pictures of me as a kid dressed up in an apron with a white chef’s hat on, which said “Good looking cooking” on it. My first experience in a professional kitchen was on a work experience placement aged 14.
So, Kurt, when did you realise you were going to be a restauranteur?
K: It just transpired—I suppose because it never felt like I was working. Some of the jobs I’d done were horrendous, but it was a reward simply being in this environment. I actually started out in the kitchen, but when I saw the waiters getting tips I thought, if I got out there, I would clean up. At that time, chefs didn’t really have names for themselves, with the exception of Marco Pierre White, so front of house seemed the way forward.
I hung on to the boat dream until we moved to the UK, to Birmingham, and there wasn’t really anywhere to build boats in the Midlands. I do still dream about it, but I don’t think I’ll build one now. I think I’ll buy one when I retire.
These days chefs are lauded, while front of house people are more ‘behind the scenes’...
K: I don’t think it is a career that appeals much to British people. Of the 300-odd people we employ, only five are from the UK. If you go to Europe you will see waiters who are 55, 75 years old and proud to be waiters; here waitering says ‘student’.
Jordan, your background was classical French and British cuisine—then you went to Nobu. How did you find the transition?
J: It was not a problem for me. Whenever I go to a restaurant and I don’t know how that food has been made, I want to master it. I was heavily into eating Asian food while I was working at The Savoy and knew that was what I wanted to do next. But then I saw Gordon Ramsay on television and couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought, I’ll go there for two weeks to see what it’s like while I’m searching for an Asian restaurant to work in. I stayed for two and a half years. I think the challenge kept me there: I wanted to step up to it. I was screamed and shouted at every day for two and a half years—and then the day came that I wasn’t shouted at, and I knew I’d done it. At that point I went to Nobu and pursued my ambition in Asian food.
How did the two of you meet?
K: I was running the Nobu group and Jordan was running the kitchen at Nobu restaurant. He was the best chef I had ever come across. I thought, if I ever set up anything myself, it will be with this guy. It took us some time to get it together after I left, as I don’t like to poach people, but eventually I had the opportunity to grab him.
J: I’d left Nobu by then and had been at Aqua Kyoto for five years when Kurt contacted me about his idea for a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant, Chotto Matte. I was ready.
It was a bold move to open Fucina in an area with so many great Italian restaurants. What inspired the move?
K: London is saturated with Italian restaurants. I don’t think there is anywhere you could say doesn’t have enough Italian restaurants. For me, it was about creating a stylish, luxurious but casual restaurant that served the people of Marylebone. It’s about comfort and being somewhere local people want to return. Italian cuisine felt right for that. Our regulars have come an average of 60 times, or twice a month, since we opened. Some have been even more frequent. We know our regulars, right down to if they like a gin and tonic on arrival, and where they like to sit.
You have described Fucina as ‘modern Italian’. What do you mean by that?
K: I feared using the word ‘modern’ because it sounds like you are getting away from tradition, when in fact our modernity comes from the way we source our produce. We are sensitive to the environment. We don’t use genetically modified ingredients, try to be as organic as possible and we look at the way our produce has been reared or grown.
The other aspect that is modern is the menu. If you look around London, there are a lot of great places doing the classics, and some are amazing, some terrible, some mediocre. We wanted to look at each dish, each process and ingredient, and ask, how can it be better? How we go up to the next level? We haven’t always managed it, but where we have, as with the ragu or the octopus salad, it’s amazing.
J: French training is a really good foundation for all cooking. I always go back to basics—to those techniques, the high standard and the attention to detail. I love the slow cooking and braising of meats we did at Gordon’s. With the ragu, we take a whole short rib, put it in the oven for 10 hours without stirring, then shred it into a bolognese sauce. Another modern element is rethinking how much meat we should be eating. Two of our signature dishes are vegetarian, and incredibly popular.
Most if not all of your staff at Fucina are Italian—which seems surprising, given the huge diversity at your other restaurants. Was that a conscious decision?
K: In Italy, I can go to any trattoria or enoteca I find and get food to die for. Part of that is the product, but it is also that Italian chefs understand their produce, what quality looks like, and how to work with it.
J: Japanese-Peruvians are in their third generation now. The Nikkei cuisine isn’t really claimed by either nation: the Japanese see it as Peruvian, the Peruvians regard it as Japanese. It’s a lot more outside the box and open to interpretation. In Fucina, though, Kurt was very happy to have all Italian staff, speaking Italian—even drinking the expensive Italian coffee from the restaurant coffee machine.
K: We need to. If the coffee isn’t good enough then Italians simply won’t come and work for you.
How did it feel, telling an Italian kitchen how to cook Italian food?
J: Not very comfortable, to be honest—at least not in the beginning. They are far more experienced than me and they all speak Italian. But everyone who works with us is open-minded and understands that regardless of the cuisine we’re working with, we want the best end result.
K: In researching and travelling around the world, Jordan and I learn, expand our repertoire and increase our experience in terms of flavour profiles and presentation. All we are trying to say is, look, we have seen some stuff, let us show you—because sometimes a little change can absolutely make a dish. The other day we wanted a broccoli and gorgonzola soup on the menu, and the chef presented us with a recipe from his village. It was very good, but the cheese on top was just sprinkled. We asked him to melt it in—you could see he was taken aback, but when he did, he agreed it was much better. All we are trying to do is make every dish the best possible version it can be.
What does the future look like for Fucina?
K: Our priority will always be the food. There is a hard push now to make everything Instagrammable, but we want to focus on creating the best flavours in our field. Beyond that, we are considering pasta workshops. We make all our pasta by hand and have had lots of questions from people wanting to understand how to make it. We want to do more in the community, like the candles and carols in the park event we did in December. We’re keen to become a real part of the neighbourhood.