Pop Up People: Jamie Allan (Breakfast of Champions)
By Natalie Hardwick
Jamie Allan is pure breed Chomping Ground material – Hackney born and bred and he’s lived here his whole life. Yes, natives like this still exist. And when we say his whole life, we mean almost – in his early 20s, he had a rather eventful dalliance with Parisian living, where he rose the ranks in gruelling, shouty French kitchens, at one point working under Alain Ducasse. Now he’s back in Hack’ and running his regular pop-up, Breakfast of Champions, which we’re pleased to say is an altogether less stressful affair. We attended in February, and the lamb belly lollipops and mackerel with rhubarb pretty concisely sum up his modern, tidy, coordinated and seasonal approach to cooking. He also chefs at Hill & Szrok, Broadway Market’s brilliant butcher-cum-cookshop, melding his classic training with a very ‘nouveaux Hackney’ surrounding. We talked to him about classic chef training, how his home borough has changed and why it’s always worth giving Ridley Road a second scour…
When did you decide to become a chef?
I mentioned it to my old man when I was about 12 and he said “nah, you don’t want to do that”. He’d had a restaurant and I think he wanted me to take a higher paid job! So I wanted to be a chef for a long time and didn’t do too well at school, so the natural thing was to train as a chef.
Your dad was a chef too?
He had a restaurant in New Zealand and he was really into food, so he’s the reason I got into it too. He’s from Glasgow originally and went down to New Zealand for a while, and I think his place was the talk of the town for a while as he’d come over from Europe.
How did you get started as a chef?
I got a job working in a hotel in Sloane Square doing things like making chips, cleaning salad and making staff meals. I was there for a while, then I went for a meal in Morgan M, a French restaurant in Holloway that’s closed down now. They gave out a little rating card at the end of the meal and by this point I’d had a few wines, so I wrote “really liked it – would love a job”, and the guy called me back after a week and said that I could come in to see the kitchen and work with them for the day. So I did that on my days off, then after a few months they gave me a job.
So you had fine dining training pretty much from the start?
Yes, Morgan M was a little bit modern, but classic cooking really. I was there for a year and a half then got myself a French girlfriend and she was moving to Paris and I decided to go with her.
You're quite the Francophile. What happened with you got there?
I ended up working in the Eiffel Tower for Alain Ducasse at Les Jules Verne.
Wow, major league big break!
Yes. It was a difficult job and I didn’t speak the language, but that was kind of better as you couldn’t understand all the names they were calling you!
Oh dear. So it was one of ‘those’ kinds of kitchens…
Looking back it was good but at the time it was pretty horrendous. It was an old school brigade system and very tough – a military-type operation. I was second commis in a huge team of 15 or 16.
What kind of things were you were cooking?
It was very technical cooking, so not necessarily the most yummy food, and it was expensive – main courses were €100. It was things like fillet steak, fois gras and brioche, and I remember having to cook a lot of pomme soufflé.
Oh nice, those little posh potato pillows?
Yes. You cut them really thin and make them in two stages – firstly, you cook them slowly in oil, then you put them in the hot oil for service so they puff up. But it wasn’t just classic French food, it was quite modern. When I quit – and I wont go into that – I departed down the steps of the Eiffel Tower, which felt pretty euphoric, this kind of epic freedom walk.
Where did the long path to freedom lead you?
To Le Chateaubriand, which was a big turning point. It made me look at food in a different way.
Just how you treat the ingredients, before you even get to the cooking stage. They had a lot of trust in the cooks who worked for them. Even if you didn’t quite know what you were doing, they’d let you go with the creative process as they believed that you don’t create great dishes by sitting down and forcing it – it’s evolutionary. They changed the menu every day and it was less about perfection and consistency. It’s better to keep things moving. They treated me well and it was a great place to work.
Is that how you’d run a kitchen?
Yes, because five heads are better than one [in that chefs of all levels contribute to menu creation]. Everyone has their own part to play, no matter how much experience they have.
What was the style of cooking?
It was very modern. They kind of started the whole informal dining with high-end food thing. They didn’t write the menu then order the ingredients in – it was the other way around, and the product was second to none, the best I’ve ever worked with. We turned up in the afternoon and had no idea what the menu for dinner was going to be, so we’d be prepping prepping prepping until 5pm. But we did a clean job and it was great. We didn’t complicate things. We left the product quite natural.
What have you been doing since you got back from France?
At the moment I’m working at Hill & Szrok, which is a butcher by day and a restaurant at night. The butcher gives us the meat and we just have to cook it nicely. We have three or four starters and mains and one or two desserts, and it’s either me or Alex Szrok, the owner, in the kitchen at any one time. As well as working there, I’ve been doing my pop-up, Breakfast of Champions.
A Chomping Ground favourite – we loved the menu in February. What’s in store for the next one?
I’m hosting one on the 7th June at Hill & Szrok and I have a few menu ideas, but as it’s seasonal I wont write it until the last minute. It’ll be seven courses this time, and I’m thinking of doing a burrata dish, then I’ll do something with hake – I love cooking it, it’s my new favourite fish as it’s cheap and much better than pollock – and the main will be lamb. I’ll definitely be using elderflowers and fresh peas. I’m doing a second one at Hash E8 on July 2.
So you’re keeping it based in your home borough. What do you think of the modern day Hackney?
I like how its changed, although it occasionally gets my back up, but that’s London full stop. I don’t really eat out that much. I’m never happier than when I’m at home around a dinner table with friends. I do my shopping on Ridley Road – for one of my pop-ups I got some mackerel there. Ridley Road market has a bit of a bad name, but if you know what you’re looking for you can get some decent stuff. You can tell that one or two of the fish stalls have picked up their stock that morning – you can tell by the shine of the fish. It’s not the most fashionable market – hovering seagulls is never a good look! - but there are some real people on there.
Top advice. Speaking of people, do you have any chefs you look up to? Or any cookbooks you couldn’t live without?
My Dad gave me a few good cookbooks, including the original St John book, and I went and lost it – apparently they’re worth around £800 now too! They’ve been reprinted, but my heart sunk a little bit, not because of the money but because I’d lost something with a bit of meaning. It had a really cool cover with a hawks-eye view of people eating. It’s a great book.