29 July 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with James Ferguson


James-Ferguson-BEAGLE-BEST_resized.jpgJames Ferguson will head up the kitchen at Beagle when it opens in Hoxton next month. The 33-year-old Yorkshire-born chef talks to Square Meal about classical music, ‘ball-breaking’ chefs, and why Marmite should be banned.

What made you decide to become a chef?

I grew up in a restaurant: my dad's half-Greek, and he ran a Mediterranean restaurant. Both my Greek grandma and my maternal grandma, who was from South Shields, were really good cooks and they had a huge influence on me. Dad was making pasta back in 1980 – I remember him hanging out pasta to dry over the backs of chairs. He'd make huge rectangular pizzas, slow-roast chickens, and Greek dishes such as baked lamb with potatoes or skordalia (a chunky garlic dip). I was lucky, really; I don't think a lot of people got that growing up. I still wake up and the first thing I think is what I’m going to have for lunch or dinner.

Did you always want to be a chef?

I trained as a classical pianist, and initially I wanted to turn professional. I studied classical music for a year at the Birmingham Conservatoire, but trying to scrape a living as a musician is really difficult. I was always passionate about food – I had helped my dad in the restaurant kitchen from the age of 13, and even when I was studying music, I would cook for my mates at uni – so when I was 21, I thought, 'I'm going to go down to London and get a job' – and I did.

I would have loved to have been a pianist, but it's such a ridiculous career – even concert pianists struggle to make a living, and you have to put so much effort in, practising seven hours a day from the age of eight. I can still tinkle a few things, though.

Having cooked fine-dining Italian food at The Connaught, French food at L’Escargot and British food at Rochelle Canteen, why have you decided to stick to British dishes at Beagle?

I really like hearty British food. When I first saw the menu at St John I was taken aback, because at the time I was working in a fine-dining restaurant, while Fergus Henderson was serving the things my grandma used to give me as a kid – mutton-and-potato pie with a suet crust and homemade mushy peas, steak-and-kidney pudding, stew and dumplings.

My grandma cooked for the staff all on her own at Krumlin Mill in Halifax, and even though she was just one small woman cooking for nearly 100 men, she would cook amazing food. I used to go there and watch her. That's partly where my love of British food came from.

Considering Beagle borders the City as well as trendy Shoreditch, what kind of diners do you think it will attract?

I don't think we'll attract the really trendy people in Shoreditch, and I don't think the restaurant will be full of City types either, because the menu isn't massively blokey. I'm just happy to have bums on seats and repeat custom. We'll probably attract a young foodie crowd – and I've got a good following at the Canteen, where lots of my regulars have been asking about Beagle.

What is behind the name Beagle?

Beagle's owners, Danny and Kieran Clancy came up with the name. Before the Overground trains used to run over these arches, it was used as the old East London line, which was a steam railway used for transportation. The first steam train to cross the arches where the restaurant is located was called The Beagle. Some of that history has been incorporated into the design of the restaurant: we're using reclaimed railway sleepers for the wooden floors, for example. It's got nothing to do with a dog.

beagle dish braised rabbit with butter beans and mustard 2013 - Braised-rabbit-with-butter-beans-and-mustard-BEAGLE-HIGH_resized.jpgWhich of the chefs you've worked with have had the most influence on you?

Everyone I've worked for has had an influence on me, but Angela Hartnett had a really big effect on me because she could do Michelin-style food, which I'm not interested in now, but she could also pare it back. I went through every section in the years I worked for her at The Connaught, and it gave me a really good grounding in knife skills, pasta skills, how to deal with fish, and so on. Being a 34-year-old woman and running a kitchen like The Connaught was hardcore, so it made me think that if Angela could get her head down and do it, then I should be able to do it.

I had dinner with Angela after I took the job at Beagle and she gave me some good advice. She told me to keep doing what I'm doing – simple, hearty dishes such as braised rabbit with butter beans and mustard (pictured, left) – and not to think that I have to dress it up. She came to the Canteen quite a lot when I was there, which is a good endorsement.

Have the female chefs you've worked for had a different approach to the male chefs, and do you think their differences come down to gender?

Angela and Margot Henderson [co-owner of Rochelle Canteen] are complete polar opposites, but they are both strong women. I suppose they are different to the men – both tend to be a bit less harsh in their criticism. I prefer that approach; it's a bit more constructive. Angela would laugh if she heard that, because at The Connaught she was under pressure, and she and the head chef would do a lot of ball-breaking. Don't forget that she had Gordon Ramsay breathing down her neck.

Warren Geraghty, who I worked for at L’Escargot, runs all the Galvin restaurants now. I went to see him the other day and when we walks into the kitchen it’s like Darth Vader walking into the Death Star! However, it depends on the individual. There are male chefs who are very gentle: Nuno Mendes of Viajante is a lovely guy, for example – some people say he's too nice in the kitchen. If you compare him to Angela, Angela's a lot tougher. I wouldn't like to put them in the ring together – Nuno would be marmalised!

What do you like and dislike about the London dining scene at the moment?

I'm not a huge fan of any fad. I mean, how long is somewhere like Bubbledogs going to last? Sooner or later, people are going to get fed up with hot dogs and Champagne, and they'll have to come up with another idea. The whole burger trend is starting to grate, too. By contrast, places like St John Bread and Wine or Chez Bruce do good, honest cooking year in, year out, and it's those places that stand the test of time.

I like the barbecue places that are popping up – I'm really looking forward to trying out John Salt and Pitt Cue Co. At Beagle we'll have a wood-fired grill, so I want to learn from those guys.

What golden rules do you have in the kitchen?

I can't bear having music on, because people start dancing and singing to it, and when they’re doing that they're not thinking about what they're cooking – that’s terrible, coming from a musician! If they put some Rachmaninov on, or a bit of Beethoven's Fifth, I might allow it. But I don't like pumping dance music and all that, especially during service.

There's loads of stuff I'm fussy about, but a major thing is chefs who rush and cut corners. A lot of cooking comes down to patience. Every process – from sweating onions to sealing meat – should take its own time, and to get things right, you need patience. What's the point of using good ingredients to make a rubbish braise?

What is your food heaven and hell?

I like all food – except Marmite, which should be banned. It tastes like rust to me – if I licked a battery, it would probably give me the same amount of pleasure. I'm also against fast food, so I haven't been to McDonald's since I was 12.

As for my food heaven, it would probably be a really nice roast chicken. But my vice is Toblerone. At Christmas, I was given some really expensive chocolate with caramel, and a Toblerone. And you know what? The Toblerone was better. I can get through a whole one in a day – it's the king of ‘dirty’ chocolate.

This interview was conducted in February 2013.

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