Adam Handling interview: "I’m a little rebel"

The Frog's chef and owner is famous for being one of London's most talented young chefs, but now that he has turned 30, Adam Handling tells us about his most mature project to date: opening the flagship restaurant at the new Belmond Cadogan Hotel

Updated on 26 February 2019 • Written By Ben McCormack

Adam Handling interview:

It’s hard to believe that Adam Handling only turned 30 last September. It feels like the Scottish chef, who has been one of London dining’s brightest stars of the past decade, has already been around for forever.

Handling found fame at the tender age of 25 on MasterChef: The Professionals in 2013, but by that point he’d already been the first apprentice chef at the prestigious Gleneagles hotel in Perthshire before becoming Fairmont Hotels’ youngest-ever head chef and winning the title of Scottish Young Chef of the Year 2011. What’s more, hospitality magazine Caterer gave him an Acorn award and tipped him as its youngest-ever entrant on its ‘30 under 30 to watch’ list.

Since then, Handling fulfilled his precocious promise by leaving his first London head chef role at the St Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster to open The Frog, his first solo restaurant, in Shoreditch in 2016. Frog by Adam Handling launched in Covent Garden the following year, while 2019 sees him open his most high-profile project yet, Adam Handling Chelsea, at the new Belmond Cadogan Hotel, the first London property from the luxury travel group that also operates Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and the Orient-Express.

Here he tells us all about his new restaurant, his plans for the future – and why this Masterchef likes nothing more than a bucket of fried chicken.  

How did the new restaurant come about?

Adam Handling Chelsea is a partnership between Belmond and Adam Handling Restaurant Group. Belmond is a formidable company and I’m super-excited that we’ve partnered together. My restaurant group was one of a few that Belmond approached. When I found out who I was up against, I thought there was no way I would win it. Belmond has a lot of great things around the world so just to be part of that is incredible. We’re not the same as Le Manoir though. They’re a flawless country house, whereas I’m a little rebel.

The interior of Adam Handling Chelsea restaurant

The interior of Adam Handling Chelsea

What appealed to you about the property?

The history is really cool. Oscar Wilde was arrested here and Lillie Langtry [Edward VII’s mistress] lived here, which is why there are Prince of Wales crests around the room. They’ve been restored to how they looked in 1903.

How does Adam Handling Chelsea fit alongside your other restaurants?

The Frog is informal dining, Adam Handling is formal dining and Frog by Adam Handling is a mix of them both. Bean and Wheat, my City delicatessen, is sustainable dining. My olive oils and my more expensive luxury products are all under the Adam Handling brand, which means luxury.

How does it feel working for a hotel group again?

I was very surprised that I took another hotel job after the way I was treated by St Ermin’s. We ended things on horrendous terms after they changed my contract. But at the end of the day, that was the best thing that ever happened to me. They broke me, but that gave me the power to open The Frog E1 and the determination to never be treated like that by anyone again and never to treat anyone like that myself.

The one thing I said when I agreed to do this new project was, am I doing it my way or will I be burnt down the line again like I was at St Ermin’s? But Belmond want me for me, and that’s a beautiful feeling. We’re working together to create something special.

Adam Handling in Cadogan Place Gardens

Adam Handling in Cadogan Place Gardens, which guests at the Belmond Cadogan have access to 

Is there a signature dish at Adam Handling Chelsea?

John Dory with squid and broccoli and a caviar beurre blanc. It’s absolutely stunning.

How would you describe your cooking style?

British foundations inspired by London. This is a huge multicultural city. On every street corner there’s a different type of food style. I take inspiration from everything around me but fundamentally it’s British food.

How did The Frog name come about?

It was a joke. When I left St Ermin’s, I leapt from Westminster to Shoreditch, so it was a play on taking our first leap, and also frogs either sink or swim. I met a graphic designer who drew me a logo of a graffitied frog, which I fell in love with – it was a perfect fit for Shoreditch. And I thought, whoa – I’ve never done anything like that before, everything I’d done until that point had been clean-cut and beautiful. And I thought, sod it, let’s do it.

The Frog Hoxton interior

The Frog Hoxton

Do you have any plans to open more restaurants?

Maybe not The Frog, but more on the Adam Handling side of things. The next place I open will not be in London though. But I can’t say where yet.

You turned 30 last September. How was that?

It was a painful time for me. I’m joking. It was really great. My staff gave me a couple of surprise parties. They sent me away with some of my friends to one of my favourite places in the south of Spain and when I came back, they threw a massive party for me. It’s hard to pull the wool over my eyes but they actually got me. I was very emotional.

For someone who achieved so much so young, does turning 30 feel like turning a corner?

For sure, yeah. But I’m still very proud to have been youngest person to be given an Acorn award when I was 24 and to be the only person under 30 to have won a chef of the year award, twice. You are remembered a little bit for that. But I’m not competing any more. My focus now is on being a sustainable company and making what we have better than what we did yesterday.

Do you feel that you missed out on your 20s?

If I have one regret, it would have been to have enjoyed my teens and my 20s better. But only if it didn’t jeopardise what I have now. Otherwise I’m very happy with how things have turned out. I still pinch myself.

Do you see your company following a similar model to Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton’s?

I have a different vision. I don’t want to be closing restaurants for unsuccessful reasons. Those sorts of groups have peaked and then faded off and they’ve had to sell restaurants or change their structure. I don’t want to be a restaurant just for the now and I don’t want to win anything like the best restaurant in the world award. But I do want to be the favourite restaurant in the area. It’s all about having that connection with local people and to be able to make the restaurant continually full.

What has been the key to your success?

Determination. I’ve worked my arse off as a chef and people think that because I’m doing well, I’ve been handed my success on a plate. My dad was in the army and my mum’s a cleaner. What do you think they handed me apart from a brain to tell me that I need to work for myself? I was up at six this morning after going to bed at three finishing off my emails. I’m not just a chef any more, I’m a restaurateur, so I’m the one who has to have a handle on everything in my business.

Lamb Wellington at Adam Handling Chelsea

Lamb Wellington at Adam Handling Chelsea

Would you do more TV work?

If I was offered it, yes. It’s the best PR.

How do you relax?

There’s nothing better than going to a restaurant on a Sunday with my wife, my restaurant director and his wife, eating too much food and having a great time.

Which are your favourite London restaurants?

There are loads. Holborn Dining Room is near where I live on the Strand. It’s a really awesome place that serves uncomplicated food that you want to eat, they have a good wine list and the staff are lovely. I go to Zuma on the way home from the Belmond Cadogan. I love Hawksmoor because the meat is delicious. I don’t particularly go to pompous restaurants, I go to the ones that serve tasty food.

Where is your favourite food destination?

Bangkok. I go whenever I can. I’m back there in May for a wedding, my best friend lives there and I’m his best man. Everyone is nice to you in Bangkok – the people are super polite and very humble. The culture is phenomenal, it’s all about food and drink and trying to feed people. That’s the kind of thing that the UK lacks. Here there’s too much emphasis on arrogance and wealth.

Do you have a guilty food pleasure?

I love KFC. I’d eat it every single day if I could. KFC and a bottle of good Champagne is my food heaven.

If you remember watching Adam Handling on MasterChef, read our interview with the show's presenter, Monica Galetti

Photos: Tim Green