Jackson Boxer interview: “Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life”

The acclaimed chef talks sobriety, sibling rivalry and his St Leonard’s exit

Updated on 28 January 2020 • Written By Eamonn Crowe

Jackson Boxer interview: “Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life”

If I were a betting man, I’d say that Jackson Boxer is the type of guy who jumps out of bed as soon as his alarm goes off, without once hitting the ‘snooze’ button (which is more than can be said for the most of us). Why the assumption? Well, that would be because of Boxer’s boundless energy and passion for what he does.

“Every single day that I go into the kitchen and cook is an immensely happy one for me” says the London-based chef, who runs two hugely successful restaurants, Brunswick House in Vauxhall and Orasay in Notting Hill. The latter, a relaxed seafood restaurant championing British produce, was awarded SquareMeal’s Best New London Restaurant of 2019, an accolade which the chef calls “an extraordinary honour”.

Aside from running two of the capital’s most popular dining haunts, Jackson has also built up a cult following on Instagram (25k followers and counting) as well as previously having strutted his stuff on the catwalk for designer brand Hermes: “A terribly embarrassing thing to have done… but when Hermes asked me to do it, I was immensely flattered and it was very hard to say no.”

It is obvious though, that cooking is what he is most passionate about: “I feel immensely privileged to have found this job that I can work incredibly hard at and never find dull. I feel that of all the things I could have decided to do with my life, I’ve found something that’s enormously stimulating and enjoyable.”

One of the rooms at Brunswick House

Family ties: Boxer on his childhood, career and sibling rivalry

Considering Boxer’s family tree, it would easy to assume that a career in food was practically pre-determined – his grandmother is renowned food writer Arabella Boxer, while his dad Charlie runs the much-feted Italo deli in Bonnington Square. A career in cooking wasn’t always on the cards though: “There was never really a time where I determined that I wanted to be a chef. I started cooking in my twenties and the older I get, the more passionate I become about it.”

Boxer spent his teenage years as “kind of a dogsbody” for Margot Henderson (co-founder of the legendary St. John), with his tasks ranging from washing pots in her restaurant’s kitchen to babysitting her children. It was then that he truly realised his passion for all things food. “If I were babysitting her kids, Margot would come in and prod me awake at 2am, and before I went she’d always make sure we had a quick drink for the road.

“Around her table at the end of the evening would be the most extraordinary diverse group of people, like chefs Jeremy Lee and Mark Hix, artists Sarah Lucas and Peter Docke or Michael Clark the dancer. I just thought f*cking hell, if you’re a chef and your job is to cook people dinner, your world is so much bigger than the food world. While food may not have the ultimate power of great art, it provides a great meeting point for a lot of those different disciplines and that was something that was always so exciting to me about food – its universalism.”

Boxer’s brother Frank has also ventured into the world of hospitality and is the man behind the popular rooftop bar Frank’s in Peckham. Is there any sibling rivalry? “Every sibling relationship contains an element of competition and I think that is healthy. I think the older we get, it’s become more of a supportive relationship, while in our twenties there was more of a raw competitive edge.

“I don’t think my brother and I had any plans to end up doing the same thing, but we came from a time when London offered opportunity for people to start new businesses in unused spaces. I’m immensely grateful that I’ve been able to build this exciting job for myself in a highly aggressive and competitive city which never the less is -  at its root - about being lovely and doing lovely things for lovely people.”

Boxer with former business partner Andrew Clarke

Saint or Sinner: Boxer talks addiction and why he quit St Leonard's 

While Boxer may now be one of the biggest names on London’s food scene, the path to success hasn’t always been a smooth one. Last August, Boxer wrote a lengthy Instagram post which hinted at his struggles with addiction and announced that he had been clean and sober for a year. “A lot of people get into cooking because of the fun and hedonism of late night restaurant life, which was certainly very attractive to me in my teens and early twenties.”

“I started Brunswick House when I was 24 and it was very successful very quickly and while that was liberating, I didn’t necessarily have guidance in how to operate responsibly. There are lots of things I did while under the influence in that period which I regret and there are a lot of things I also feel like I learned from.”

Boxer’s decision to give up drinking was inspired by his three children, who he shares with his partner Melissa. “I decided to stop drinking because I felt like while I definitely enjoyed my time as a ‘work hard, play hard’ kind of guy, it was impossible for me to provide the level of emotional consistency and engagement with my children while I was trying to pursue a career and a social life adjacent to that career.

“I often felt jaded, hungover and exhausted with my children and it seemed to me that the pleasure I had got from drugs and alcohol was no longer allowing me room to grow as a person and was also hindering my ability to be a good parent. I felt like I had learnt everything I could from being that person and that it was time to move on and evolve from there. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t feel glad that I made that decision.”

One of the dishes at Orasay

Boxer’s sobriety has naturally affected the way he works and the kitchen he runs: “I make a point of creating an incredibly clean and sober environment in which my team work and they’re no longer at the mercy of a boss with mood swings because he’s hungover.

“I think we have a culture which is getting a lot better very quickly, allowing people to talk about things which make them unhappy. We’ve also had to learn how to be supportive when systems which traditionally have looked after us are being starved of funding. It is the truth that it’s much harder to get any real help if you have these issues from your GP – it is demonstrably harder now than it was 10 or 20 years ago.”

Luckily, Boxer was able to seek help via self-supporting organisations, and he doesn’t understate the impact they had on his life. “I firmly believe that Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life. Addiction is pernicious and once it gets your teeth into you, it doesn’t matter which industry you’re in, you’re going to suffer. I do believe we could do more as an industry, but also that we are doing far more than when I first became a chef.” 

The happiest by-product of Boxer’s sobriety though, is that other chefs going through similar issues have reached out to him for guidance. “I’m so heartened to be contacted by other chefs who want to make similar changes to their life and to support them through that. As we all know, it’s a pernicious environment if you’re susceptible to addiction and for me, the amount I’ve been able to achieve since becoming sober is immeasurable. It’s amazing to look back and think how many double shifts I got through on zero sleep! Now that I don’t punish myself like that, I enjoy my job so much more.”

Aside from his issues with addiction, there is perhaps only one other blip in Boxer’s otherwise illustrious career. In the summer of 2018, Boxer and long-time business partner Andrew Clarke opened St Leonard’s in Shoreditch, a cooking-over-fire restaurant that received favourable reviews. However, a year later, the pair announced that they had ended their partnership, with Boxer retaining control of Orasay and Brunswick House and Clarke keeping St Leonard's. Despite the abrupt ending, Boxer looks on his time at the restaurant fondly.

 
 
 
 
 
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Jackson with his son Marlowe

“St Leonard's was one of the most exciting, challenging and remarkable projects I’ve ever been involved in.” The project came about when Boxer was approached by Old Blue Last Ltd, a subsidiary of Vice Media. The group wanted him to consult on a new restaurant concept of theirs, but Boxer had other ideas. “I went and had a look at it and I said in all honesty the best thing you could do is to start again from scratch. The thing that Andrew and I put together was St Leonard’s – so we proposed that to them and they backed it one hundred percent.”

After the restaurant’s launch though, relationships soured. “Unfortunately, there were changes to the personnel at Vice which meant that once St Leonard’s was up and running, some of the people who were initially behind the project were no longer in place and the vison about how that restaurant should evolve changed. That is by no means anyone’s fault, it’s just the nature of large multinational corporations like Vice.”

“When it became clear that their vision and mine was different and I felt I could no longer offer anything constructive, it felt like my time would be spent better focused on my own projects. Andrew felt there was still room for him to find creative fulfilment with Vice, so at that point, we separated out. It was very amicable and sad in the way that all things pass, but hugely exciting in that it was a new stage for both of us and came from a place of deep love and respect.”

Now that he has two successful restaurants under his belt, does the idea of becoming a celebrity chef with his own shows and cookbooks tempt him? “It’s not something that’s ever interested me to this point. But one of the lovely things about my job is it never seems to get boring, partly because the expectations and demands of it constantly change.

“The nice thing about restaurants is they’re slightly self-selecting – I only need 100 people a night to want to eat my food, so the chances are if you’re doing something interesting you will find that. Television involves finding an audience of millions of people and you have to be incredibly talented to be able to reach that kind of audience – there’s very little likelihood that I have those abilities.”

He pauses: “That said, if the opportunity arose I would pursue it with the same energy and enthusiasm that I pursue everything else.”

I don’t doubt it.

 

Jackson’s quick bites

Favourite London restaurant?

My favourite restaurant in London rather changes depending on my mood, however the places that I go back to again and again are Lyle’s for lunch and Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch on a sunny day. For dinner in the West End, it’s Quo Vadis, while St. John is a go-to for big family celebrations.

Guilty food pleasure?

I think no food pleasure should be guilty, but I think like a lot of South Londoners, it’s Morley’s fried chicken. It still cries out to me when I’m feeling tired or very hungry after service and I think there are a few people out there who’d probably understand that pang.

Death-row meal?

I get asked that a lot and I always think if you’re thinking about what you’re eating on your deathbed more than who you’re surrounded by, something has gone wrong in your life. For me, for my last meal to be surrounded by my children and my family while eating caviar, I think that’s probably me nailed.

Favourite dish to cook at home?

Almost certainly making a really concentrated reduced tomato sauce from tinned tomatoes that I buy from my Dads’ deli and having it very simply, with some pasta. That dish gives me such complete happiness, because of how my children love it as much as I do and how I love it just as much now as when I was a child – I think there’s nothing more pleasurable than that.

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