James Lowe interview: ‘I’m the most miserable chef ever to win a star’

As Lyle’s prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary this spring, we sat down with head chef and owner James Lowe to talk about his most rewarding, and challenging, moments over the years.

Updated on • Written By Ellie Donnell

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James Lowe interview: ‘I’m the most miserable chef ever to win a star’

‘The food we make and the people we work with is all based around common sense.’

James Lowe, the owner and head chef of one of London’s more extraordinary restaurants, is explaining why ‘there’s nothing vaguely rock and roll’ about his food philosophy. Lyle’s has been paving the way for modern British food since it opened back in 2014, shunning wishy-washy concepts and fussy plates for a 'back to basics' approach to contemporary cooking. No frills, foams or fancy white tablecloths - just good, honest food.


Now, as it enters its 10th year of trading, Lyle’s is classed amongst London’s greatest food institutions, something that James had his heart set on from the start. ‘I was very clear that Lyle’s needs to be a destination, not a destination restaurant.’

‘What I mean is, if you're in London, you must go to Lyle’s. If you want to see what British food is and what’s available in the UK, then the best ways to do that is to eat at Lyle's. If you’re eating at lots of fancy restaurants, you should also go to Lyle’s. If you want to see the diversity of food in London, you should also go to Lyle’s. No matter what your reason for visiting London, you should go to Lyle’s.’

For a man with such fierce determination, you might be surprised to hear that James didn’t grow up wanting to be a chef. There were no holidays spent washing pots in kitchens. No rigorous training at a prestigious culinary school. In the early days, he wasn’t hugely into food at all. ‘I was always labelled as a very picky eater when I was a child. There was always the joke of how did the kid that only ate bacon start cooking and open a restaurant?’.

'There was always the joke of how did the kid that only ate bacon start cooking and open a restaurant?’

‘For me, it wasn't necessarily about the food we were eating, it was the fact we were having time together at a table.’

He originally wanted to be a pilot and interviewed at British Airways to join its scholarship scheme when he was fresh out of university. Things didn’t quite go to plan: 9/11 had just happened, and the programme was put on hold for 12 months. So, with a year to kill and in desperate need of some cash, he moved to London and took a job as a waiter at the Wapping Project in East London.

If you could put a marker on the moment James’s life changed forever, that would probably be it. His focus shifted from the cockpit to the kitchen, and he quickly figured out that restaurants were where he belonged. ‘I was working front of house, but I got on very well with the kitchen. I could see they were driven, passionate, and a bit nuts! I leant that way rather than with people on the floor, where lots of them were doing it part time. It was like they didn't want to be doing what they were doing.’

Another pivotal moment came one evening while he was on shift at the restaurant. His head chef at the time came back from a stag do at The Fat Duck and showed him the menu. He'd never seen anything like it before. ‘I remember thinking at the time: is this a joke restaurant? I read the menu and was like, what is happening here? This is insane. Crab ice cream, snail porridge, what?’.

The rest is, as they say, history. James swiftly booked a table at Heston’s restaurant on a Thursday evening and experienced one of the most 'mind-blowing' meals of his life. Two nights later, he ate at St John. ‘Within three months, all I could think about was opening restaurant’, he explains.

James continued to spend his twenties learning as much as he could, eating out as much as possible and working at iconic restaurants all over London: including The Fat Duck, La Trompette, and a five-year stint as head chef at St John Bread & Wine. He also approached dining out like a form of training, eating at restaurants two or three nights a week, choosing set menus and foregoing the booze to make it as affordable as possible.

Finally, in 2014, his dream of opening a restaurant by the time he was 30 came to fruition. Although the road to success wasn't without its hurdles. All the things that Lyle’s is known and loved for today – its minimalist aesthetic and stripped-back, seasonal menu – weren’t received with quite the same alacrity at first.

‘I was sick of having landlords ask me what my concept was, and then saying it wasn’t that interesting. What I really wanted was to have a nice restaurant where people are looked after and offers good value food. There weren’t supposed to be any theatrics. It was back to basics: good cooking, good produce and nice people. That was it. Everyone was like, ‘that's boring, that's not enough’.'

James Lowe and Lyle's dining room

But James was adamant that his ‘back to basics’ approach was exactly why Lyle's stood out from the crowd. Still, people didn’t warm-up to it from the off. ‘Everyone wanted to write a piece that made fun of hipsters in East London. And unfortunately, we were hit with that. I was really not prepared. People really wanted to stick the boot in.’

But James persevered, convinced that they were onto a good thing, and as the months went on, the positive feedback started to flow in. Ok, they weren’t breaking even, but the chef had faith. Just as Lyle's was finding its feet, James was hit by the worst news possible - the restaurant had received a Michelin star just 18 months after opening.

‘My sous chef at the time said I was the most miserable chef ever to win a star.'

‘The star came, and I immediately was like, oh, this is awful. We've started to build up great feedback from everybody and now what’s going to happen is people are going to come in and be like: this isn’t a Michelin star restaurant. Where are the tablecloths?!’

‘My sous chef at the time said I was the most miserable chef ever to win a star. I was like, this is a disaster. Don’t want it. Don’t like it. Don't know what it means.’

Instead, he made the ground-breaking decision to make the restaurant as anti-Michelin as possible. ‘We made the music louder, cut the size of the menu. I thought, what can we do from the moment people walk in the door to make them realise they’re not in a Michelin starred place?’.

Ironically, the reasons why people thought Lyle’s was ‘boring’ at first became the hallmarks for what's now a trailblazing Michelin restaurant. The star made them 35% busier overnight, and they've held onto the accolade for nine years - whether they want it or not.

A common sense approach

Lyle’s aims to do things as sustainably as possible, from using local and seasonal ingredients to making as much as it can in-house. They make their own butter, for example, because 'it’s about making things yourself and being a good school for chefs', says James, but also because the finished product tastes so much better. ‘The flavours that come out from a natural product that hasn't been messed around with, are so much more interesting and so much more complicated than anything you can add into it’, he says.

James is careful not to describe his approach as sustainable though, believing ‘the word is used so much, that what it actually means gets completely forgotten’. Instead, he calls his cooking philosophy ‘common sense’.

Dishes at Lyles

‘I don't want to make a ‘thing’ of nose-to-tail dining. It just makes sense. It's absurd that it's an out there enough idea to warrant being talked about. Surely, it’s more strange to buy a cow that had a terrible life, was killed by someone who didn't have a clue what was going on, shipped all over the country and you only buy one piece of it. That's madness!’.

Employing a hard-working kitchen team is another non-negotiable. ‘I love having really talented, smart, ambitious people come to work with me’, he explains, not only because it instils creativity, morale and a strong work ethic within the team, but because the job is tough. You need to be able to adapt to survive.

Lyle’s might seem serene on the surface, but it’s not always like that behind the scenes. James often likes to call last minute changes on the menu, sometimes in the middle of service. ‘It causes a bit of a headache for people,’ he jokes. ‘I just call it organised chaos.’

‘It actually allows us to be incredibly flexible because we can chop and change ingredients last minute and the team understand the way we’re going to do it.’

There’s a structure to the madness, and it works. Unwanted though they may be, the restaurant's ever-growing list of awards speaks for itself - including earning the title of SquareMeal’s Best Restaurant in London for 2024. Lyle’s remains at the top of its game and after 10 years, is exactly what James always wanted it to be – one of London’s true destination restaurants. 

If you could give someone starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?

Read and eat as much as possible. Force yourself to make food that’s different to what you’re used to cooking. The faster you can build up your base of understanding, the easier it will be.

Do you have a favourite cooking gadget?

I love my ice cream machine. It's not a new, cool thing anymore, but it just allows us to make really great ice cream.

Can you remember the first dish you learned to cook?

When I was a teenager, I used to love being able to make an English breakfast with lots of different things. I loved being able to time everything to be ready at the same time.

How would you describe your cooking style in three words?

Simple. Honest. Tasty.

What's your favourite thing to cook at home?

I really like doing pasta at home. I like doing things like carbonara or cacio e pepe. They are life-changing, awesome things, and I love the fact they only use a few ingredients.

If you weren't a chef, what would you be doing?

I would have loved to fly. I’d also have been in loads of destinations to eat more! I would definitely be hitting up restaurants left right and centre if I was a pilot!

Discover more of our chef interviews where we catch up with Roberta Hall-McCarron, Robin GillPeter Sanchez-Iglesias and many more. 

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