Tomos Parry interview: “You can cook over fire with refinement.”

The chef behind Brat, our 2019 Restaurant of the Year, tells SquareMeal’s editor about bringing northern Spain – and north Wales – to east London

Updated on 17 December 2019 • Written By Ben McCormack

Tomos Parry interview: “You can cook over fire with refinement.”

“If you look at that curve,” Tomos Parry tells me, pointing towards a faded arc on a handsome herringbone floor, “that’s where the stage used to be. And where you’re sitting is where the lap dancers’ pole was.”

There aren’t many Michelin-starred restaurants housed in a converted strip club. But there aren’t many Michelin-starred restaurants like Brat. SquareMeal’s Restaurant of the Year for 2019 is one of those rare, zeitgeist-defining dining rooms that manages to please foodies as much as fashionistas.

Parry refined this balancing act as impressive as any pole dancer’s in his previous job as head chef of Kitty Fisher’s in Mayfair, the restaurant that made Galician beef the must-order dish of the middle years of this decade and where you were just as likely to find yourself sitting next to Nigella Lawson as Kate Moss. Before that, Parry had been running the restaurant residency at Climpson’s Arch in London Fields.      

The chef grew up on Anglesey, where he had the usual teenage jobs in the island's seafood cafés and restaurants. He started cooking properly while he was studying politics and history at Cardiff University.

“I worked for a really good chef called Grady Atkins, who owned a restaurant in Cardiff called Le Gallois. I didn’t get paid but I did get to drink good wine, eat amazing food and hang out with chefs after work before going back to my student halls. I love restaurants, I like the culture of them and I wanted to be a part of that. The careers advisor at school would laugh if you said you wanted to be a chef. Grady showed me that there was a future in it.”

Brat restaurant in Shoreditch

Brat's close-set tables encourage a communal style of eating

After finishing his degree, Parry worked at Le Gallois for three years before moving to London. Like many chefs who have gone on to become household names, Parry worked at The River Café before helping to launch Kitchen Table with James Knappett and doing a stage at Noma in Copenhagen, then at the height of its World’s Best Restaurants fame.

But Parry’s eureka moment came when he ate at Burnt Enz, the Climpson’s Arch pop up where Australian chef Dave Pynt cooked on an open grill. “That changed everything for me,” Parry says. “It all tasted so vivid. Dave made me realise that you can cook over fire with refinement.”

When Pynt moved on (he’s since won a Michelin star for Burnt Ends in Singapore) Parry took over the grill, going on to be named Young British Foodie Chef of the Year in 2014 and attracting the attention of the Kitty Fisher’s team. But when he came to open his first solo project in 2018, Parry wanted to move back to east London.

“I always wanted to repeat the archway thing in east London in a different form. I think what we’ve done at Brat is a nice blend of Kitty Fisher’s sophistication mixed with the rustic outdoors feel of Climpson’s.”

Even before Climpson’s, Parry had always been drawn to cooking with fire. Growing up on Anglesey, there’d been a lot of camping and eating outdoors. Parry’s masterstroke at Brat has been to combine his own experiences in Wales with the food culture of the Basque Country in northern Spain.

Fish dish at Brat restaurant in London

The cooking at Brat uses Basque Country technique to interpret British ingredients 

“A lot of restaurants in the Basque Country are run by a husband and wife with their kids. Sometimes you go in through the back door and the family are sitting around. They’re like, 'let’s get up and start cooking for you'. It wasn’t realistic for our guests to enter the restaurant through the kitchen but we kept an element of that.”

The most obvious element of that is the grill that takes up one wall of the open kitchen and which diners can feel the heat from and smell what’s cooking when they reach the top of the stairs and turn into the dining room.

“We tried to build as many things as possible ourselves with people we know. In the Basque Country, they don’t have contractors coming in; they’ll have a maintenance man who also happens to be good with metal. The guy who made our grill was a sculptor who had never done anything like this before. The pass is almost impractical – the chefs have to move around the grill. But I wanted that energy. Restaurants in the Basque Country rarely have a perfect set-up. Instead, they develop over time.”    

The wood-heavy interior, meanwhile, features furniture hewn from a single chestnut tree. The close-set seating is inspired by seafood restaurants in Portugal where diners’ plates spill on to the next table. But Brat is a British restaurant, which is why you won’t see any Galician beef on the menu. Instead there’s an even-better Parry signature of turbot, fished from British waters, cooked in a cage and served whole for three or four people to share. “Cooking with fire is communal by nature,” Parry says.

Tomos PArry and his team at Brat with their SquareMeal award

Tomos Parry and the his team outside Brat with their Restaurant of the Year award

Other Basque-style dishes made with British ingredients include hake throats, sauces made from lobster heads and seasonal game. “I don’t try and be too refined with what we do,” Parry says. “In the Basque Country, a lot of the dishes are developed by hunters and fishermen and restaurants just do a version of them. I like that concept, that the cooking methods are driven by the people who capture the food.”

Brat has been a huge success, winning its Michelin star six months after opening, coming second on the list of this year’s National Restaurant Awards and now being crowned as SquareMeal’s Restaurant of the Year for 2019 – not bad for somewhere that Parry calls “a hidden first-floor site in Shoreditch” he was worried no one would bother climbing the stairs for.

Brat, though, does what all great restaurants do, which is to transport diners to another world. “I like that feeling you get when you leave a good restaurant and it’s like you’ve been to the cinema,” Parry explains. “You start looking at things differently before you settle back into the real world. Those feelings can come from the simplest spaces, like a really good Turkish restaurant or somewhere in Spain that just does tomato bread. It’s that moment where you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Whether or not you’re a foodie or a fashionista, Brat is somewhere that London diners are going to want to be for many years to come.   

 

Tomos’ quick bites

Describe your cooking style in three words?

Wood-fired. Casual. Refined.

Favourite thing to cook at home?

Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic is my go-to dish. I remember seeing it on an episode of Keith Floyd when I was 14 and it reminds me of when I first realised you could bring cooking to life.   

Favourite London restaurant?

I'd love Kiln even if it wasn't owned by Ben Chapman, who also owns Brat with me. And I think what Jeremy Chan is doing at Ikoyi is super interesting. I like going to restaurants where I don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Favourite foodie destination?

San Sebastian, of course. And I’ve been to Japan twice this year. Their way of cooking over fire is incredible.

How do you relax?

Probably not any time soon. I have a three year-old and another one on the way.  Relaxing is an interesting concept. 

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?

A boxing journalist. I did a masters degree in journalism and I used to write about boxing. 

Click here to see which other restaurants made it into our 2020 list of London's Top 100 Restaurants.

Portrait and interior photos: Laurie Fletcher