Be my guest: the rise in chef residencies in London and beyond
Once a trend, guest chef nights in restaurants are becoming an integral part of the fabric of dining. Clare Finney meets some those leading the way in residencies
The first time I heard the expression ‘guest chef’ was in 2014, on a building site in Marylebone. Four cousins who, like me, were then in the first flush of their careers, were guiding me through the half-light of the concrete shell on which they’d just signed a temporary lease. “That’s where the kitchen will be,” the Templeton cousins enthused, pointing to chalk marks on the floors and explaining how on opening the youngest, Ollie , would invite chefs from all over the world to cook every week alongside him. At the time Ollie’s cheffing experience consisted of cooking at the acclaimed Moorish restaurant Moro and a few other Spanish restaurants in London. He wanted to continue to learn and grow, he told me, but he also wanted to work with his family, and he couldn’t justify the time and expense of doing numerous stages – the historic practice of young chefs doing short term stints in influential kitchens around the world to pick up crucial experience. His answer was Carousel ; an events space and revolving residency restaurant that would, like Mohammed, make the world’s gastronomic mountains come to him.
Fast-forward eight years and add a new site on Charlotte Street, and Ollie Templeton has welcomed chefs for no fewer than 320 of these pseudo ‘stages’. “It’s basically a Guinness world record,” laughs one of the chefs he’s cooked with, Will Murray, of the critically acclaimed restaurant Fallow . Like Murray, many of these chefs were unknown when they first cooked at Carousel – yet have since gone on to write best-selling books and/or open some of London’s leading restaurants. This is not an article about Carousel specifically; yet it is about the rise of chef’s residencies in London, and you cannot write such an article without looking at the place that took the (at the time) nascent idea of guest chefs and made it into a business.
“I recall the beginnings of collabs, kitchen takeovers or whatever you want to call them,” says food influencer and financier Kar-Shing Tong, better known by his social media handle @ks_ate_here. Tong has been snapping and sharing food trends in London for the best part of two decades and reckons “Carousel was the one that basically turned it into a business model, from my earliest memory.”
That line is not easy to draw, however. As Ollie and his brother Ed readily acknowledge, chefs’ collaborations existed long before Carousel, in the form of one-off pop ups, book club dinners and supper clubs. “They have probably existed since the beginning of cheffing so kitchens can stay motivated, interested and learn,” Tong says. Even the idea of having an ongoing series of guest chefs is of uncertain authorship, given that in the same month Carousel was born, James Lowe launched his Guest Series at the Michelin-starred Lyle’s. “It was almost the same week, I think,” laughs Ed – though the coincidence has never bothered either establishment. “We were – and are – very different,” Ed observes.
Nor is it wholly fair to say the Templetons made a business out of it – certainly not in the early days. “It has always been the heartbeat of what we were doing, but we’ve always done events and other things alongside,” Ed explains. As everyone in the hospitality industry knows, the money lies in events. “In the earlier years particularly we thought, ‘So long as it’s washing its face, then it’s all good.’ And it wasn’t always doing that!”
Even today, in their new home in Fitzrovia, the guest chef side of the business continues to be supported by the events space upstairs, a second restaurant next door and by the wine bar which has finally given Ollie and his record-breaking experience a restaurant of his own.
Carousel was the place that turned residencies into a business model
The guest chefs are never paid; not in Carousel, Lyle’s, Crispin, Quo Vadis , Revolve or any of the restaurants I know who regularly host them. The restaurants pay for their travel and accommodation and the running costs, and the guest chefs come for the exposure and the excitement and experience of working and being in a new country, city – even just a new kitchen. “Carousel defined us,” says Murray, who credits their experiences at Carousel and then Crispin with helping them clarify the concept and spirit of Fallow. “The economics are not life-changing, on either side,” says Ed, “but it’s a zero-cost exercise that helps young chefs build their profile.”
As for the older, more established chefs who guest – Daniela Soto-Innes and Alberto Landgraf at Lyle’s, Romy Gill, Angela Hartnett and Thomas Straker at Carousel, Lee Tiernan, Fergus and Margot Henderson at Quo Vadis, to name just a handful – well, for them it’s mostly just good fun. “They do it for love,” says Jeremy Lee of historic Soho members’ club and restaurant Quo Vadis, who was inviting chef friends to join him even in his days at Blueprint Café in the nineties and noughties – “though back then, they were more like book club dinners.” Just as it sounds, people like Ruth Rogers, Skye Gyngell and Rose Prince came and cooked with Lee to promote the books they’d written and cook dishes from their pages. “It was unusual to say the least – radical, even,” Lee says, but now estimates he has “a guest chef every month.”
Recently I went to one of these ‘Quo Vadis & Friends’ nights, with chefs Shauna Guinn and Sam Evans – better known to TV audiences as Sam & Shauna – and was reminded of the crackle of creativity and fun that comes when two or more culinary talents join forces. “It’s extraordinary, chefs’ appetites to collaborate and learn from each other,” says Lee. “You’d have thought after a certain number of years they’d tire of it, but cooks love a new adventure. They love to be inspired.”
It’s more than love, says James Lowe who, like Lee, still guest chefs himself at restaurants around the country and the world. It’s learning. “I’ve always cooked with other chefs throughout my career,” he says. “It’s not about stealing recipes; it’s about seeing how other kitchens and chefs work, seeing what you like and don’t like, and seeing how you can improve. If you’re only ever doing the same thing, you can’t see how you can be better.” It keeps chefs on their toes – and it keeps them relevant.
Even though Lowe could (and occasionally does) host star-spangled chefs, his primary criteria is that his guests are interesting. “I don’t want anything too polished, fussy or ‘of the moment’.” When Massimo Bottura pops up elsewhere, the chef apparently has a team of five or six people who will travel and cook for him. Some insist everything is prepped in their own restaurant, so when they arrive they can just serve it. That’s great for some people, Lowe continues, and it’s great as somewhere to visit – “but to me, as a residency, it has no appeal. When I do a guest chef thing myself, I like the challenge of putting myself out there, forcing myself to respond to what’s around me,” he explains. “So when I say I choose people I find ‘interesting’, they are those people who are similarly reactive, who switch things around.” Sure, Lowe’s welcomed SotoInnes, voted the world’s best female chef at the World 50 Best Restaurants awards – but he’s also collaborated with chefs who are as talented, but aren’t yet as celebrated. The common denominator for successful guest chefs seems to be not fame, money or Michelin stars, but skill, enthusiasm and the ability to learn and adapt.
“Here at Carousel, we have a great team of chefs who have chosen to work here because they thrive off that adaptability, and are adaptable themselves,” Ed says warmly. The thrill of having a chef who, even if they don’t always speak much English, speaks to that mentality; who can “rock up on a Monday and feed 50 people a nine-course meal the next day – it’s unbelievable.” And it wouldn’t be if the chefs were totalitarian in their control.
If you're only ever doing the same thing you can't see how you can be better
It wouldn’t be as good for the guest chefs, either, says Murray. The muchtalked-about confit cabbage dish at Fallow is one that came out of their residency at Crispin, which they ran after Carousel. “We went through the back of the kitchen’s dry store, and found this Japanese kombu powder and a big black garlic bulb, and that is how the cabbage with black garlic and miso butter came about.” That spontaneity, born in part of necessity, “broke our cycle of thinking that it takes years to get a new dish on the menu,” he continues. “It freed us up, and made us more creative and resilient.” After years of working at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, where the standard process for putting a new dish on the menu took around ten months, this was a revelation to Murray; one that allowed him to be more adaptive and seasonal.
At Dinner, Murray just did Dinner. “No one was allowed to work on anything outside of it,” he tells me. Yet such was the importance of residencies and collaborations to his own development as a chef and restaurateur, he actively encourages all his team to do them alongside their work at Fallow. Stages are not going anywhere; they are vital to the industry – even more so now, in the face of the staffing crisis. But residencies give an immersive, holistic experience of running a restaurant which few stages can replicate. “You develop as a leader and businessperson, as well as a cook,” says Murray. You start to think about suppliers, plating, drinks and ambience.” In the short term, you can help the kitchen you’re in; long-term, you’re better placed to eventually set out on your own.
“I don’t think this generation is willing to go through 10 years of graft, working their way up the hierarchy, before doing their own thing,” says Murray. “They are savvy, creative and dynamic. They have social media, which allows them to get their message across, and they want to make it work for themselves as soon as possible.” All this plays straight into the hands of those restaurants which are looking to host residencies, as well as the chefs themselves. “It gives excitement to our chefs and our regular guests, and brings in a new audience, as they have their own followers,” says Lewis de Haas of Crispin, which has run residencies more or less since starting. There may not be much money in guest chefs, but the intellectual, experiential and social capital that’s exchanged is as valuable, if not more.
Indeed, one of the main reasons residencies have proliferated is social media. “As the industry has developed and social media became more and more prominent, it made a lot of sense to make it more public and leverage each other’s audience,” Tong tells me. “It was a lot more difficult, back when I started inviting guest chefs. It took actual work to find chefs who were interesting,” says Lowe. “Now you can just look on Instagram and find the sort of person you’re thinking of really quickly.”
The subsequent meteoric rise in guest chefs reflect this rapidly changing industry – but it also reflects a changing audience. “Diners are more knowledgeable about the food scene than they have ever been,” says Murray. “If the sous chef from, say, Brat is doing a collab – they may know and follow them. They will know the restaurant. You have a group of engaged people who are deeply rooted in the food scene.”
They are the main reason Revolve, a brasserie with ticketed chef dinners located in Liverpool Street, launched earlier this year. Its inaugural summer series featured such luminaries as Lee Westcott, Anna Hansen and two Michelin-starred Gareth Ward; chefs whose stars are rising or have already risen to dizzying heights, and who have a dedicated following. Places like Revolve play straight into the hands and mouths of today’s diners, who want to be in the know about chefs to watch, and increasingly want to know that the food they’re eating has been carefully sourced as well as carefully cooked. That is in part why Fortnum and Mason has decided to incorporate guest chefs into the dedicated food and drink events space it’s opening next year: “I think standards for a younger crowd are rising when it comes to food. I don’t just mean taste and flavour profile, but sustainability, sourcing – all those demands,” says Fortnums CEO Tom Athron. “This is a way for us to tap into that thinking and showcase the quality of our produce.”
Our guests are friends, or folk we admire, or people we love
Fortnum’s forthcoming series of ‘supper clubs’ seem like a consolidation of the guest chefs’ movement – for when a 315-yearold retailer shows an interest in a trend, it quickly ceases to be one. The name ‘supper clubs’ is (perhaps predictably) somewhat anachronistic; as Lowe and Ed observe, the supper club movement in which enthusiastic cooks and aspiring chefs invited guests into their homes predates guest chefs, and partly gave rise to them.
Yet Athron is as excited about hosting fresh talent as he is the big names that he can easily secure. Like Lowe, he knows the secret to enduring success is remaining relevant, whether your business is eight or 315 years old. The hope is that these young chefs “will bring a bunch of different people into Fortnum’s, to whom we can demonstrate our relevancy to the modern era. I know we’re dearly loved by people for biscuits and tea, but there is so much more to us than people realise. There is a deep authenticity to what we do in food.”
Perhaps authenticity is the reason for the rise of chef’s residencies, as much as it is generational shifts and social media. In a world where so many things are mass produced; where even ‘moments’ are hashtagged, commodified and replicated, we crave any experience that feels real. “Our guests are friends, or folk we admire, or people we love,” Lee explains. “It’s like writing a quiz. People know when you’ve googled the questions, and they know when it’s thoughtful and genuine.”
The idea of authenticity applies to the atmosphere, which at its best is like a night at the theatre when you feel that chemistry between performers and their never-to-be-repeated audience; and it applies to the food. “Being a guest chef suits people who are micro seasonal; who respond to produce, and love seeing something new work with new people,” says Lowe; and it suits diners who want a restaurant where the chefs are as excited, present and fresh to the experience as the people eating there.