We break bread with the hospitality heavyweight behind the Soho House group – and touch on the joys of undercooked sprouts.
“My relationship with food started very early, at home. My mum was a keen 1970s housewife. I was brought up on chicken fricassee and brandy snaps, roasts on a Sunday and chicken kievs. My parents used to entertain a lot and I loved doing the food shop with my mother and going to the butchers.
I was so suburban. I grew up in Cobham in Surrey: white, stockbroker, middle-class England. There were no good restaurants then; if we went out it would be to an old-fashioned Italian.
My mum was an alright cook; she had some horrors though. Her gravy was like blancmange. Because she’s no longer with us I can say this: she put me off Brussels sprouts but now it’s one of my favourite vegetables. Overcooked Brussels sprouts remind me of home. That and going out to a local pub and the smell of scampi in a basket.
My first experience of cooking was at the French Horn restaurant in Sonning in Berkshire. When I was 16, I was in the kitchen there. The only thing I made was a lemon meringue pie – and not very well. Then I became a chef and worked at the St George’s Hotel as part of the training course I was on. Next I went to Paris for six months and worked in a kitchen. I embraced it.
I hate fussy eaters and I have brought up my children to try everything. I’m always thinking about what I’m having for my supper; I’m always one meal ahead. That is what the pleasure of food is: it’s legal, it’s three times a day, it’s creative and it’s interesting.
I think people got interested in food in the UK when good chefs came over and people started to care about ingredients, deeply. I remember being slightly ashamed of saying I worked in a kitchen but now people are proud of it. The tattooed chefs are here.
When I went into catering it was because my careers master really felt there was nothing else I could do. So I did but was surrounded by people who weren’t passionate about food, who weren’t passionate about drink – it was just that they couldn’t get a job anywhere else.
My first restaurant, Over the Top, was shocking. I’m allowed to say that and it was, ask anyone. The food, design, service: everything was appalling. I started my first restaurant when I was too young – 23 or 24 – but it taught me a lot: that if I did everything in the opposite way I might succeed. I raised the money from banks and family friends, and it was a disaster. But I still run the same company that started Over the Top 30 years ago.
Food is incredibly important but eating out is about everything else as well. I love Cecconi’s but my last meal could easily be a summer lunch at the River Café when the place is singing, and with [manager] Charles Pullan running the caff. It’ll be with [my wife] Kirsty and our four kids. Eating and drinking by water is the best. Either on the sea, by a river or by a lake; that’s the nicest way of eating. We’d have all the bits they put on the table when we’re having a drink, then starters, a pasta course, a main course, cheese and pudding. Then I’d be asked to leave because people have arrived for their evening table. A long lunch is my absolute favourite meal.
My favourite food moment of the week is Sunday lunch. I cook it. We always have lots of people around for a roast with undercooked sprouts. Some people want to play golf or mow the lawn on a Sunday morning – I like cooking lunch.”
Hospitality impresario Nick Jones is CEO and founder of Soho House & Co. After eight years with the Trusthouse Forte group, he started a trio of ill-fated restaurants called Over the Top. In 1995 he bought the Georgian townhouse that would become his flagship members’ club Soho House. The fêted brand now boasts 15 clubs, 36 restaurants and a crop of cinemas, spas and hotels around the world. Over the next 18 months openings are slated for New York, Barcelona and Los Angeles.
Cecconi’s, a Mayfair mainstay since opening in 1978, was bought by Jones in 2005. Inside, the buzzy space is all green banquettes, brassy finishes and marble floors. Keep your eyes peeled for general manager Giacomo Maccioni: the Sardinian arrived in 1990 and has been in charge of proceedings since Soho House snapped the place up.
Cherry tomatoes with basil, zucchini fritti, veal Milanese with lemon salt and lobster spaghetti.
Tignanello, Toscana 12
300g veal cutlet on bone
120g panko (breadcrumbs)
350ml mixture of vegetable oil and butter
4g lemon Maldon salt
Pound veal cutlet with meat tenderiser. Coat with flour.
Dip in eggs mixed with milk.
Cover evenly with panko. Pan-fry in the mixture of vegetable oil and butter until outside is golden brown.
Season with lemon Maldon salt. Serve.