An Interview with Adam Handling
When his mother announced she was to become a Vegetarian prior to the opening of his first restaurant, multi-award winning chef Adam Handling responded in the brazen manner that he has since become famed for; salt-baked celeriac accompanied by truffled cheese, a confit yolk, and covered in limes and dates, he named the dish ‘Mother’ in the hopes of embarrassing her. It didn’t work, but the dish certainly did. It has remained stalwart on the menu since.
Handling’s culinary career began when he became the first and youngest trainee chef at Gleneagles at the age of 16, all the while without intention – at that point – to enjoy a professional career in the kitchen. His almost superhuman talent for culinary innovation and producing a harmony of flavours between seemingly disparate ingredients has seen him, and his restaurants, awarded a multitude of awards. It is almost impossible to believe he is just 30 years old.
The intense passion with which Handling creates every dish and curates every menu has culminated in him laying the foundations for his own mini Empire, one that started with the opening of his first restaurant, soon followed by Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden; The Frog in Hoxton; the Iron Stag Bar; Eve Bar; and his latest project Bean & Wheat, a coffee shop and deli. Although seemingly simple in concept, there is the distinct and avant-garde Adam Handling touch: it is zero waste.
What inspired your commitment to attaining zero waste in Bean & Wheat?
Food waste in this industry is a huge problem. Almost 200,000 tonnes of food waste is contributed by the UK restaurant industry each year. That is a staggering amount. More and more people are relying on food banks, the food banks themselves are struggling, and we’re wasting that much food? Restaurants tend to waste so much food on a day-to-day basis, and I feel like we have a responsibility to show people how you can get so much more out of what you have. That’s originally why I opened Bean & Wheat, to make use of these by-products and off-cuts rather than just throwing them away. So for example, I’ll take the livers from the whole ducks I use in my restaurant, and turn it into duck liver parfait to be sold in Bean & Wheat.
With this in mind, have you also tried to attain zero waste in your other restaurants/bars?
One of my priorities is to minimise food waste at all of my venues to the point that we have hardly any. Anything that can be used gets used. If we’re filleting salmon for a dish, for example, the size and weight of each fillet is very specific, but there’s still plenty of meat left from the fish that is just as good quality. So we’ll cook it, and use it in salmon salads to be sold in Bean & Wheat. I’ve also launched my own cold-pressed juice range, Black & White, which uses only handpicked, misshapen fruit and vegetables that might not look the part, but certainly taste the part! We also have a food lab at the Hoxton site, where we do lots of pickling and fermenting (right now, we’re pickling rosehips in preparation for the summer) and we grow our own herbs in house too.
What has the reaction been to this?
Since opening Bean & Wheat, the response has been overwhelmingly positive which is so great to see. I think consumers are starting to become more aware of food waste in general, and I’ve found that it’s not that people don’t want to reduce food waste, it’s just not been brought to their attention before. Sometimes people come in just looking for a coffee not knowing about the concept but then find themselves really interested in the whole process and asking lots of questions.
Across all of your venues, how do you ensure that the “Adam Handling” level of commitment to excellence is maintained? How do you find the time?!
Haha, some days it definitely does feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day! But, I love cooking and if you’re going to do something you’ve got to do it right, even if it means a lot of blood, sweat and maybe some tears. I’ve got to say, I have an absolutely amazing team around me who all share the same values and commitment. It’s a mix of people who have worked alongside me for many years, like Steve Kerr, my Group Head Chef, who I met eleven years ago and he’s been my right-hand-man ever since, but also some phenomenal new, young talent. I trust them all completely and love to encourage creativity. I really couldn’t keep everything moving without them.
You have certainly achieved a lot over the past few years. Which has been your favourite project to date and which are you most proud of?
I’m proud of it all! Like many chefs, I’ve worked very hard for a long time to get where I am. Opening my first independent restaurant was a huge milestone for me. Opening my second restaurant, Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden, which is now the flagship for the group, was another one – it’s my dream restaurant. And my new restaurant in Shoreditch, The Frog Hoxton, is a really special for me because I designed it from top to bottom.
Although you have a very distinct style when it comes to your flavour combinations, presentation, and overall culinary ethos, who would you say has been the biggest influence on your career?
I’m inspired by lots of chefs but Sat Bains, Massimo Bottura, Michel Roux Jr and Monica Galetti have been real inspirations. I was mentored by Massimo, and it really made me think about and look at food differently to more reflect my own personal experiences. I’d say that’s probably one of the biggest influences on my cooking. I’m also constantly looking to see what other chefs are doing, especially younger and up-and-coming chefs who are doing new and exciting things in the industry.
If you hadn’t have taken up that apprenticeship at Gleneagles, what career path do you think you might have followed?
I’m terrified of heights but I would have loved to have been an astronaut – I’m not sure how well that would have gone though… So that, or a photographer.
What top tips would you give a home cook to turn a simple dish into something memorable/special?
I think if you’re cooking from the heart then it’s always going to be special. Putting love and care into everything you do is the most important thing, regardless of the outcome. And of course, don’t forget to season properly!
When you’re not cooking for yourself, what would you say is your favourite thing to eat?
One of my favourite dishes to eat out has to be Holborn Dining Room’s lobster tart – it’s insanely good. I could happily eat it every day.
As if you didn’t have enough on your plate, what’s coming next in the Adam Handling Empire?
I’m currently working with the amazing Belmond team, to developing the entire F&B offering for the new Belmond Cadogan Hotel opening in Chelsea. I can’t reveal too much just yet, but I’m so excited about what we’ve got planned. Developing menus for all the food and drink (Breakfast, Afternoon Tea, Bar, Lunch and Dinner and Room Service) has been so fun and interesting – I’ve played on the hotel’s rich history and British influence to create something that I think is really special.
Photo Credits: Tim Green