At a vast industrial warehouse in northeast London, light floods in from rows of skylights and cold air rushes through great gaps in the walls. Beside a bookshelf with an illuminated "Dancing" sign ambiguously strapped to its top, a bust of Elvis watches a dozen cooks prep ingredients and stir steaming pots on makeshift counters fashioned from folding tables. Past a pair of sliding steel fire doors, a second enormous room holds another brigade, plating and photographing the finished dishes. A camera crew – producer, boom-mike operator, cameraman – huddles in a clump, filming everything.
The scene could be mistaken for a particularly ambitious pop-up restaurant, or a music-video shoot for the world's hungriest band. But it's just another day at the studio that celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and his team have commandeered to prepare his latest cookbook. Through the commotion, Oliver spots my travelling companion, chef Derek Dammann, and they greet each other like the old friends they are. They've known each other since the early days of Oliver's first restaurant, Fifteen, where Dammann was chef de cuisine. Today, Oliver and Dammann are business partners in Maison Publique, a hip but rustic gastropub in Montreal's east Plateau that combines British traditions of hospitality with great Canadian ingredients.
Dammann and I, who are writing a cookbook together, have come to England not just to hang out with Oliver, but to gauge the temperature of London's best gastropubs. The idea of the gastropub (a modernized pub that serves high-quality, local, seasonal food) is important to Oliver not just because of his partnership with Dammann, but also because his earliest restaurant experiences were in such places.
"I grew up in a pub," he tells me, referring to the Cricketers at Clavering, a 16th-century pub and inn in Essex owned by his father. "I was pulling pints at age 8. I was clearing tables at 10. Thirty-eight years ago my dad was probably one of about five people putting amazing food in an old 14th-century pub. At that time you never had good food in pubs ever. Dad had a proper six-person brigade even then."
Today, according to Oliver, "The lines between Michelin-starred food, pub grub and street food are now completely broken." That's why we are here: to sample the definitive evolution of the English food not in white-tablecloth rooms but in the kind of everyday places where people gather to break bread.
As our first test of this theory, Oliver sends Dammann and me out to Bray, a little town outside London that's home to two out of four of England's three-star Michelin restaurants: the Waterside Inn and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, a restaurant where Dammann staged (did a culinary internship) back in 2004. But we're here to visit the village pubs that just happen to serve some of the best food in the country.
We drive west on the M40 through the outskirts of the city, past countless pubs with names like the Griffin, Swan & Bottle and the White Hart. The city gives way to countryside and rolling farmland, but we're never more than a couple hours' walk from the nearest tavern.
Ducking under the low door of the Crown, a relatively "new" 16th-century Tudor-style building, we enter a room of unreasonable charm. Low, beamed ceilings and small windows create a crepuscular coziness. A gentle fire burns in the brick hearth as I settle into a corner table with a pint and announce to Dammann that I'm here to stay.
"I know, it's great," he responds. "This is where all the staff from the Fat Duck comes to drink." That might explain why Blumenthal bought the pub back in 2010. Despite my desire to live out the rest of my days at this table, we eventually move on to dinner at Blumenthal's other pub, the Hind's Head, a short stroll down the road.
Larger but no less atmospheric than the Crown, the Hind's Head traces its history to the 15th century. Heavy, dark beams, a hand-carved bar and a hammered-brass fireplace hood create the most convivial dining conditions. If there were still any doubt that gastropubs can compete with the best restaurants in the world, the Hind's Head proved that wrong by winning its first Michelin star earlier this year.
Travelling with a chef, you soon realize that menus are decorative and you're told: "The kitchen would like to cook for you" – an offer you always accept. A plate of devils on horseback and Scotch eggs appear first. I've never tasted better versions. The piping-hot prunes have absorbed some of the fat from the smoky bacon and the lightly breaded, toasty Scotch eggs are wrapped in a mantle of tender, spicy sausage surrounding a core of oozing quail egg yolk. Dammann says, "I feel bad for the cook. Peeling lightly poached quail eggs is the worst job in the kitchen." His appetite overcomes his empathy, and we finish every one before moving on to a plate of soused mackerel, a dish so classic it was probably on the menu 600 years ago.
This relaxed approach to fine dining is also evident at the only Michelin-starred pub right in London, the Harwood Arms, where Oliver sends us on a mission the next day. At bare wooden tables chic families carry on animated conversations in French, Italian and posh English. A statuesque blonde leading a tangle of whippets chats with a friend at the bar. We're joined by Steve Pooley, Oliver's former head chef at Fifteen and a good friend and culinary soul brother of Dammann's.
While they catch up, we pull warm bread out of a cotton bag and slather it with fresh-churned butter. The kitchen sends out treacle-cured smoked salmon, salty and slightly caramelized, with a sweet, citrusy lusciousness. There's a rich belly of Middlewhite pork, a rare breed renowned for it's delicious flavour, rolled into a pinwheel of earthy, intense blood sausage. "Britain has the best pork," Dammann concedes, and it's hard not to agree that the U.K.'s high animal-welfare standards show in the quality of the meat. That knowledge is what motivates Dammann to work closely with farmers in Quebec who raise animals to the same, and even higher, standards.
Of course, great food doesn't need a Michelin star to legitimize it, Oliver tells me as he describes our next stop, a celebrated neighbourhood spot in Islington, "Great food that comes from the area, cooked that day by dudes that just love to cook. Under those circumstances you can have the best food of your life." Since opening in 2003, the Anchor and Hope has consistently drawn crowds, and we bide our time in the pub waiting for a table – despite the fact that we're dining with Warren Flett, the pub's head chef and another one who counts Jamie Oliver as a mentor. John Relihan, chef at Oliver's restaurant Barbacoa, also joins us.
The chefs trade war stories about cooking turkey lungs and cleaning calves testicles. Flett tells a story about his days with Dammann at Fifteen, when the mother of one of the new cooks came in: "We served fish en papillotte," he recalls "and when the server brought the empty plate back to the kitchen, Jamie asked, 'Where's the bag?' The waitress just looked stunned and said, 'She ate it.'"
When seated for dinner, we sip intense duck broth from vintage tea cups and eat salad spiked with snails and bacon. We slather foie gras parfait on thick toast and smush a boozy prune on top. There's lamb neck that's been braising for seven hours, and goat curry with yogurt raita. It's an eclectic take on pub grub: traditional British dishes alongside French classics with a few adopted Indian favourites to spice things up.
We find that same aesthetic being practised at the Ten Bells, a legendary pub once patronized by many of Jack the Ripper's victims. Jamie Oliver has a special (but less notorious) connection to the place as well: His great-great-grandfather was the pub's landlord in the 1880s. Its reputation as a culinary hot spot is more recent, dating back to 2011 when a small group of chefs began operating a pop-up restaurant on the second floor. That project, known as The Young Turks at Ten Bells, was started by James Lowe and Isaac McHale, who met while cooking at Copenhagen's acclaimed Noma. Almost overnight, their collaboration became one of the hottest tables in London.
After six months McHale and Lowe left the kitchen in the hands of Giorgio Ravelli and his Canadian sous-chef Jordan Wells. Amid peeling wallpaper and beneath the glow of a Tracey Emin neon sculpture, we eat buttermilk chicken nestled into pine needles dressed with a resiny pine salt. Wee pigtail cromesquis (like pork nuggets) resting on pickled walnuts get a herbaceous kick from tarragon. Tender slices of beef feather blade rest in a dark gravy beside puréed rutabaga and mahogany-coloured onion rings.
I ask the chefs about the cut of meat's deep, rich flavour. "It's a piece attached to the blade of the shoulder," Dammann explains. "There's only two per cow, so you don't see that cut very often in Canada; it's usually considered a 'butcher's treat,' because the general public doesn't know what to do with it."
For all of its avant-garde credentials, nothing on the menu at Ten Bells, right down to the chocolate pavé with vanilla ice cream for dessert, would be out of place in any pub anywhere in the world. By applying the same high standards for both the cooks and the ingredients, today's gastropubs are finally achieving the goals that Jamie Oliver's father strove for in the 1970s. That change has been a huge force in the casualization of dining and the widespread availability of high-quality, local dishes in neighbourhood restaurants.
On our last day in England, over coffee at Oliver's studio, I ask him if his family connections to pubs influenced his decision to partner with Dammann. "Absolutely," he replies. "What Derek's doing at Maison Publique, that complete commitment to local and Canadian stuff.… When it becomes about cooking what's in your own backyard, that's what's going to shift the whole country. If you get a hundred, even 50 of those kinds of places, that changes the credibility of whole countries."
The writer's travel, accommodation and some meal expenses were compensated by Visit Britain, which neither approved or reviewed the story before publication.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
- Radisson Blu Edwardian: An ideal home away from home. radissonblu-edwardian.com
Where to eat
- St. John Restaurant: Fergus Henderson’s love letter to British cooking is never to be missed. stjohngroup.uk.com
- Dinner by Heston Blumenthal: Strives for – and very nearly achieves – perfection. One of the world’s truly great restaurants. It’s wildly expensive, but for one bite of the tipsy cake alone, worth every pence. dinnerbyheston.com
- The Clove Club: The new restaurant from former Ten Bells chefs Isaac McHale, along with his partners Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith, is London’s hottest table this summer. thecloveclub.com
- Neal’s Yard Dairy: The best place in the capital for all of your Stinking Bishop, Lincolnshire Poacher and cheddar needs. nealsyarddairy.co.uk
- Koya: This unassuming Japanese restaurant doesn’t take reservations, but was recommended to us by nearly every chef we talked to. They knead the dough with their feet. koya.co.uk
Where to shop
- James Smith & Sons: A venerable umbrella shop that could not be more British. james-smith.co.uk