Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins

Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins

Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins

Both renowned chefs in their own right, Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins first met at Shoreditch’s St Leonards and soon bonded over their mutual love of live fire cookery. This love is clear for all to see at their East London restaurant Acme Fire Cult, where the entire menu is cooked over coals.

Live fire cookery isn’t for every chef; it requires real bravery to do away with the gadgets and gizmos of the modern kitchen and trust instincts. However, when done skilfully it can produce some of the most flavour-packed food imaginable. It’s this instinctive element of live fire cookery that has always appealed to both Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins, who, having both had successful careers of their own, ditched indoor kitchens to open their own live-fire concept Acme Fire Cult. There, they continue to break down peoples' expectations around this style of cookery, serving a predominantly vegetarian, produce-led menu, which also innovatively makes use of various waste and by-products.

Both Andrew and Daniel’s paths to becoming the highly respected chefs they are today, began with them considering different careers entirely. Growing up in Romford, Daniel flirted with becoming a photographer before he began helping his mum - a pastry chef - in the kitchen. He was then tempted by the idea of a career as a chef, ‘it happened quite organically for me,’ says Daniel, ‘initially I was mainly just baking and then I gradually began to realise it was something I was quite good at and enjoyed.’

Andrew, meanwhile, had his eyes set on becoming a professional musician, ‘that was the dream growing up,’ he explains, ‘but music obviously doesn’t pay well, so I jumped into a kitchen to stay afloat and it turned out I was pretty good at food. I realised that short of me touring the world as a rockstar, being in a kitchen was the best thing for me to do; the team were like a band and the food was the performance. Even when I first started working, I was still sure I didn’t want to be a chef but every kitchen I’d work in, I’d think 'I’m better than this’ and eventually, I knew that this was what I should be doing.’

Having access to high quality produce ended up being one of the biggest draws about the industry for both chefs – something Andrew became accustomed to when working at the Swan Inn in Kent, where local and foraged ingredients were an important part of the menu. Daniel, meanwhile, was able to work with the freshest produce available at The Brewery on Chiswell Street. The next ten years saw the two chefs work in many of the most renowned restaurants in the UK. Andrew spent time staging at the likes of The Square and St. John (‘that had one of the biggest influences on my food’) before settling at the Anchor and Hope, and Daniel moved out of London to lead the team at The Anchor in Hullbridge, where he stayed for nine years and honed his own style.

Following stints working at Soho House and as head chef at Salt Yard, Andrew joined forces with his friend Jackson Boxer at Brunswick House, becoming chef director and helping to oversee a new era for the restaurant. ‘Jackson had already turned this coffee shop inside an antique warehouse into what was at the time a fine dining restaurant,’ explains Andrew, ‘but he needed a business partner, so I stepped in and it worked really well. We got some lovely reviews and it opened the doors to a lot more opportunities.’ The biggest of these opportunities was to open St Leonards, a restaurant focused around open-hearth cookery, initially once again in partnership with Boxer, though Andrew soon took charge of the operation himself. And it was at St Leonards that Daniel and Andrew first met.

‘I’d been bouncing around from place to place quite a bit,’ says Daniel, ‘and I fancied something new so I reached out to Andrew to see if he needed a hand, and next thing I knew I was head chef. Looking back on it, it was a bit strange reaching out like that but it turned out to be a great thing to do. It connected a lot of us who still work together now as well.’

The time that Andrew and Daniel spent at St Leonards was also something of a culmination of years of interest in live fire cookery, particularly for Andrew, ‘it’s something that’s been there for over half of my career,’ he explains, ‘whether it was making pizzas at one of the first restaurants I worked at or at Brunswick where I had a Big Green Egg, but St Leonards obviously only made me want to do it even more.’ And for Daniel, who had less experience of live fire cookery, it made him rethink his style of cookery entirely, ‘I’d dabbled with fire before,’ says Daniel, ‘but when I saw that hearth at St Leonards, I was like, ‘wow, I’m not going back to normal cooking’ – it was just so great to work with.’

Despite Andrew leaving St Leonards prior to the pandemic, he and Daniel stayed in touch, working together on a few smaller projects including the Tramshed Project – a year-long pop-up during the pandemic. It’s no surprise, however, that it was a project centered once again around live fire cookery that ultimately brought the pair back together in a more permanent capacity. During 2020 lockdown, Andrew and Daniel were given the chance to take over the space at London Fields Courtyard, where they set up an outdoor grill and began cooking flatbreads on it.

Andrew initially took a back seat at the courtyard while Daniel took charge, but by 2021, when they were offered another six-week residency, he was dying to cook over fire once again, ‘I hadn’t been able to do much with fire at all during the lockdowns because I live in a block of flats,’ says Andrew, ‘so I was desperate to do it again. Dan and I decided to make it bigger and better than the year before and I committed to being on the grill.’ The chefs lived up to their promise of taking their courtyard to the next level, and went on to serve up to 1200 covers each weekend, while elevating their food to something even more special.

The success of this elevated live fire menu is what led the two chefs to set up Acme Fire Cult, a brand of their own based entirely around live fire cookery. While their initial plan was just to do the odd event and pop-up under the Acme Fire Cult name to grow the brand, the opportunity arose for them to open a permanent restaurant in Dalston and they didn’t feel they could refuse. ‘The last thing we wanted to do was open a restaurant,’ Andrew laughs, ‘at least I certainly didn’t want to do anything just for the sake of it; if we were going to open somewhere, it wasn’t going to be to rub our egos or get a good review; it was more about leaving a lasting legacy. But the space in Dalston became available with all of the amazing outdoor space, and it just made sense.’

Andrew and Daniel opened their permanent site in 2022, working in close collaboration with the 40FT Brewery. The majority of the restaurant is located outdoors around a purpose-built grill, which is where the entirety of the menu is cooked. Acme Fire Cult soon received rave reviews for its sustainable, vegetable-focused menu, which makes use of a number of waste and by-products such as yeast from the brewery and leftover bread from a neighbouring bakery. One of the pair’s main aims at Acme Fire Cult though, has always been to create an atmosphere that’s just as enjoyable as the food. ‘I like thinking of it as a big all-weather barbecue party,’ smiles Andrew, ‘you come to our yard and we’ll cook you some nice things. The music’s going to be loud, you’re going to get smoky but you’re going to have some fun.’

It may be one of the most primal forms of cookery, but at Acme Fire Cult Andrew and Daniel continue to demonstrate the endless possibilities when it comes to cooking with live fire. Their combined years of experience and knowledge certainly play a large part in the quality of their food, but it’s the joy they both get from standing behind a grill that truly shines through in their cookery, and that’s just not something that can be learnt.