Chris Shaw

Chris Shaw

Cutting his teeth at London restaurants including Bao and Petersham Nurseries, over time Chris Shaw has developed a simple, seasonal approach to cooking which is now the focus of his menu at the Whitechapel Gallery’s Townsend.

Regardless of what sort of restaurant you’re cooking at, there’s always an element of having to cater towards a certain clientele. At Townsend, found within the Whitechapel Gallery, head chef Chris Shaw benefits from attracting gallery visitors at lunchtimes where he serves a well-priced accessible menu, while evenings see people making a trip specifically for the restaurant, giving him a chance to serve some slightly more daring dishes.

Growing up in London, Chris first found his way into cooking at the age of eighteen, not knowing what he wanted to do after school. ‘I needed a bit of money so I started doing a bit of street food with some friends,’ he explains. ‘At the same time, I also picked up some shifts as a pot wash and that started getting me into cooking more. I started cooking at home and would watch loads of videos on YouTube.’ After taking some time out to think about his next move, during which he went travelling around Southeast Asia, he returned to the UK certain that being a chef was something he wanted to pursue.

Through a connection he made during his brief foray in street food, Chris quickly landed a job working at the newly-opened Bao in Soho where he started to learn the basics of working in a kitchen. ‘I hadn’t done much before that point, so it was just good to be shown how to operate on a day-to-day basis,’ says Chris. ‘It was nice but I wasn’t learning much technique; I was mainly making buns.’ One job quickly led to another and he soon ended up in the kitchen at Richmond’s Petersham Nurseries aged nineteen, where he stayed for three years. Here Chris had the chance to work on all the different sections, honing his skills while also growing close with the entire team. ‘I loved it there,’ he smiles. ‘All my closest friends and even my fiancé I met either at or through Petersham. It was just an amazing team of people.’

Having worked his way up from a commis in Richmond to a junior sous chef at Petersham Nurseries’ new Covent Garden restaurant, after four years Chris decided it was time for a change. Determined to maintain at least some of the work-life balance he’d become used to (‘You only ever worked lunches at Petersham Nurseries’), he ended up at (the now closed) Roux at Parliament Square, which wasn’t open during the weekends, working under the much-admired Steve Groves. ‘He was one of the calmest and most collected chefs I’ve ever worked with,’ explains Chris. ‘I learnt a lot from him about the mentality required to become a top chef from him.’

Steve eventually offered Chris a junior sous chef role which he was set to accept until long-time mentor and former chef-director at Petersham Nurseries Damian Clisby got in touch. With plans afoot to open a restaurant on Shoreditch’s Curtain Road called Emile, he wanted Chris to join the team as sous chef with a view to him ultimately progressing to become head chef – an opportunity the twenty-three-year-old couldn’t refuse. ‘We opened in September 2019 and we had a six-month lease,’ he explains. ‘There were only six of us and it was very much a case of starting early, finishing at one or two at night, washing up, sweeping the floors, doing everything. But I actually really enjoyed it because it felt like our own place. We had amazing reviews and closed two days before lockdown, but then for a variety of reasons, we never reopened.’

It would have been easy for a young chef like Chris to let a disappointment like this set him back but as soon as restaurants began to reopen, he started looking for something new, briefly helping in the kitchen at Peckham’s Levan before ending up at Townsend. After spending the best part of six months churning out home delivery boxes from the Whitechapel restaurant’s small kitchen with head chef Joe Fox, when Joe left Chris was offered the position, giving him the chance to take charge for the first time in his career and make the menu his own.

At Townsend Chris serves a produce-led modern British menu which changes throughout the day to make sure it’s both accessible for those visiting the gallery and tempting enough to bring people in during the evenings. ‘I really like the fact that at lunch we might have something simple like a fish cake on the menu for people who’ve come to the gallery and got hungry,’ says Chris. ‘But then at dinner it’s more refined and you can have a wine pairing, albeit still really affordable for London.’

He may have had a relatively quick rise to head chef given that he only started thinking about cooking professionally in his late teens but Chris remains modest in his aspirations, simply hoping to receive some form of recognition for his food. If he continues to produce the simple yet elegant style of dishes which are drawing crowds at Townsend, you can be sure the accolades aren’t far around the corner.