Ivan Tisdall-Downes

Ivan Tisdall-Downes

Entirely self-taught, Ivan Tisdall-Downes is proof that passion, hard work and natural talent can lead to great things in the kitchen. At his restaurant Native at Browns, he works closely with co-founder Imogen Davis to showcase the wild, foraged and often overlooked ingredients from the British countryside.

Most chefs follow one of two paths – either starting out by washing pots in a restaurant and falling in love with the thrill of service, or heading to catering college to learn the ropes. Ivan Tisdall-Downes, however, entered the world of hospitality almost by accident, teaching himself how to cook using books and TV programmes. He’s now head chef at London’s trailblazing foraged and wild food restaurant Native, which he opened with co-founder Imogen Davis.

Growing up in London meant Ivan didn’t know a sloe from a hawthorn, and food wasn’t a big part of his life. It was only when his parents moved to the countryside and he began visiting them in the holidays as a student at the University of Brighton that he started to familiarise himself with the hedgerows, picking various berries and wild garlic to cook with back home. Finding a creative outlet in cooking, he absorbed as much information as he could through books, TV shows and Youtube videos, becoming a seriously competent home cook.

During his time in Brighton he became friends with Imogen Davis, who had grown up in the countryside and knew much more about foraging and wild British produce. Together, they began to explore how to find and cook these unique ingredients, delving into the world of street food and selling preserves alongside their studies. This was the beginning of Native as a concept – serving indigenous British produce in an accessible, familiar way. The duo’s signature dish of wood pigeon kebab still crops up on the menu (when in season) to this day, giving diners the chance to try a variety of game they might not have had before in an unintimidating dish – after all, who doesn’t like a kebab?

Before making the jump to opening a full-blown restaurant, Ivan secured a stage at River Cottage, which instilled a passion for super-seasonal cookery and produce taking priority over everything else. With his extensive self-taught education, experience running a street food operation and a short time in the River Cottage kitchen, he and Imogen opened Native in Neals Yard, Covent Garden at the beginning of 2016.

The small restaurant contained just thirty seats, but managed to catch the eye of national critics, who were impressed by the innovative cooking of ingredients rarely seen on restaurant menus. With game, foraging and low-waste food at its core, the restaurant enjoyed a successful run until 2018, when Camden Council refused to grant Native a permanent restaurant license (justifying this – rather oddly – by saying there were too many restaurants in Covent Garden).

This was a blow to both Ivan and Imogen, who had worked tirelessly to get their restaurant off the ground. Rather than throw in the towel, however, they both launched a crowdfunding campaign to open a larger site in Southwark, just next to Borough Market. It was a smash hit, raising over £50,000 and gave Ivan and Imogen the chance to continue to explore and showcase the wild flavours of Britain in exciting, inventive new ways.

The duo stayed put in this location until 2020, when they closed the restaurant to open a short-lived outpost on Essex's Osea Island, before returning to the capital to take root in Mayfair at Brown's flagship shop. This latest iteration of the restaurant – now known as Native at Browns – is where Ivan's food and Imogen's drinks can be experienced.

A successful self-taught chef is a rare breed, but Ivan has proven that with enough hard work it can result in something a little different from the norm. Panna cottas flavoured with gorse, jelly mushrooms coated in dark chocolate, woodruff-infused custards; this isn’t the sort of stuff you’re taught at catering college. Ivan’s curious mind and a lack of a traditional, ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ mentality works wonders in the kitchen, and makes Native at Browns one of the most interesting places to eat in the UK today.