Joe Laker

Joe Laker

Joe Laker

Joe Laker built his culinary foundations at the likes of The Black Swan, Pollen Street Social, Anglo and Fenn, before setting out on his own. Today, he shows what's possible with produce from the British Isles at his Shoreditch chef's table restaurant counter 71.

Joe Laker can’t trace his decision to become a chef back to a single inspiration. He remembers loving food as a child (he lived in Alabama and South Carolina for a time while young), working with produce in a part-time supermarket job and becoming a pretty self-reliant cook as a teenager, but there's not an obvious origin from which it all began. ‘There’s all these things that now, in context, make sense as to how I got here, but it wasn’t clear cut to me,’ Joe says. ‘I’d love to turn around and say I knew I wanted to be a chef, but I don’t have that story.’

Still, as he set off to university in Leeds to study engineering, following in his chemical engineer father’s footsteps, there was enough of a curiosity that in his second year he started looking for kitchen work, landing a job at a local Chinese restaurant. ‘I applied for fifteen kitchen jobs and that was the only one I heard back from – I think they must have been desperate,’ he laughs. By the time the trial shift wrapped up, his name was already on next week’s rota. ‘The head chef there, Robbie, was great – he taught me basic skills and how to behave in kitchens, and I still value his tutorship above most to this day,’ he says. ‘Everyone was so tight knit, but it was the most dysfunctional family and I just fell in love with the intensity of it all.’ He was initially entrusted only with the basics; pot-washing and kitchen prep, before, later, turning his hand to making spring rolls. ‘I very quickly learned I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, but I wanted to become good,’ he smiles.

After university, he immersed himself in restaurants in Leeds, including Water Lane Boathouse, and became a pizza chef, working in a shipping container and travelling to children’s birthday parties. Then he heard that Tommy Banks was opening Roots in York, and landed a job. In the run-up to its opening, he joined the chef’s flagship restaurant, The Black Swan at Oldstead, getting a taste of Michelin-level service and exploring its kitchen farm. Though he was young, Joe is frank about his attitude at the time. ‘It was my first glimpse into a Michelin-style kitchen and I don’t think my work ethic was particularly great at that point,’ he says. ‘I didn’t really understand what it took to get up to speed in a kitchen like that, so I’m not sure I showed my best self. There was a point at Roots where a sous chef told me I needed to sort myself out or I’d be gone. I remember sitting on the steps at the fire exit talking to him; that was a moment where I thought ‘this is serious, I need to get myself up to speed quick’.’

It was a turning point. After a year between Roots and The Black Swan, he moved to London and joined (the now-closed) St Leonards as a junior sous chef. It was a step up in responsibility, one which Joe feels might have, in hindsight, come too soon. ‘I feel like when you move into a Michelin-starred kitchen, it’s almost like your career starts again,’ he says. ‘It’s a huge learning curve, and I feel like I should have stayed at Roots to make sure I had the foundations. Don’t get me wrong, over the years I’ve built those, but I’ve had to learn how to build them a lot quicker.’ Stints at Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social and Anglo in Farringdon followed; at the latter, he was promoted to his first head chef role after only a few weeks. It was a rewarding, but challenging time; he reflects on a beef tartare and bone marrow dish which he says was more than a little inspired by a similar one on the menu at The Black Swan, something Tommy himself noticed. Joe was, he says, an ‘arrogant 23-year-old’, and didn’t respond in the way he now wishes he had. ‘It was just completely ripped off and I never apologised for it – maybe this can be my apology,’ he says.

When Covid arrived, Anglo closed and Joe left. He kept busy during the lockdowns working at a fried chicken shop and a warehouse where he packed at-home meal boxes. As it eased, there was a brief spell at restaurant LIV near Sloane Square, before he spotted an opportunity at Fenn in Fulham as head chef at the end of 2020 (it closed in spring 2023). There, Joe says he felt like he hit his stride as a manager. ‘Fenn was great for a really long time,’ he says. 'I have a lot of gratitude to the owners.’

Eighteen months later, a desire to spend time abroad prompted Joe to leave; he had a brief spell at Jordnær, a two-star restaurant in Copenhagen, before returning for three months at Phil Howard’s Elystan Street (‘Phil is the biggest legend you’ll ever meet,' he laughs). The desire to cook his own food was taking hold, but talks soon started around going at it alone and in, spring 2023, plans for counter 71 were announced. Headed up by Joe and fellow Fenn alumnus Ryan Sheehan, it’s a sixteen-cover chef’s table concept upstairs and a American South-inspired bar, lowcountry, downstairs (Ryan hails from Savannah), for which Joe drew on his childhood years in America to develop a food menu. The chaos of opening was smoothed, Joe says, by the fact that the team have all worked together before – Joe met Harry Cooper, for example, the restaurant's general manager, at Anglo and they've worked together since.

At its core, counter 71 is a celebration of the British Isles. ‘We only source from Britain – in the past I've worked at places where we’ve done our best to do that, but here it’s all British,’ he nods. ‘We put a big emphasis on stuff from the British Isles that people wouldn’t necessarily think about.’ He works with a wasabi grower in Hampshire, and there's British ginger, chilli and okra on the menu, spotlighting produce that isn’t native to the UK but has found a way to thrive here. Even the southern-inspired menu at lowcountry travels via our shores, with its pimento cheese, for example, using British red peppers instead. It's an ethos which Joe partly traces back to his early cheffing days with Tommy. ‘I have very fond memories of walking around the kitchen gardens with the gardener at The Black Swan,’ he says, ‘speaking about crop rotation, learning why you can’t just cut the lemon verbena leaves off one plant, that sort of thing. They definitely cemented a very strong ethos in me.’

That period also planted the desire for a Michelin star, he says, which at one point was his biggest driver. ‘As soon as I stepped foot in The Black Swan, I feel like I started running that race,’ he says. ‘And even though for a long time you might be a spectator, everyone’s running the same race and it’s long and it’s hard and it gets harder if getting a star is your end goal. If you'd spoken to me five years ago I would have said I want a star by the time I’m thirty.’ Though he admits a star would still be welcome, today it's been joined by an aim of showing what's possible in British cooking. ‘I’m on this journey of education,’ he nods. ‘I want to get these farmers and producers into the mainstream and if I can do that in the next five or ten years and make their food accessible to everyone in the country, then I feel I will have succeeded.’