Luke French

Luke French

Luke French

Combining local produce with Asian influences out of a Sheffield shipping container, Luke French is part of a new generation of modern British chefs pushing the county’s cuisine forward.

Sheffield certainly has its fair share of decent restaurants, but few have dared to tread the experimental, boundary-breaking path quite like Jöro. Since it opened its corrugated iron doors in 2016, chef director Luke French and his wife Stacey have put Sheffield on the culinary map, and have since expanded into a mini-empire with a clutch of establishments in both Sheffield and Liverpool.

Growing up in Cambridgeshire, Luke’s path into the industry was a familiar one. Not getting on with the academic nature of school, a job as a potwash at the age of fourteen in a local restaurant led to a catering NVQ after his GCSEs. After moving to Cambridge at the age of eighteen, he landed a job cooking at the university as part of a huge kitchen team cooking for thousands of students a day. It was when he joined the team at Alimentum – which at the time was gunning for a Michelin star – that he had his first taste of fine dining. ‘It was a serious, tough kitchen, but I learned an awful lot,’ he says. ‘It made me realise that I wanted to remain in that high-end environment.’

Encouraged by what he’d experienced at Alimentum, Luke jumped in at the deep end and went to Cambridge’s most accomplished restaurant, the two-starred Midsummer House. ‘I didn’t last long at all – I was far too young and I got chewed up and spat out. I completely bottled it and it knocked me back a bit, as I just wasn’t ready to join a kitchen like that.’

Still undeterred, Luke left to do a stage at The Fat Duck, keen to experience a different kind of top-level gastronomy. The stage turned into a longer stay, where Luke became fascinated by just how experimental and ground-breaking cookery could be. His real epiphany came when he left to go travelling around Asia, however. ‘I absolutely fell in love with everything I saw there,’ he explains. ‘I never ate at any of the high-end restaurants, but it was the street food that interested me the most. I’d help out for a day chopping veg for the stallholders and discovering all the different dishes in all of the places I visited was hugely influential in what I do today.’

On his return to the UK, Luke spent some time working in hotels in and around Cambridge, before upping sticks to Sheffield to begin a chef de partie job at The Milestone, a highly regarded gastropub in the city. Over the next five years he worked his way up to head chef – meeting Stacey in the process – and then went on to help expand the Milestone Group’s portfolio of other restaurants in an executive chef role.

Eventually, as is often the case with chefs, Luke felt the urge to open his own place. After he and Stacey cooked private dinners for a local architect, he approached them with an opportunity to open in Krynkl, a four-floor building made out of shipping containers to showcase small startups and businesses in the city’s Kelham Island district. With the blessing and financial backing of Matt Bigland and Nina Patel-Bigland (the owners of The Milestone Group), Luke and Stacey started work on getting what would become Jöro ready for the public.

‘We did pop-ups around the city for about a year before we opened, testing the waters and finding our feet,’ says Luke. ‘We’d talk to suppliers, go out foraging and just try things out. We were really lucky to be involved with the site at Krynkl from the beginning, right down to the design and even building the furniture. When we first opened, however, it was tough – especially the first six months. Sometimes we wouldn’t have a single booking for a service and a lot of people just didn’t understand what we were trying to do. It is admittedly a quirky little place – after all, we’re inside a shipping container in Sheffield’s old red light district – but it wasn’t until we started getting a bit of national press that things began to pick up.’

That national press started to see people travel to Jöro and Luke and Stacey started to gain a name for themselves. They were offering something Sheffield hadn’t really been home to before – innovative, inventive cooking that took influence from both Nordic and Asian food movements. ‘Looking back, when we first opened I was still trying to find my style,’ says Luke. ‘Michelin came in and sort of branded us with that ‘New Nordic’ tag, which wasn’t quite what we were going for, but my presentation and approach to clean, pure flavours is definitely reminiscent of that. There have always been Asian influences in my cooking, but I think they’re really come to the fore more recently.’

That Asian influence was helped massively by one of Luke’s suppliers – Stuart Turner of Sushi Sushi. ‘When Stu came to Jöro to do a tasting of the products he offered, I suddenly had access to all these incredible ingredients that I’d first tasted during my travels around Asia. Initially I just loved the flavours and tried to use them as much as possible, but since then I’ve been educating myself on their origins and how they’re used, which led to us creating our own in-house ferments such as soy sauces, garums and koji. All our fresh produce – except for one or two things – is British, however. We get our shellfish from Scotland, trout from Hampshire and we’re working with beef local to Sheffield.’

Jöro is now firmly fixed as one of Yorkshire’s must-visit restaurants, continuing to offer adventurous small plates which are a pure distillation of Luke’s distinctive style. While it remains the HQ of everything Luke and Stacey do, other projects have surfaced more recently, including the House of Jöro (a boutique Sheffield hotel containing four bedrooms and a ten-seater chef table), Konjo (an east Asian-inspired fast food offering with sites in both Sheffield and Liverpool) and Nama, a sushi counter in Liverpool serving responsibly sourced sashimi. Spread across two cities, both home to exciting emerging food scenes, Luke and Stacey are in the midst of something very exciting indeed – and they certainly show no signs of slowing down.