Nicholas Balfe

Nicholas Balfe

Nicholas Balfe

Following the huge success of his trio of London restaurants Salon, Levan and Larry’s, Nicholas Balfe relocated to Somerset in 2021 to open his newest venture Holm, where provenance and seasonality play a larger role in his food than ever before.

London may be widely regarded as the UK’s food capital but there are plenty of other regions around the country having culinary moments of their own. Somerset is certainly one of these, with towns like Bruton already high on the hit-list for foodies venturing out of the big cities. Chefs too are following suit, with many choosing to open restaurants in the South West and Nicholas Balfe is one of them. Having already established himself as a force to be reckoned with within the London’s restaurant industry, in 2021 he relocated to the rural village of South Petherton to open Holm, where he has a closer connection than ever before to the produce that appears on his menu.

Nicholas didn’t always aspire to be a chef however; whilst growing up in Harrogate, he worked in a local restaurant run by a friend’s dad, but it was never more than a way of earning money. ‘It was definitely a means to an end more than anything,’ smiles Nicholas, who was only a teenager at the time. ‘A lot of us worked there and we’d often come in bleary eyed on a Sunday morning, having got smashed the night before. I enjoyed it, but I was in no way approaching it as a career at the time.’

Instead, Nicholas went off to study marketing at university in Manchester, where he continued to work in kitchens to earn money until he graduated. His degree from Manchester led to positions at multiple marketing agencies but by the age of twenty-six, already growing weary of the corporate world, Nicholas had decided to leave his job. ‘I suppose it was a bit of a quarter-life crisis,’ he laughs, ‘but throughout that period I had been using cooking as a bit of an escape outlet, so I knew that I wanted to reimmerse myself in the world of food. I didn’t know in what capacity at first, so I just started helping out with a few pop-ups and things like that.’

Nicholas started undertaking stages at various different restaurants around London, deciding to gain experience by working in kitchens rather than going to culinary school, and was quickly inspired by those who taught him at the likes of St. John and Moro. ‘That ingredient-led, flavour-first style of cookery really appealed to me over and above fine dining,’ he explains, ‘and I think a lot of that came from my teachers. I remember Sam at Moro once shoving a pot of cumin under my nose and speaking so passionately how important an ingredient it was for him and how evocative the smell was. And I think that passion about provenance and ingredients, which I witnessed a lot of early on, is a principle I’ve taken with me throughout my career.’

After spending time working at Rochelle Canteen followed by a stint as head chef at Brunswick House, having worked in other people’s kitchens for less than four years, Nicholas made the bold decision to do to open his own place. Taking inspiration from the Parisian gastronomic scene at the time, where the likes of Septime and Le Châteaubriand were serving progressive yet refined food in otherwise rustic spaces, he launched Salon in Brixton Market – an area coming into its own at the time.

Salon began its life as a pop-up, before opening permanently in 2012 and throughout the next few years began to grow in popularity. ‘Initially I think we made every mistake in the book,’ says Nicholas, ‘and for a while it was just me – a pretty inexperienced chef at the time – and a few people working front of house running the place. But through sheer hard graft and tenacity, we made it work and managed to slowly build a decent reputation in South London and then further afield.’ Off the back of this success, in 2018 Nicholas opened his second restaurant Levan in Peckham, which aimed to take the Parisian style of Salon and make it more accessible. ‘Levan for me was always about everyday luxury,’ he says, ‘so, we’d have things like schnitzel and bavette and chips on the menu, but also some more delicate dishes that played into that gastronomic feel, with a light touch here and some Asian influence there.’

Levan proved just as much of a hit as Salon and all was going smoothly for Nicholas, until in 2020, just four days after his next venture Larry’s – a more casual all-day restaurant inspired by New York’s cafés – had opened, it was forced to close by the national lockdown. ‘It was pretty heart-breaking at the time,’ says Nicholas. ‘We basically ended up mothballing Larry’s for six months as we tried to stay afloat but it eventually came into its own during the second lockdown, when people would pop-in for a pastry or a sandwich and it would be the highlight of their day.’ However, it was at the end of 2020 that Nicholas was also first contacted about the idea of opening a restaurant in a former bank in rural Somerset. After some initial hesitancy, he and his wife decided to take the plunge and escape the city for this new project, which would become Holm.

‘What really appealed about it was the idea that being in Somerset would allow us to really make that connection with the seasons,’ he explains. ‘With the other restaurants, we were always trying to be as seasonal and produce-driven as possible, but there are limits on that when you’re in a city. There were producers who we yearned to work with in London and now we finally can. Local suppliers will drop stuff off directly and sometimes stay for lunch and we can change the menu based on what’s best. That feels like the essence of provenance and I think that’s something a lot of chefs strive for.’

Holm opened its doors in November 2021 and was soon serving both lunch and dinner to packed dining rooms. Despite Salon being forced to permanently close in 2022, Nicholas’s other London restaurants continue to thrive, even with his involvement now being more remote, which he puts down to his hard-working team. ‘Lockdown enabled us to put our total trust in our team to get the job done,’ says Nicholas, ‘and when we fully reopened, everyone felt empowered and really stepped up. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to focus so much on getting Holm up and running.’

Each of his restaurants is as important as the next for Nicholas, but Holm definitely has his focus at the moment. You get the feeling that he’s found his happy place as both a chef and restaurateur in Somerset and that’s clear to see in his refined yet hyper-seasonal plates of food.