108 Garage: fast and furious flavour

by Tom Shingler25 September 2017

This Notting Hill restaurant with a tiny kitchen seemingly came out of nowhere just under a year ago, but after stellar reviews it’s now one of the hottest places to eat in London. Tom Shingler sits down with head chef Chris Denney to find out why.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

You might’ve read about 108 Garage before. It’s certainly got a good origins story, with the founder Luca Longobardi once being erroneously fingered as an accountant for the mafia and the chef getting the job by answering a Gumtree ad. But while that particular angle will no doubt be printed again and again, it’s clear that this isn’t a restaurant resting on its media-friendly laurels. What was once a quirky new place with a striking interior and an interesting background is now serving up some of the most interesting, inventive and (above all) tasty dishes in the capital.

That’s thanks to Chris Denney, who has been responsible for the menu since opening. Sure, the décor ticks all the trendy boxes and the location is nothing to be sniffed at, but what really makes 108 Garage a must-visit is what’s on the plate. This is genre-bending stuff, with perilla leaves frozen in liquid nitrogen and paired with salted black cherries and horseradish. A little mug of dashi broth imbued with warming Bengal mustard oil and a deboned chicken wing is offered towards the start of the meal. The freshest scallop is served ice cold with lovage and apple. A roasted sweetcorn ice cream is paired with fermented blueberries and just a hint of espelette chilli pepper. The dishes might sound weird – and Chris says some can be pretty divisive – but each one showcases incredible skill and the talented mind behind them. What makes all this even more impressive is the open kitchen – a tiny space barely big enough for the four chefs working it.

Unlike other restaurants, the size of the kitchen plays a huge role at 108 Garage. ‘I’ve been a chef for twenty years and this is the smallest place I’ve worked by far,’ says Chris. ‘There are so many limitations, but we’ve embraced it. When we first started I was preparing massive 2.5kg salt-baked bass, but we just couldn’t manage. We’ve got a tiny oven and very limited fridge space, so we started doing more on the stovetop, started pickling things and started looking at which dishes worked best. We do just shy of 100 covers every day, so we need to become smart about what we put on the menu.’

Chris (left) opened 108 Garage with founder and CEO Luca Longobardi at the end of 2016
It's quickly become one of the most interesting restaurants in London, serving up dishes taking inspiration from all over the world

You’ve got two options when eating at 108 Garage. Book a table and enjoy the more familiar à la carte or tasting menu, talk amongst yourselves and enjoy the evening. Or, if you like to be a bit nearer the action, pull up a stool at the kitchen counter and let the chefs make up a menu for you. In my opinion, this is a far better way to understand what Chris and the team are doing here. It also turns a meal into a full-blown theatre experience, as you watch the chefs communicate, plate up and talk you through what you’re about to eat.

At first, watching the kitchen can raise the heartbeat – everyone seems to be moving at 100 miles an hour, constantly ducking and diving around each other. There’s lots of communication – words such as ‘whackon’ and ‘heads!’ are thrown about while chefs grab ingredients, compose their plates and talk to the customers. ‘There’s no real hierarchy here – watching the kitchen you wouldn’t know who the gaffer was,’ says Chris. ‘I haven’t lost a member of staff to date, which is basically unheard of in the industry. Everyone just works at their absolute hardest and we get it done – I’ve been phenomenally lucky with the staff. We do mess up sometimes, and in the first few there were more profanities being thrown about than I would’ve liked, but it’s an incredible place to work.’

Lamb heart agnolotti, one of the few dishes to remain on the menu year-round because of how it brings Chris and the team together every morning
Dishes change all the time and new additions to the menu appear daily. If something is being toyed with but isn't quite ready for the menu, the kitchen will often send it to customers free of charge to get their feedback

It’s no secret that the hospitality industry is facing a critical shortage at the moment, which is why three members of Chris’ small team had never worked in a kitchen until they came to 108 Garage. ‘When we opened I put an ad out everywhere I could,’ says Chris. ‘I got six emails and two people coming in for a trial. It was a complete joke. I think the problem we have is that we’re not a famous Michelin-starred restaurant that can offer four working days a week and look impressive on a young chef’s CV. If you know about us then you know it’s a great little place to work, but chefs don’t realise that doing a stage in a Michelin-starred kitchen will probably mean you’re three floors down picking herbs day after day. Here you get to learn so much and are in the heart of the action from day one – it’s hard work, but you get so much more out of it.’

Hard work is certainly at the core of Chris’ kitchen. While he’s a laidback, incredible friendly person who knows how to manage chefs without having to shout at them, he’s also worked seven days a week since 108 Garage opened. When we talked he’d had a seizure a few weeks before, and was back in the kitchen the next day. Even during the interview he was constantly keeping an eye on the kitchen, making sure his team were on top of things and darting in and out of conversation about the latest produce coming in and little changes he wanted to make to dishes. ‘I work non-stop but there’s a reason for that,’ he tells me. ‘In the first few months of opening we had visits from Michelin and we weren’t expecting that at all. I think it spurred me on a bit, and I want to just improve and improve and improve.’

Chris has worked in many Michelin-starred kitchens in the past, but nearly gave up the life of a chef to become a potter
Despite the tiny kitchen and furiously fast service, presentation is always impeccable

I echoed the sentiments of the Michelin inspector who told Chris to take a day off – he looked in desperate need of a break – and was relieved to hear he was spending four days in Japan the very next day. But you can’t deny that all those hours in the kitchen have paid off. 108 Garage is an exciting place to be; you can feel the sheer energy bursting from the kitchen during service, and despite the incredible pressure that must come from knocking out incredible food in such a small space, the chefs seem to relish it. Add to that a menu that seems to change not daily but sometimes twice a day, a pure reliance on what produce has come in that morning and a fully booked dining room during lunch and dinner, and you can start to understand the appeal a place like this has.

All of this very nearly never happened – Chris was treated as a bit of an unknown when 108 Garage opened, but he’s got some seriously impressive credentials. For the past twenty years he’s worked in the kitchen at Hambleton Hall, learnt about flavour combinations with John Campbell, staged at the three Michelin star Piazza Duomo in Alba, Italy and mastered the classics under Phil Howard. However, when The Square closed, he was ready to walk away from cheffing completely. ‘I was completely broke and couldn’t even afford to pay rent,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to go back and in my mind was 100% done with cooking, so I decided to become a potter, as I’d already studied art and I love my bowls and ceramics. However, it was a while until I realised you simply don’t get paid for being a potter – you really have to do it for the love.’

Southam Street, Chris and Luca's second venture, is based just around the corner from 108 Garage and spans three floors
Ice creams and sorbets seem to be a particular passion for Chris – although the flavours are always different to anything you've had before

What convinced Chris to get back in the game was the way Luca let him work. He gave him 100% sign off on the menu, letting him do whatever he wanted. ‘I’ve been promised that before but it never actually happens,’ says Chris. ‘It starts off well but then when the business isn’t doing as well as it’s supposed to they start giving you menus of places they’ve visited and liked, or start asking you to cook things you really don’t want to.’

It’s safe to say 108 Garage has now cemented itself as a restaurant with a bright future ahead of itself. But Chris and Luca are already looking ahead. Currently the restaurant turns away 200 people a week because it’s all booked up, but the duo’s new place Southam Street opening around the corner will put an end to that. ‘There’ll be a sushi master working the raw bar and a sake room upstairs, then downstairs will be a grill-based brasserie,’ says Chris, who is a big fan of Japanese food. He’ll still be cooking at 108 Garage, but will take on the role of executive chef there as well. There’s also a New York outpost of 108 Garage opening in March 2018, where Chris hopes he’ll be more of a restaurateur. Oh, and there’s the cookbook coming out next year too. I just hope he finds the time to take the occasional day off.

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