Flying colours: Adam Simmonds’ The Test Kitchen

by Tom Shingler4 July 2017

By inviting diners to become part of the menu development process, Adam Simmonds is offering a dining experience like no other. Tom Shingler heads to his pop-up restaurant in Soho to find out more.

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.

‘We’re not governed by any rules here – we can change things as and when we like.’ I’m sitting with Adam Simmonds at the counter in his restaurant The Test Kitchen, in Soho, getting to know more about the chef’s latest project. The place is pretty small – a row of stools sit alongside the central bar, which acts as a pass with chefs hard at work behind it – but this isn’t where Adam is settling down for the foreseeable future. This is, as the name implies, a pop-up development kitchen, which will close in 2018 when Adam opens his permanent venue. But what makes it stand out is that it’s open to the public.

Adam has worked in and run Michelin-starred restaurants in the past, honing his skills at places like Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and winning awards as head chef of Danesfield House in Marlow. Over the past three years he’s been working as a consultant, going into kitchens to improve both the food and the way they’re run. But his primary goal was to open his own restaurant, something that proved harder to achieve than he first imagined. Just before Christmas last year, however, he managed to raise investment for a small site on Frith Street in central London. There was just one catch – the lease only lasted one year. Rather than passing on the opportunity, he made it work in his favour, opening The Test Kitchen as a twelve-month pop-up.

‘I never envisaged opening a pop-up before a permanent site, but it just sort of happened naturally,’ he says. ‘It’s a really effective way of us gathering information from customers, so when we open the permanent place we’ll have a menu that’s already been tried and tested. It means we can be experimental without impacting the business, because people who eat here know to expect something a bit different. And if we can hit the ground running when we open next year, then that’s even better.’

Adam secured the site for The Test Kitchen in January, but managed to get everything ready for business by the end of April
The chef's signature modern European cuisine is on top form, making the most of seasonal ingredients when they're at their best

It works like this: diners sit at the bar and choose as many dishes from the menu as they like (they recommend around four or five per person). They can then watch the chefs cook and prepare the food right in front of them, asking any questions about the ingredients, cooking techniques or thought processes behind the dish. After they’ve finished the meal, they’re given the chance to share their thoughts with the team.

‘We get feedback in all sorts of ways,’ says Adam. ‘Talking guests through the menu and noting down what they order gives us some idea of how things are being received, even if they don’t realise it. We also talk to them about the food as we’re preparing and serving it, which helps too. But the main way we learn is through the feedback cards given out at the end of the meal. It’s not just a few tick boxes; people can really get involved and let us know exactly what they loved, what they didn’t like and what they’d change. Everyone has been very forthright so far, which is really helpful.’

Once feedback has been received, Adam and the team instantly set about incorporating changes to the menu. When they’re happy with a dish, they add it to a database of recipes ready for when the permanent site opens next year. ‘When we first opened, we had a red mullet dish that changed four times in two days. Skin on, skin off, sliced differently, cured, pickled, pan-fried, blowtorched – we re-evaluated it on a daily basis until we were happy with it. It’s a process that comes from not being complacent and always wanting to make things better. Even our veal dish, which gets great feedback from everyone who tries it, has evolved. It was originally sweetbreads with black garlic and broccoli. Now it’s sweetbreads, loin of veal, broccoli purée, black garlic, broccoli stems, broccoli foam and veal jus. We had two diners who were amazed by how technical we could make the dish in such a small space, which was great.’

Experimental dishes constantly change and evolve depending on diners' feedback – this yeast parfait with lychee gel and sorbet being a prime example
Diners can watch Adam and his team of chefs create small plates right in front of their eyes, asking questions about the food

The whole experience is designed to appeal to those who don’t just like to eat out, but who love learning about food and cooking. It gives diners a real insight to the workings of a development kitchen, allowing them to help shape the menu and offer feedback first-hand. Breaking down the barriers between the kitchen and the dining room is something Adam is obviously passionate about (the chefs serve almost all the food themselves, with front of house staff pouring the drinks, clearing up and taking orders) and he hopes to integrate the idea into his permanent restaurant next year.

‘I’m looking for interaction with the customers above all else when I open permanently – I want people to be able to see what’s going on in the open kitchen no matter where they’re sitting in the restaurant,’ explains Adam. ‘I originally thought tasting menus would be the way to go, but I don’t think people want to be governed by a chef telling them what to eat anymore. Instead, I’m thinking about a sort of pick and mix approach, where customers can select their main proteins and then choose from a three, five, seven or ten-course menu. We need to look at it more, to ensure it’s viable and makes sense, but that’s the great thing with having this pop-up – we can try ideas out, and if they don’t work, try something else.

‘It all goes back to the permanent site,’ he adds. ‘If we can get all the legwork done here and make things a bit more seamless when we open next year, then great. I’ve looked at a couple of potential buildings already and being able to invite potential investors or landlords into The Test Kitchen so they can experience what we’re doing first-hand is a massive bonus. It’s a lot of hard work, running the pop-up while looking for investment and a site for the permanent restaurant at the same time, but that’s what I signed up for.’ It’s obvious that Adam has worked himself to the bone to get The Test Kitchen up and running, but after seeing the beautiful plates of food and tasting the balanced flavour combinations that only a Michelin-starred chef could pull off, it’s clear this is one test that he’s passed with flying colours.

Adam Simmonds
Adam Simmonds

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