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Young gun: James Cochran

Ones to watch: James Cochran

by Great British Chefs 09 July 2018

With some stellar reviews under his belt, an upcoming appearance on Great British Menu and a go-for-it attitude that throws caution to the wind, James Cochran is one of a new generation of chefs rejecting the trappings of fine dining and putting the food centre stage. Tom Shingler talks to him about his new Islington restaurant 1251.

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There aren’t many places in the UK where you can get a plate of line-caught mackerel with XO sauce alongside a dish of kid goat with scotch bonnet jam. But it’s that kind of combination that makes James Cochran stand out from the crowd. Since rising to prominence at his eponymous restaurant James Cochran EC3 in the heart of the City of London (which he no longer has any connection to), he’s all set to launch 1251, a new addition to Islington’s food scene which puts Kentish produce centre stage. But rather than rely on the classic fare that’s always going to be popular, he’s going for something a bit more ambitious – distilling his Scottish and Vincentian heritage through what he learnt during his time at Michelin-starred restaurants, taking a bit of inspiration from all over the world and serving them in simple, relaxed surroundings.

‘I grew up in Whitstable in Kent and knew from the age of about nine I wanted to be a chef,’ he says. ‘My dad was all about education – I went to a nunnery which I still wake up in cold sweats about – but instead of becoming a lawyer or a banker or something I was always going to cook. My first job was at Whitstable’s Wheeler’s Oyster Bar when I was fourteen; I worked there until I was nineteen going from pot wash to on the stove, before I decided I wanted to get some Michelin experience and joined Read’s Restaurant, which had a star at the time. It was a great stepping stone for me – I learnt how to cook the French classics.’

The next obvious move for James was to get some experience at the big restaurants in London, so he knocked on the doors of places like The Square and Maze. But after completing a trial at The Ledbury he knew that was where he wanted to be. ‘It was a hard, intense kitchen – sometimes you were doing eighteen-hour days twelve days in a row,’ he explains. ‘But it was the best place I’ve ever worked because of Brett Graham and his attitude. A lot of the top restaurants will have you working like a robot, but Brett would push you, give you more responsibilities and make you think for yourself. I did five very blurry years there, then moved to Brett’s pub The Harwood Arms in Fulham for another four years.’

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Towards the end of James’ time at The Harwood Arms, the pop-up restaurant scene in London was booming, so he decided to give it a go. With four of his friends he hosted Camberwell Love in 2013 and then went for something more permanent in Restaurant FIX in Hackney. But it didn’t quite go to plan. ‘It’s funny – when you put your own money into something you really love you’re convinced it’s going to work,’ he says. ‘But FIX failed miserably. We were in the wrong location – Hackney wasn’t as gentrified as it is today – and we soon realised you have to have someone doing your PR when you’re opening a restaurant in London. We eventually closed it and I left London to live with my brother for a while and to get myself back on my feet.’

Despite having to close, James’ cooking at FIX had obviously impressed someone, who rang him up and asked if he wanted to run another popup at B.Y.O.C. in Soho. That eventually led to his first permanent restaurant, James Cochran EC3, just a short walk away from Liverpool Street Station. The glittering reviews soon followed, and James became known as a seriously talented chef. In April 2018, however, he parted ways with the restaurant, wanting to hone his unique style and create something different.

James is refreshingly honest about his past problems with pop-ups and restaurants, but it’s clear he’s learnt from this, and it certainly hasn’t deterred him from pushing forward. His next venture, 1251, is scheduled to open in August, and he says it is going to be much more representative of him as a chef.

‘I hate the whole fine dining thing – when I go somewhere I don’t want them to push the chair in when I sit down or see the waiters automatically give the wine list to the man,’ he says. ‘Those sorts of places are on the way out anyway. I want to take the quality of the food found in stuffy restaurants and serve it in a relaxed environment with some good music on in the background. It’s going to be in Islington where you get all walks of life, so I want it to appeal to everyone who walks past.’

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The menu certainly looks exciting – a quick glance highlights influences from Italy, China, Scandinavia, the Caribbean and the UK, with Kentish ingredients bringing everything together. James calls his style of cooking modern British, but knows how vague the term can be. ‘It’s a hard thing to define,’ he says. ‘It basically means using good produce with influences from all around the world, so it could be all sorts of things. I’m half Scottish and half Vincentian and was brought up in Whitstable, so I try and blend all three of those things into my cooking style. That means we’ll have Orkney scallops on the menu alongside Whitstable kippers, and I use my own Vincentian spice blend for the jerk-spiced monkfish. There’s elements of The Ledbury and The Harwood Arms in there too in terms of finesse and technique, but I tend to keep my dishes focused on one main ingredient and a balance between acidity, sweetness and texture. I won’t put thirty flowers on top of something just to make it look pretty or try and get six different flavours into a sauce, but I do like to add quite a lot of Asian flavours into my food.’

Keeping with current trends 1251 will serve small plates, with the option of a five- or eight-course tasting menu in the evenings. But the focus falls on the ingredients more than anything else. ‘I’ve been in London for a decade now and you end up working with wholesale suppliers, so I wanted to work with some really small ones from Kent instead,’ explains James. ‘I get my meat direct from a place that has lamb from Whitstable and pork from Faversham, and every month we’ll be showcasing a different supplier and sharing as much information as we can about the produce on the menu. We’ll also be focusing on English wines, with a different bottle put centre stage every month.’

James is quite clearly a very talented chef, and you’ll be able to watch him in action in this year’s Great British Menu representing the South East. But there’s a sense that, until now, he hasn’t been in the right restaurant to truly show what he has to offer. It certainly seems as though 1251 is set to change that.

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