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Ones to Watch: Aaron Webster and Remi Williams

Ones to watch: Aaron Webster and Remi Williams

by Pete Dreyer 28 February 2018

Fine dining in a shipping container might sound like an oxymoron, but Brixton-based Smoke & Salt's Aaron Webster and Remi Williams' smart seasonal cooking based on ancient preservation techniques has proved incredibly successful.

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For the first twenty-odd years of their lives, the chances of Aaron Webster and Remi Williams becoming business partners and co-owners of a food business looked pretty slim. Whilst Aaron grew up in Britain, Remi’s childhood was spent in Nigeria, and though they both went to school in the UK neither had any inclination towards a career in food until they were at university.

‘I did business studies at Bournemouth, and then had a bit of a crisis when I realised that I didn’t have any practical skills,’ says Aaron. ‘Being away from home, it was the first time I’d been cooking for myself really, and I ended up joining a culinary arts course.’ Remi’s path was a similar one, albeit overseas – he finished a chemistry degree before packing his bags for culinary school in Boston. During their studies, the young chefs jumped into the deep end of some very professional kitchens. Aaron worked with Michael Wignall at The Latymer before heading to Dinner by Heston – ’I figured that if I was going to do this I might as well cook at the hardest level I could,’ he says – whilst Remi threw himself into the fray at one of Boston’s toughest kitchens – Craigie on Main.

‘I was living up in New Hampshire about an hour north of Boston,’ he says. ‘I’d drive home at 3am, then head back to work at 9am, working full days for five or six days a week.’ After a year there and another two at French-American Deuxave, Remi returned to the UK to marry his long-term girlfriend and took a job at The Shed in Notting Hill, where he met Aaron. Moulded by their similar trajectories, it wasn’t long before the two started making plans of their own.

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After a few years of supper clubs and residencies over London, Smoke & Salt arrived in Brixton last summer, moving into the shipping container previously occupied by Kricket
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The restaurant makes excellent use of the space and the kitchen is right on show, so customers can chat to the chefs freely as they cook

‘I had the barebones of the concept for Smoke & Salt,’ Aaron explains. ‘Remi and I really connected in terms of what we wanted to cook – we both wanted to try a lot of different techniques and flavours, and we’re both very driven to improve as chefs. I told him I was looking to leave and wasn’t sure what I was going to do next, and he said, ‘well, maybe we should do something together'. Why not?’

The pair took time out in the summer of 2014 to hash out the details for their new project, and slowly but surely, Smoke & Salt came together into what it is now – a casual fine dining restaurant with a focus on ancient preservation techniques. ‘We get a lot of customers through the door who ask if one element of every dish is smoked and one element is salted and cured,’ says Aaron, ‘but it's more of an umbrella term that encompasses all the techniques we want to use, from brining, curing and salting to fermenting, pickling and smoking.’

The menu is a myriad of intriguing cooking methods and flavour combinations, split into neat categories with a snack selection at the top, followed by vegetable, fish and meat dishes. Seasonal plates like cauliflower, tahini creme, grilled romanesco and crispy capers, and charred mackerel with forced rhubarb, escabeche dressing and fennel sit nicely alongside menu mainstays, like the delicious potato and beef heart snack plate that has endeared Smoke & Salt to south Londoners.

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Grilled amarillo peach, corn custard and crystallised popcorn
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Buttermilk-fried poussin, fregola grape jam, compressed grapes and peanut butter

‘That dish is a mainstay on the menu now,’ says Aaron. ‘We often get tables of two come in and order one each because they don’t want to share! We make the chimichurri using up leftover herb stems, and then serve that with fried potatoes, marinated beef heart that we cook rare on the grill and a gorgonzola dressing over the top. It’s like a sustainable steak and chips, basically.’

Flatbreads have also become a continuous presence on the menu, thanks to a phenomenally popular merguez tartare flatbread the pair served last year. The current iteration is a fermented parsnip flatbread, which the pair serve with a burnt yeast cream. ‘It’s kind of like an homage to a potato flatbread,’ says Remi. ‘For the burnt yeast cream, we make a yeast caramel and reduce cream into it, and it sets almost like a butter. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like when you read it on a menu, but everyone that has had it has said it’s really tasty. They’re still not really sure what it is,’ he laughs, ‘but they like it!'

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Merguez tartare flatbread with fermented harissa, radish and labneh
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Fried plantains, beer & onion jam, grilled chicken hearts and oregano

Dishes and discoveries like these are why Aaron and Remi love cooking – they’re culinary explorers, constantly dreaming up new things to surprise and delight people. Smoke & Salt is a labour of love, but it’s also a business that the two chefs are determined to run the right way. ‘One of the things we have been big on from day one is having transparency, from upper management down to the bottom,’ says Aaron. ‘We're very open with everybody about how the business is doing. Having that communication is so important. We're trying to change the way restaurants are run in the process.’

That emphasis on transparency stretches beyond the staff, and is a key part of how Smoke & Salt operates with customers too. Visit the restaurant and you’ll inevitably meet Aaron and Remi and get to chat to them about your experience. ‘We try to build up a rapport with the guests by serving some of their dishes, and asking what they liked and didn’t like,’ Aaron explains. ‘I think once you build that up, people are more comfortable to open up and give you their real opinions on the food. The last thing we want is for people to leave having eaten something they didn’t like, and wishing they had said something.’

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Black squid ceviche, puffed black rice, black radish and bergamot zest
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Smoke & Salt is a perfect example of the rise of casual fine dining

The result is something very organic, without any of the usual polish and pretension of fine dining restaurants. The team that Aaron and Remi have built is made up of part-time chefs and front of house staff – most of whom are brand new to the food industry. ‘A lot of them have minimal experience,’ says Remi, ‘but they’re keen and passionate and not afraid to ask us questions or admit to guests when they don’t know something.’ It’s a very winning formula. Despite the challenge of replacing Kricket in Brixton – a poster child for street food success in London – Smoke & Salt has established itself as a firm favourite in the capital, and Remi and Aaron have plans to establish the restaurant in a permanent site down the line.

‘We would love to be able to stand on our feet and cook the food that we're cooking right now for the rest of our lives,’ says Remi. ‘We have a dream of taking Smoke & Salt and giving it a permanent home. We're not looking at central London, mostly because we know what we're doing isn't going to work there. We're going to start looking at sites that would allow us to have an awesome local restaurant vibe but somewhere that people would want to travel to.

‘We have no massive investors or anything,’ he adds. ‘Everything we've built has been through savings, personal investment or through parents. In order for us to take that next step there's a massive financial commitment required, and until we can put together a package that somebody jumps at, we're going to keep doing what we need to do here: make delicious food.’

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