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Ones to watch: Alex Jackson

Ones to watch: Alex Jackson

by Pete Dreyer 31 March 2018

Alex Jackson is making Provençal food fashionable again at Sardine. Pete Dreyer talks to him to find out about his unlikely start in food and what it is about the south of France that really inspires him.

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For many of us, the mention of Provençal cooking brings back hazy memories of 80s dinner parties – vol-au-vents and stuffed peppers on heavy brown earthenware, salade niçoise with greying boiled eggs and the difficulties of cleaning ratatouille out of deep shag pile carpet. We laugh about the 80s now as a sort of culinary dark age, but Provençal food has suffered with the hangover ever since, and it’s only just starting to emerge from the darkness.

In Alex Jackson, the cuisine has a new champion in the UK. His restaurant Sardine serves the sort of fare that graces the humble bistros of the French Riviera, but he takes inspiration from as far as Catalonia to the west and Liguria to the east. It makes sense that Alex has a long-standing romance with Provence – one that makes him the perfect person to bring this food back to the masses. ‘When I was young I used to go to the south of France every year with my family,’ he says. ‘Those trips probably affected my choice to do a French degree, and perhaps contributed to my having a French restaurant now. I’ve appreciated the food of the region for years and years, so it feels like it’s come full circle a bit.’

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Sardine opened in the summer of 2016, taking a spot next to Old Street's Parasol Unit art gallery
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Alex spent childhood holidays in the south of France, then studied French at university before falling into cheffing

Alex’s relationship with the south of France is long and storied, but his relationship with cooking is less so – it was a stroke of fortune that brought him into cheffing in the first place. ‘I was working in a French café when I left university,’ he explains, ‘and I wasn't really sure what to do. I was actually looking into becoming a teacher, and then one of my friends was like, 'oh, my brother has just opened a restaurant and he needs a part-time waiter.’ As it turned out, that brother was none other than Stevie Parle, and the restaurant was Dock Kitchen in Ladbroke Grove. ‘At the time it was pretty much just Stevie in the kitchen on his own, so he’d write a menu, get a bit in the shit and then ask the waiters to help out with the prep! Eventually Stevie was like, ‘if you want to be a chef, give it a go!’ So I did, and it all went from there.’

Six months after taking a job as a waiter, Alex was a full time member of the kitchen and he became head chef of Dock Kitchen just two years later. ‘I was lucky at Dock Kitchen,’ he says. ‘Stevie put a lot of effort into training me. He’s very good at working with people who haven’t necessarily cooked in a kitchen before.’ Far from being a hindrance, Alex’s lack of classical food education became a huge advantage – he was a blank canvas with an able teacher. Dock Kitchen gave Alex and Stevie the freedom to cook what they wanted, and more often than not, Alex found himself writing Provençal menus. ‘Whenever I got to write a Provençal set menu I loved it,’ he says. ‘I’d spend hours researching cookbooks.’

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As well as serving lunch and dinner, Sardine also does an excellent breakfast on the weekends as well as a superb prix fixe menu
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Alex is a huge fan of cookbooks, and some of his favourites adorn the bookcase above the kitchen

When Alex left Dock Kitchen some four years later, he spent a month in San Francisco, and worked at April Bloomfield’s Tosca and Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse, before returning to head up the kitchen at Stevie’s new restaurant – Rotorino. ‘I stayed for about six months, and then I just felt like I wanted to do something else,’ he says frankly. ‘I’d been thinking about taking a break from cooking for a while.’ He left not knowing if he would ever return to the kitchen, and spent a year and a half with Mons Cheesemongers in Bermondsey learning about affinage and wholesaling. ‘It was really cool, but I started to miss cooking after a while,’ he says. ‘I didn’t expect to miss it the way I did – I wanted to cook every day, and on my days off I’d go mad cooking stuff at home. Around that time, myself and a friend were approached by someone looking to open a restaurant next to an art gallery called Parasol Unit. My friend pulled out and moved to Ireland, so I decided to do it without him, and that restaurant became Sardine.’

When Sardine first opened, they served ‘lamb a la ficelle’ for the first six months. A leg of lamb would be strung up over a wood-fired oven in the kitchen, covered in herbs, olive oil, lemon and cayenne and left to roast over the flames. ‘It’s like an analog, vertical rotisserie,’ says Alex. ‘It’s about as far away from a water bath as you can get really! We served it with fresh white beans and a green sauce.’ The menu is packed with this sort of simple, traditional Provençal ‘granny cooking’, as he and Stevie often refer to it. There’s steak frites – onglet of course – with a Bleu d’Auvergne sauce, poulet rôti with spinach and wild garlic, and a stunning dish of cod, bacon, leeks, sea purslane and white beans, just to pick a few highlights from this week's menu.

Amongst the French flavours, Alex’s food takes inspiration from further down the coastlines on either side. His snacks menu features Jesus Basque (a salami made from Basque pigs) and bottarga and salted butter on toast – a snack typical of Sardinia. ‘From Catalonia all the way to Liguria, along the whole riviera, there are so many similarities between them all,’ he explains. ‘You have paella and bullfighting in the Languedoc, but it’s still very French. In Nice you get pate au pistou, which is pasta with pesto, and you get soup au pistou, which is basically minestrone with pesto. I think there’s a lightness of touch that links them all and is quite unlike the rest of France in its style. When you get to central and northern France, it’s more butter and cream. Provence feels more Italian but has a strong French identity of its own.’

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The menu at Sardine is full of simple but effective Provençal cooking
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Alex isn't afraid of serving a simple aioli with vegetables, or a bowl of moules frites

This is the sort of food that, if you’ll forgive the romanticism, needs to be cooked with some love and care. When you’re dangling a leg of lamb over a fire on a shonky bit of string, there’s nowhere to hide. Fortunately, Alex is a man who can wax lyrical about about Provençal food. I ask him if he can pick out a favourite dish from his time at Sardine and he gives me three in the space of a minute. There’s a red wine bagna cauda with poached vegetables, cabbage leaves stuffed with game birds, pork, chestnuts and mushrooms, and roast quail with a split anchovy and olive sauce. ‘I think there’s a romance in that kind of food that I’m allured by,’ he smiles. ‘I’m not sure about anyone else, but I’m a sucker for it.’

This year, Alex is running a series of ‘Grande Bouffe’ dinners in collaboration with other chefs. He recently joined forces with former Racine head chef Henry Harris to pay tribute to Paul Bocuse with a celebration dinner, and the likes of Diana Henry, former Rochelle Canteen head chef Anna Tobias, and Olle T. Cellton from Babette in Stockholm are all dropping in over the next few months, before Alex rounds things off with a big bouillabaisse supper in June. ‘Traditional Provençal feast dishes lend themselves so well to that style of eating,’ Alex explains. ‘It’s a pain in the arse making bouillabaisse for two people, so you make it for sixty! The restaurant really comes into its own on the Grande Bouffe nights – it’s quite a small space, but when everyone is eating the same thing, people really get into the spirit of it.’

Alongside the Grande Bouffes and the restaurant, Alex has plenty more on his plate to keep him busy. ‘I have a six-month-old baby, so there are no plans for a restaurant empire in the near future!’ he laughs. ‘I’m writing a cookbook at the moment as well, so that takes up a lot of my time, too. I’m just really enjoying cooking again – we’re really enjoying finding our voice as a restaurant I think, and it’s going to be great to continue that and see what other delicious things we can come up with.’

Header image by Dan Dennison

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