Ones to watch: Chris Emery

by Henry Coldstream 15 December 2021

Determined to become a chef since childhood, Chris Emery quickly forged himself an impressive career working in numerous acclaimed kitchens. Today, he cooks his own exciting food at The Alice in Oxford.

View more from this series:

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

Many professional chefs spend their entire careers cooking someone else’s food. Having dishes of your own creation appear on the menu is something that usually comes quite late on in a career, after years of training and experience. Chris Emery spent a good while finding his feet in restaurants across the UK and further afield, working alongside some of the biggest names in British food – but is now running a kitchen of his own in Oxford, cooking produce-led dishes to serious acclaim.

Many fall into cooking through circumstance rather than a born passion for cooking, but for Chris it was clear from a young age that he would do whatever it takes to become a successful chef. ‘From the age of five I was always saying to my mum ‘I want to be a chef’,’ laughs Chris. ‘I don’t know why but it was always what I wanted to do. My mum and dad never really cooked because they worked crazy hours, so I grew up on fish fingers from the freezer. I have no idea where the desire came from.’ Sure enough, as soon as Chris finished school, where he admits he never thrived, he went straight to catering college in Bath and at the same time got a job working in a nearby pub kitchen. Three years later he left culinary school and found himself working in one of the country’s most prestigious kitchens.

‘I tried loads of different places in London,’ says Chris. ‘I tried Sketch, then I tried The Fat Duck, but I ended up at The Waterside Inn. I thought if I really wanted to learn to cook, that was the place to go.’ Chris ultimately ended up spending three years at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant, moving from section to section and perfecting everything from his fish cookery to his pastry skills. The only problem with beginning your career in a kitchen as highly regarded as The Waterside Inn is that going on to work elsewhere can be tricky. ‘It was really hard for me coming out of there because I was so used to that style and standard,’ Chris explains. ‘The way the chefs worked at The Waterside was inspirational but then when I left, all of a sudden I wasn’t working in kitchens that were perfectly run. I found it hard to find something that I felt a part of.’

This pork dish sees Chris use a beetroot brine to give the meat a unique flavour and a vibrant colour.
Chris's seasonal vegetable starter changes regularly depending on the time of year and the produce available.

After spending time helping to relaunch the offering at Cliveden House before doing stints at restaurants including Lucknam Park, Chris’s career shifted gear when he took the decision to move to London and was taken under the wing of Jason Atherton. ‘Jason has definitely been one of the biggest inspirations in my career,’ says Chris. ‘I have nothing but respect for him as a chef, a businessman and a person – I think he’s absolutely incredible.’ Joining the team at the Social Eating House as senior sous chef, over the course of two years Chris got to grips with working in a management role, eventually leading to his first head chef position at Atherton’s New York restaurant The Clocktower.

At The Clocktower, Chris got a taste for what it was like to have some creative control over the dishes on the menu, working under executive chefs who gave him plenty of freedom. However, after returning back to the UK to work alongside Jason at Pollen Street Social, he realised it was time to begin a new venture. ‘I’d been working with Jason for five years and been at three of his restaurants,’ he explains. ‘It felt like the right time to move away from that. I wanted to do my own thing; to put my name on something.’ Chris returned home to Bristol during the national lockdown and started up two allotments with his mum, growing everything he possibly could and reminding himself of the importance of home-grown produce and seasonality. ‘I think a lot of people had lost sight of how great British produce can be before lockdown,’ muses Chris. ‘Now that everyone’s realised you can’t always get produce from all over the world, it’s given us the chance to focus on what we have around us.’

Yoghurt mousse, lime and passionfruit
Salt-baked artichoke, egg and truffle

That was why in 2021, when the opportunity came along for him to oversee the food offering at Oxford’s newly refurbished Randolph Hotel, Chris knew he wanted local produce to be front and centre on what would be the first menu he could truly call his own. ‘The ethos of this restaurant is all about working with the people we have around us – local farmers and local markets,’ says Chris. ‘I’m at the covered market almost every day and the butcher there supplies almost everything for our breakfast.’

The most important thing for Chris about the food at The Alice is that it’s his own; he’s completely in charge of the menu. ‘I want to build something completely different here,’ he explains. ‘I could’ve brought in people from London to join the team but it was important for me that everything was done with a totally fresh perspective. Of course there’s a lot of Jason’s influence in my food but we’re constantly working on new stuff.’

Chris may have been in the industry for over a decade, but taking charge at The Alice marks an important and exciting moment in his career. Having spent years working out what sort of food he’s most passionate about, he now has a stage to showcase his own culinary identity. And with plenty of very positive feedback already flooding in since opening, it feels like there could be a lot more to come from this ambitious chef.