Ones to watch: Joe Fox

by Pete Dreyer1 March 2020

After a career spent at British institutions like Launceston Place, HIX Soho and Petersham Nurseries, Joe Fox is bringing his hyper-seasonal, modern British cooking to east London at Townsend – a new restaurant in the Whitechapel Gallery.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

Those who venture to Whitechapel and Brick Lane in search of food normally have a certain thing in mind; perhaps a chicken shish from Efes, a platter of Tayyab’s famous lamb chops, or a bagel from legendary late-night bagel-slingers Beigel Bake. This isn’t an area one would usually associate with modern British cooking, but tucked away in Whitechapel Gallery is Townsend – a new restaurant that focuses on seasonal, contemporary British fare.

Seasonal modern British is a term bandied around a lot these days – a giant umbrella that covers many different restaurants – but Townsend head chef Joe Fox is a man who lives and breathes the philosophy of seasonal cooking. As head chef at Petersham Nurseries for six years, he wrote ever-changing menus that constantly shifted to include hyper-seasonal produce. ‘We had a dedicated forestry team at Petersham, so you really learn a huge amount,’ he explains, cup of coffee in hand. ‘Lots of flowers are edible but sometimes they only flower for a few days, so the forestry team would come and tell you that you could eat them.’ After leaving Petersham Nurseries in 2019, Joe joined forces with Nick Gilkinson (formerly of Garden Café and Anglo) to open up Townsend, where his seasonal sensibilities are flourishing.

As a young kid Joe was particularly enamoured by baking. ‘I wanted to be a baker or a fireman as a kid,’ he laughs, and he recalls cooking with his parents, whether it was organic food with his mum or Fray Bentos pies and mushy peas with his dad. ‘I remember standing on something to get to the counter so I could peel the potatoes,’ he notes. He didn’t enjoy school much, so he went straight to catering college when he finished and picked up a couple of kitchen jobs simultaneously. ‘I was working at the Nutfield Priory Hotel with David Evans – that was probably my first experience of a big kitchen,’ he recalls. ‘Old-school French cooking, big white hats, that sort of thing. I was working in another pub up the road at the same time, but I didn’t tell either of them that I was doing the two jobs. One day I nearly cut my finger off at Nutfield, and the guy who owned the pub nearly fainted when I turned up for my shift – he hated the sight of blood. Anyway, he asked why I had a blue plaster on it and the game was up.’

Joe enjoyed cooking post-school, but it was a means to an end rather than a career. Working two kitchen jobs allowed him to fund his true passion – riding BMX. ‘It was hard to juggle with cooking – kitchens are hard work and all I wanted to do was ride,’ he says. ‘BMX is more of a summer thing though, so I’d have two jobs in the winter and then take four months out in the summer to travel and ride.’ By his twenties Joe was sponsored – bike company, clothing company, travel budget, the works – and was living the dream. ‘We’d find countries that were a bit unusual and stay there in a hostel for a few weeks with a photographer, filmmaker and a group of riders. I’d always end up cooking because it was cheaper, and we’d just cook with whatever random equipment they had in the kitchen. I always thought it would make a good TV programme!’

Meanwhile, his kitchen career was progressing too. Joe’s love for British food guided him into some appropriately British kitchens – first Soho House, then The Botanist on Sloane Square, then Launceston Place, where Tristan Welch and Ross Gibbens were making waves. ‘The food they were doing was easily two Michelin star level food,’ he says. ‘Tristan’s CV is phenomenal – he worked at Le Gavroche and L’Arpege, then won a second Michelin star at Petrus under Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing. Ross had come from The Square, The Vineyard and Le Manoir. It was a serious kitchen – a really tough place to work but you learnt a lot. Sometimes people would come in for trials and it was so busy that they would just leave!’

Some time in Australia followed, but it wasn’t long before Joe returned to the UK and picked up where he left off, joining forces with Mark Hix – a master of seasonal British fare. ‘It was a good time to be working there,’ he says. ‘We were always busy.’ Hix was also where Joe first met Damian Clisby – Damian joined the group as head chef, and promptly sparked a mass exodus of staff. ‘He changed things up and people didn’t like it,’ Joe shrugs. ‘To be honest, I tried to leave too!’ In the end, Joe stayed; in many ways, it was a decision that set him on the path to Townsend. ‘Damian and I were together for the next six years,’ he says. ‘I didn’t see it coming at all.’

It was Damian that took Joe to Petersham Nurseries – the pair left Hix around the same time, Damian took an executive chef role at the lauded Richmond institution and quickly made Joe his head chef. Over the next five years, they returned the restaurant to the limelight, restoring the reputation it had built under Skye Gyngell and Greg Malouf years before. Joe dived into the unique opportunities afforded by being part of the nursery, including training as a beekeeper. ‘We spent a lot of time building the quality of the food back up, getting the right team in the kitchen,’ says Joe. ‘The produce at Petersham was incredible. It was all-natural, all organic. They would happily pay for top ingredients – we spent thousands on white truffles every year, but they were amazing. When you opened the bag you could smell them around the whole restaurant.’

Joe continued to ride through his twenties, but he found increasingly that BMX and cooking didn’t mix very well, especially as he took on more responsibility in the kitchen. ‘I haven’t ridden for about five years,’ he says. ‘When I was working at Petersham, I was living in Brixton and I used to go to the skatepark near Brixton Academy quite regularly. One night I crashed into somebody and I broke one of my wrists and sprained the other. I stopped to have a beer with the guy, and when I rode home I was in so much pain I had to go into hospital. They put me in a cast for the next three months! I was head chef at Petersham at the time, and I worked Wilderness festival with a broken wrist.

‘After that I just didn’t want to go through it again,’ he continues. ‘It was a period of time in my life – in my 20s my life was just about riding. I’m married now, I have a kid. I’ve worked enough shifts with sprained ankles and broken bones.’

In that sense Townsend is a new start in more ways than one. Joe took some time out after leaving Petersham Nurseries and then started looking for a new project that would embrace his hyper-seasonal, sustainable philosophies. ‘It was a bit scary, actually – I had been out of the kitchen for five months, I had a new family to look after and I wanted to cook my own food. I went to all these different kitchens – lots of them said they were sustainable but they're still using clingfilm and serving lots of beef on the menu. I didn’t feel I could work like that.’ That was when Nick reached out to Whitechapel Gallery, which was in search of a chef to take over the kitchen. It was a perfect fit. ‘We met up a few times, I wrote some menus and a couple of months later we were opening for soft launch,’ says Joe.

The menu at Townsend is heavy on British cooking, but there are little flecks of inspiration from other sources. ‘The curried veal sweetbreads are a little nod to the history of Brick Lane and Whitechapel,’ says Joe. ‘Plus, curry is very British so it definitely fits.’ Potato dumplings in potted shrimp butter have something of the Mediterranean about them, no doubt the influence of Petersham Nurseries at work. There’s a bacon scone lashed with goat’s curd, a cracking Wensleydale fritter, a fish soup, a beautiful pig’s head terrine with apple sauce. It’s a menu full of dishes you want to dive right into. Plans are afoot for Joe and his team to start doing their own butchery and baking in-house too, but for the moment, they’re focused on getting the basics right. ‘We can barely fit three people in the kitchen!’ he laughs. ‘It’ll take a little while to get settled and to make those farm connections, but we’re off to a good start.’

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