Smoke and Salt: ancient techniques on modern plates

Smoke and Salt: ancient techniques on modern plates

by Tom Shingler 11 August 2016

Tom Shingler sits down with Remi Williams and Aaron Webster, two chefs who – through experimenting with ancient techniques – are making a name for themselves on the London pop-up restaurant scene in a bid to secure their own bricks-and-mortar premises.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Do you ever dream of opening your own restaurant? Chances are if you’re into food, then you have at some point. But the romanticism of welcoming in customers, cooking from the heart and creating a successful business soon dissipates after a closer look; the incredibly long hours, intense workload and financial instability rife in the restaurant industry is enough to make even the most determined restaurateur break out in a sweat.

However, if a professional chef, who has seen first-hand all the pressures, late nights and high demands of the restaurant world wants to open their own, then you know they’ve got determination. More and more of the new generation of chefs are exploring new ways to get the money needed to open their own place, with three main routes proving popular. Adapting your concept for the street food market can prove to investors your idea works. Crowdfunding allows you to keep control of your own business. Chefs Remi Williams and Aaron Webster of Smoke and Salt have chosen the third option: run pop-ups and residencies to build hype and show you have what it takes to go permanent.

Remi and Aaron
Remi and Aaron met while working at The Shed restaurant in Notting Hill
The Chapel Bar
Their residency upstairs at The Chapel Bar in Angel is on until at least August

In the beginning

Remi and Aaron are co-owners of Smoke and Salt, and have been running the business for the past two years. With a focus on ancient techniques such as curing, smoking and preserving, they currently offer small plate set menus and a la carte brunches in the upstairs space of an Islington pub. Both of them earned their stripes in fine dining kitchens (Aaron worked in the kitchens of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and Penny Hill Park, while Remi worked in some of Boston’s best restaurants in the US) before joining forces.

‘I met Remi when he moved over here from Boston to get married,’ says Aaron. ‘I was junior sous at The Shed in Notting Hill and he came in for a trial. We had him cut about two deep fridges’ worth of pig skin into scratching-sized pieces. For some reason he took the job and quickly made his mark at The Shed. About nine months after he joined the team, we decided to leave and start Smoke and Salt.’

Cured meats
All curing, preserving and smoking is done in-house, with the pair utilising every bit of space they can get
Pasta dough
The menu takes ancient techniques and serves them in a modern, well presented way

This was around the time supperclubs were blowing up and pop-ups were getting more and more popular. The first task the duo had was to find a space to work in. ‘It’s a very personal thing, to let two strangers come in and use your kitchen, so it took about a month of searching,’ says Remi. ‘We eventually found a Japanese cookery school on Holloway Road, and ran our first pop-up in August 2014.’

After a residency in East Dulwich, various other pop-ups and a huge push on social media and marketing, the duo set up shop for a year above The Chapel Bar pub in Angel – where they’ll be until at least December this year. With a slightly bigger space, Aaron and Remi are hoping to attract financial backing for their own, permanent restaurant in the months to come. ‘We want to have a completely open kitchen and a small, strong team that does a bit of everything,’ says Remi. ‘It’s hard to find good staff anyway, and removing the barrier between front and back of house means the chefs can talk about the food they’re serving as they cook it.’

Despite Aaron's fine dining background, he became much more interested in skills like butchery during his time at The Shed
The entire menu changes regularly to give the duo a chance to experiment with new techniques

Trials and tribulations

The food on offer at Smoke and Salt’s current residency changes regularly, but all the charcuterie, smoking, curing and preserving is done in-house. ‘We try to embrace all sorts of cooking techniques, most of which happen to have either smoke or salt at their core,’ explains Aaron. ‘I think people get confused and think we’re some sort of barbecue place, but we’re just focusing on ancient preservation techniques and attacking them from a more cheffy angle. A lot of awesome restaurants serve amazing slices of charcuterie, but they’re almost never produced in-house. It’s nice to be able to say ours is.’

These techniques are usually associated with food producers rather than the chefs themselves, who tend to get cured and preserved ingredients ordered in, ready to use. Aaron and Remi have certainly had to learn on the job, with a certain amount of trial and error when it comes to their more inventive dishes. But coming from a fine dining background means they love being able to get to grips with the food itself, rather than following strict recipes where everything is ready prepared to plate up.

‘Things are better when you put the effort in and do them yourself,’ says Remi. ‘Mistakes get made but you learn so much from them. I tend to barrel head-first into doing things, and learn from what goes wrong afterwards. If you don’t know why something hasn’t worked, then it’s hard to know how to fix it. For example, I was trying to make a classic berry jelly dessert but with some unusual flavours, and came up with a dish of mixed berries, lemon thyme jelly and a black olive oil. Weirdly, the whole thing tasted like banana. Definitely one of my most interesting mistakes.’

A lot of awesome restaurants serve amazing slices of charcuterie, but they’re almost never produced in-house. It’s nice to be able to say ours is.

Aaron Webster

Pasta machine
The kitchen is a mishmash of traditional equipment and gadgets such as vacuum chambers
The simple layout lets the food do the talking

Remi is still experimenting – his latest idea is a jam made out of corn cobs – and it’s this that makes the pair’s cooking exciting. While the failures don’t make it to the menu, the successes, such as puffed up masa taco shells or pickled okra, do. And the amount of knowledge generated from the failed experiments goes on to help inspire new ideas.

‘We need space and time to experiment – two things a pop-up doesn’t have,’ says Aaron, ‘but we manage it somehow. We completely overhaul our menu regularly, and are always testing new things. There are certain components we serve which we know are universal crowd-pleasers, but others take a lot of refinement before they’re ready. We’re also having to do all the admin, marketing and ordering, and often have to prep things at home, so being able to manage time efficiently is vital. But having done pop-ups for the last two years around London, preparing dishes at home then carrying them on the train to cook in a kitchen we’ve never seen before has taught us to manage our time pretty well!’

Find out more

Smoke and Salt is open Monday to Thursday for dinner and for brunch on Sundays. For more information click here.