‘It's about creating moments’: where top chefs find inspiration for dishes

‘It's about creating moments’: where top chefs find inspiration for dishes

by Lauren Fitchett13 October 2023

Inspiration can come from the most unexpected of places – here, we've spoken to some of the UK's top chefs about how dishes go from the drawing board to the dinner table. 

‘It's about creating moments’: where top chefs find inspiration for dishes

Inspiration can come from the most unexpected of places – here, we've spoken to some of the UK's top chefs about how dishes go from the drawing board to the dinner table. 

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

As Nokx Majozi sat on the bus on the way to work, the windows of Westminster Abbey caught her eye. Within a moment the bus had passed by, but the image lingered in her mind, so much so that by the time she arrived at work at Rosewood London, where she's senior chef and head pie maker at its The Pie Room, it had started to inspire one of her trademark intricate pastry patterns. It's a brilliant example of how, for chefs, inspiration for new dishes comes in all shapes and sizes; from social media, cookbooks and nostalgia to other restaurants, seasonality and their surroundings. Over at Counter 71 in Shoreditch, chef Joe Laker starts with a single raw ingredient, like the bitter leaves in his smoked rapeseed, caviar and crispy shallot salad starter. Budgie Montoya, of Filipino street food concept Apoy at Market Halls, meanwhile, also gets the ball rolling with a single ingredient, before including the punchy sweet, salt and acidic notes of Filipino cuisine.

For both professionals and keen home cooks, dreaming up new dishes is one of the most satisfying – and challenging – parts of cooking. But, whether we're rustling up dinner with what's left in the fridge or fashioning extravagant supper club menus, inspiration can be hard to come by, which is why many of us often turn to a tried and trusted roster of recipes. While that's an option for home cooks, it’s clearly less so for professional chefs, who are constantly designing and tweaking menus. Thankfully, where we might be left scratching our heads, they can deftly pair new flavours, understand which sauces will accentuate which ingredients, confidently pick the perfect garnish and, most importantly, do it time and time again. Sure, they have years of experience in the kitchen to rely on – but it's still easy to overlook the attention to detail, culinary trial and error and artistry (literally, for chef Andy Beynon of Behind, who sketches out his dishes to visualise them) involved in bringing what's on our plate to life. We've talked to four brilliant chefs about the stories behind some of their favourite dishes.

Ayo Adeyemi, executive chef at Akoko

Refining authenticity

At Fitzrovia’s Akoko, chef Ayo Adeyemi melds authentic West African recipes – including many from his childhood – with elevated fine dining, his tasting menu journeying through the culinary heritage of Nigeria (Ayo is of Nigerian descent), Ghana, Senegal and Gambia in particular. Dishes are rooted in the likes of Ghanaian yam purée etor and Nigerian bean pudding moi-moi, which are given a refined twist with the use of luxury ingredients including smoked quail egg, monkfish and caviar. But before they're reimagined, Ayo and team deep dive into the dish to make sure that, even in its fine-dining form, its essence is authentic. ‘It’s about building the dish in layers – we’ll do research and development into the base of the dish; its flavours, peppers, spices, the way the onions are cut and sweated down, how long it’s stewed for,’ he explains. ‘There’s a lot of standardisation in it – sometimes we’re talking to the gram, particularly with ingredients like Scotch bonnet, which has to be used sparingly. Then it’s about looking at what’s in season in the UK, asking if we can get the peppers and spices we need.’

That authenticity meets fine dining in Ayo's take on his mum's pepper soup recipe, which includes lobster claw and caviar, while his reinterpretation of his favourite Nigerian street food, suya; smoked, spiced meat skewers which are loved across much of West Africa, is one of Akoko's most popular dishes. In the latter, vital elements – like the traditional yaji spice blend, a dry peanut-based rub, and grilling over fire – remain, but Akoko’s version uses slow-cooked beef tongue, served with smoked bone marrow and ramson capers. The goal, Ayo says, is to tell the dishes' stories in his own way. His take on jollof rice – a childhood staple for Ayo and arguably Nigeria’s most famous culinary export – is an example. Much of the methodology, including its ata base, is rooted in tradition, but at Akoko it's served with grilled lobster or beef sirloin, creamy carrot sauce and a Senegalese rof-inspired emulsion, smoked and presented in a small clay pot. ‘It’s our interpretation of it, and it's about telling the story through the whole plate,’ he says. 'We garnish it with crispy wild rice to represent the char on the base of the pan, where bits have caught. It’s building those layers.’

As far as Ayo is concerned, a dish is never finished. When we speak, he’s in the process of rethinking an existing dish, the fermented rice snack waina, which is currently served with yassa cream and chicken mousse. ‘Inspiration comes from anywhere,’ he says. ‘Chefs inspire each other – I’ve just been to Da Terra and they inspired me with what they were doing. It’s important for us to keep up with trends, see what’s going on and take time to read – the creativity never stops.’

The Pem's cheese soufflé, with pickled walnuts
Sally's mushroom and truffle suet pudding

Cookbook building blocks

When we’re on the hunt for new ideas, a quick look through history can be our best bet. Sally Abe – who runs The Pem, in Conrad London St James – pores over old cookbooks for inspiration, finding kernels of ideas and seeing ingredients through a different lens. ‘Margaret Costa is one of my all-time favourites,’ she says, ‘and then there’s Florence White, who wrote Good Things in England, which is such a great book. It’s basically recipes she’s collated from all over the UK – some of them are a bit unusual, like grouse stuffed with bananas, but there’s some really good building blocks for dishes in there. That approach has built over time – I started off with Gary Rhodes’ cookbooks; his New British Classics is one of my go-tos, there’s some really amazing stuff in there.’

Once the seed of an idea is planted, Sally takes the essence of the recipe and rethinks it with techniques and ingredients that fit her seasonal, modern British style (while she says ingredients like red peppers and aubergines would be unlikely to star, game, mushrooms, foraged berries and brassicas are go-tos). She talks a lot about the importance balance in recipe – and wider menu – design, not just when it comes to taste. ‘For me, texture is as important as flavour,’ she says. ‘A dish needs to be balanced in every sense of the word; visually, texturally, flavour and acidity. And I don’t want to write a winter menu where everything’s got cheese or celeriac in; there needs to be options for everyone.’

The end result is her take on classics like suet pudding (a mushroom and truffle suet pudding, with ‘salty, sweet boozy’ Madeira-braised hazelnuts is set to appear on The Pem’s new menu) and cheese soufflé – a balanced one, of course. ‘Soufflé is obviously really rich and if it’s a starter you’re looking at ten, twelve mouthfuls, so the way we off-set that is with pickled walnuts,’ she explains, ‘so with every bite of heavy cheese you get that burst of vinegar. We’re serving it with a nice bitter leaf salad, and there’s some toasted walnuts in the salad so you’ve got that crunch. It all comes together.’

'For me, it’s about creating moments. That’s critical for menu building'

Tomos Parry

The whole lobster caldereta at Mountain
Brat's whole turbot

‘It’s about creating moments’

Since opening his first restaurant Brat in 2018, Tomos Parry’s wood-fired, Basque Country meets Wales cooking has nudged the chef into the spotlight and earned him plaudits and a Michelin star to boot, a fanfare only heightened by the opening of Brat’s bigger sibling Mountain earlier this year. His cooking – which he has described as somewhere between casual and refined – is inspired by a goal of evoking the feel of a specific moment. Two of his most iconic dishes – the trademark (and eponymous; brat means turbot in old English) whole turbot at Brat and lobster caldereta at Mountain – were inspired by a desire to not only recreate delicious dishes, but the experience of eating them in the sunnier climes of Spain. ‘Ideas always come from a moment that I’ve enjoyed somewhere,’ Tomos says. ‘I want to bring those feelings that you get when you meet your friends in a vineyard or on holiday and eat a dish together to the restaurant.'

Grilled whole turbot is a staple in the fishing villages along the Basque coast, and watching the love given to it there inspired Tomos to recreate it in London. At Brat it’s grilled over lump wood charcoal until slightly charred and sticky, before it’s rested, its juices then made into a pil-pil-style emulsion. ‘I enjoyed eating a whole fish next to the sea, essentially,’ he laughs, ‘and I wanted to create that moment inland, make people feel as though they are in that moment. So we thought how are we going to do this? We know we need the right fish, to build our own grill and make sure our supply chain is really strong.’ Touches like authentic stoneware (the caldereta is served in traditional terracotta pots for a sharing-style feast) and the almost-communal feel of Brat in particular, to recreate the lively energy of Spanish and Portuguese restaurants, build that moment, Tomos says, though the use of Welsh produce, including Anglesey lobsters, reflects his ethos.

‘Produce is a part of the decision-making, but it’s just entwined,’ he says. ‘For me, it’s mostly about creating moments. That’s critical for menu building.’ While some chefs' menus are ever-changing, Tomos prefers to keep a blend of fresh and familiar. ‘I’ve never really understood changing a menu every day,’ he says. ‘We change elements every day, sure, but we always have a few dishes that stay on. What I love about that is the dining room is immediately dictated by that; you’ve got people who are regular, who come for their favourite dish, while you’ve got people who are coming for the first time. I try to get a balance, really, of exciting daily changes, with some reassuring comfort.’

Shaped by the seasons

All restaurants are influenced to some degree by seasonality, but for chefs at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons – which holds two Michelin stars and one green star – it’s much more than an inspiration. Sustainability guides many of its decisions, its two-acre organic kitchen garden, vast orchard, mushroom valley and beehives (all of which will soon be joined by a vineyard) providing an abundance of produce to be weaved into its dishes. ‘It’s always based on the seasons; that will dictate what’s on the menu,’ nods Luke Selby, its executive head chef. Just before we speak, Le Manoir’s gardeners brought Luke sweetcorn, which will be ready to use in a week. ‘I know I need to do something with that and have a week to get a dish together,’ he says. ‘So the starting point is what can we pair with that? What have we already done in the past? We always look at a classic flavour combination – we’ve been talking this morning about the scallops being amazing, so we’ll start work on a sweetcorn and scallop dish.’

Once he’s settled on an idea, it’s a case of delving into the minutiae. ‘What techniques would work? How are we going to cook that one ingredient? Where is it going to sit on the menu? We always have to think about a balance across the overall menu,’ he says. 'Then it’s also about the cost of that ingredient and whether it fits within the pricing of the menu – there’s so much that goes into it. Then we’ll start developing it – it could take a couple of days to a couple of months; sometimes it just works and sometimes it doesn’t.’ (When we catch up a few weeks later, Luke and Raymond are still pinning down an autumnal corn dish, though it has appeared on the canapé menu as a crab and sweetcorn miso taco).

Luke and Raymond work closely in the Le Manoir kitchen

As a dish takes shape, there’s a flurry of tastings with everyone from chef-patron Raymond Blanc to the kitchen team and sommeliers, before it makes its way onto the menu. The unpredictability of the seasons, the risk of poor weather and weak harvests, mean it’s an approach which needs agility. Luckily, it’s a pace Luke's most comfortable with. ‘We try to evolve and change the menu quite often – I don’t like sitting still on a dish very long,’ he smiles. ‘I like the creativity.’

And, for plenty of chefs, that's what it boils down to; there's a reason, after all, that lots join the kitchen from creative backgrounds. Though they need precision, organisation and a grasp of culinary science, those cooking at the highest level are often creatives at heart.

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