Food & Drink

Questions of Taste: Gabriel Waterhouse

From supper club to restaurant – the chef owner of the Water House Project discusses its genesis and journey to date

Photography Gabriel Waterhouse

Seven years ago, Gabriel Waterhouse pushed together two tables in his living room. This would be the humble beginnings of his revered supper clubs, first for friends and family, then for paying punters. The chef’s desire to serve tasting menus out of his flat was partly in response to the repetitive rigour of working at the Michelin-starred Galvin La Chapelle, which he kept up in parallel for half a year before leaving to go all in on his eponymous project. Its popularity swiftly surpassed its domestic limitations and after a couple of east London iterations, Waterhouse’s restaurant now has a permanent home a short jaunt from Bethnal Green’s tube station, appropriately nestled next to Regent’s Canal.

It is a charming space, enormous double-height windows flooding the simply presented dining area and sleek open kitchen with light. Floral flourishes and a strikingly suspended installation courtesy of Waterhouse’s partner lend it a rustic energy and impress upon guests that although this is fine dining, you are meant to feel at home. Indeed, its supper club origins are echoed in its intimate 32-cover service and structure, with all guests being served the same menu at the exact same time, the many hands fixing dishes easily visible from one’s table. Completely changing every three months, the seasonal winter menu I enjoyed was inventive yet unpretentious, and deeply satisfying on a bitterly cold evening. A paean to the sea, each and every one of the ten-courses was perfectly balanced with complimentary flavours, their delicate presentation belying an often powerfully warming umami punch, such as the crab crumpet and kaffir lime, pickled herring and fermented gooseberries, haddock and black pudding crumble, monkfish loin and cinnamon, and smoked eel and chicken wing consommé. Throw in the wonderful wine (and cider) pairings from small scale and low intervention producers across Europe that are included in the ticket, and this is absurd value for money.

Port caught up with Waterhouse to discuss the kitchens that led to him to create his own, as well as the overlooked bounty of the sea.

Gabriel Waterhouse, photography Patricia Wakaimba

What are some of your earliest or fondest memories related to food? And, am I right in thinking that cooking was more of a solo discovery versus someone in your family instilling that love?

I guess traditionally a lot of chefs enter from a background of food, or were influenced by family. With me there was no connection at all, it was a solo discovery. I would cook with my granny of course, baking things as a little boy. I think my relationship to food has more to do with the environment that I was brought up in. I grew up in a really rural part of Northumberland, and my dad was building our house from the bones of a completely derelict water mill for a very long time…

Is that just an odd coincidence with your name?

Serendipity. My grandpa was also a civil engineer who specialised in water and he influenced my dad a little bit in terms of thinking that it would be an amazing project to take on. So there were a lot of baths outside, me and my three other brothers washing in the river – it was quite a mad upbringing. It was only when I went to study in Liverpool that I realised how fortunate I was to live in the beautiful countryside, it made me appreciate my connection to the natural world more. I believe that fed into how I approached and appreciated food.

Sometimes you need to leave home to appreciate it. You began cooking alongside your studies at Liverpool?

In between terms I worked in a local restaurant in Hexham. It was a very traditional French place called Bouchon Bistrot and acted as a good introduction to what a proper restaurant looks like and how a proper one is run. Everything was made from start to finish. I met a very nice chef there who showed me what food could be, its possibilities. He also gave me the connection to go and work in the Alps, which I did for a couple of months, and from there I came to work in London for Innholders Hall. Private dining – again, super traditional, which looking back feels quite alien to what I’m doing now.

I know the next kitchen you worked in, Galvin La Chapelle, was formative as well?

It was a great place to be, so many good chefs. It was sink or swim and the intensity meant I learnt there the most. If you can swim, then you can really move on to great things because you’ve built up resilience.

You decided to somewhat swim against the current – could you expand on why you wanted to start your supper clubs in 2015, out of your flat? What guided this desire?

I was aware that while I was learning a lot at Galvin, at the same time the menu didn’t change a huge amount and that repetition adds up. I wanted more of an outlet for creativity. You’re also getting there extremely early and leaving very late – I was keen to find a way of creating and working within a restaurant that was more sustainable, because the high-pressure environment I was in left little room to strike a balance between work and rest. For four years I did not have that equilibrium in my life at all. Doing my own thing now, it’s different, but I still don’t necessarily have that right balance. At least my team do!

How would you describe your cooking at The Water House Project? As someone who studied philosophy, what are some of its tenets?

I think my cooking is always evolving. The fact that I had that formal training in those classical places, then stepped away and worked independently for such a long time, has been useful. It’s enabled me not to become too ingrained in a certain style and to actually discover my own, as well as develop it with my team. Everyone brings lots of different ideas and I almost act as an editor deciding what fits with my vision, or adapting things to make them work.

In terms of tenets, at the beginning I was in pursuit of combinations of flavours that stand out and are punchy – that make you sit up and acknowledge that they combine. I always thought that was the most important thing about good cooking, and I still do to a degree. Aesthetics are important but there are a lot of people who put style over substance. I’m getting to the point where I’ve got such a nice repertoire of dishes from over the years that I now want to continue to hone and refine them, while developing and introducing new concepts as well. But they have to be the right ideas, the right fit.

It’s a beautiful space and its physical openness somehow adds to the intimacy I think you’re successfully creating between the kitchen and guests. What atmosphere are you hoping to foster through its design?

I’ve worked in environments where you’re creating really beautiful food, but they often carry a stiffness to them. I was keen for that not to be felt here. Some people mistake that formality and pomp for something more, which is complete nonsense. Anyone can turn the music off and lay down a starched white table cloth, that shouldn’t justify another 200 quid on the bill! The psychology of old-school fine dining almost has an anxiety built into it – I wanted to create a space where your senses are relaxed so that they can perceive more. Food is supposed to be enjoyable.

The winter menu was delicious, why did you focus on the sea?

I feel like cooking fish is one of my strengths. I also think that there’s so many more possibilities with flavour profiles compared to meat. This is the first time we’ve done a complete fish-based menu, although there are little elements of meat as seasoning. We’ve also moved away from certain dishes being the focal point, because often I think on a long form menu, people are always trying to identify which is the standout or main dish. That emphasis detracts and I wanted each dish to have a bit more parity. Removing that traditional ‘hero’ meat dish or hierarchy has definitely done that. The whole point of a long tasting menu is to experience each dish in that moment for what it is, not for it to be leading up to something else.

What do you enjoy cooking at home at the moment? The simpler the better.

Soup. My father-in-law is staying with us at the moment and he literally just wants to eat soup. He’s a very healthy man and enjoys a light dinner. I’ve been enjoying churning them out – there’s so many fundamental, solid cooking skills in making a good soup!