Questions of Taste: Gary Foulkes

Gary Foulkes, head chef of Michelin-starred London fish restaurant Angler, explains why British seafood is the best in the world  

The British have a strange relationship with their island. Separated from the European continent by 20 miles of sea, the concept of Britain as something different and other has done much to define the current political atmosphere. And yet, unless you live near the coast, you could be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s towns and cities are locked within a vast landmass, such is the diminished status of the sea and, in our diets, of fish.

The national preoccupation with meat is something that Michelin-starred chef Gary Foulkes struggles to understand. As the head chef of the fish-dedicated restaurant, Angler, he is naturally convinced of the culinary potential just off our shores – as he tells me, with a certain degree of pride, British fish is among the best in the world. And it’s this passion for local, sustainable and high-quality seafood that is manifest in the food served at Angler, on the top floor of the South Place Hotel in the City of London.

Having taken some time out from preparing the lunch service one morning, Foulkes and I sat down to discuss the seasonality of fish, his life changing round-the-world trip and the world-beating quality of British fish.

What was your earliest memory of food?

My nan was a terrible cook, so my granddad used to do all the cooking – stews and pies mainly. Just tasty, delicious, home-cooked food.

How did you go from there to being a chef?

I’m not sure, really. I got sent on work experience to a hotel and did a day in each department: in the restaurant, with the porters, on reception. My final day of the week was in the kitchen, and I remember everyone enjoying what they were doing. At that age, fifteen, sixteen, it’s all about having a good time, so I thought: “Yeah I’d quite like to get paid to go to work and have a good time.” That’s how it all started.

And then you went to Manchester?

Yes, I worked for Gary Rhodes in Manchester. Rhodes is a fabulous cook, his food is very ingredient-led, and he treats ingredients properly and cooks them properly. That was quite a big thing for me. It’s something I learnt when I was young, and I still think that’s the best thing to do.

You’ve said before that it was at The Square in Mayfair that you really started to understand food. What was it that made you feel that way?

It was the whole ethos of it. It is very seasonal and everything’s based around the ingredients, and cooked correctly. If it wasn’t good enough, it didn’t get used. It’s a huge thing when you see, day in, day out, the passion that goes into producing the dishes, and the work in sourcing the right ingredients for the dishes.

While working at The Square you took some time out to travel – what was the motivation for this?

About a year and a half before I went travelling properly, I took six months out and went to Asia. While I was away I came to the realisation that it wasn’t long enough to do it properly. I came back to London, married my wife, and decided to do some real travelling. We took three years, and off we went.

How did that develop your work as a chef?

You see so many cultures and different ways of life, as a person, and as a chef you see so many ingredients you haven’t seen before, and how people treat those ingredients. You see things and think, “I could use that in my cooking, I quite like that technique.”

What initially drew you to Angler?

I’ve always enjoyed cooking fish and shellfish because fish is so seasonal. There’s so much you can do with it – especially turbot, for instance; you can steam it, you can roast it, you can cure it, you can have it raw, you can serve it on the bone, it’s very versatile. So there’s always something constantly changing. I’m also quite impatient, so if something’s been on the menu for a couple of weeks I feel like I’ve seen enough of it! It’s constantly changing and developing.

Tartare of yellowfin tuna with hass avocado, wasabi and shiso

I didn’t realise fish were so seasonal

It’s really like vegetables or fruit. For instance, red mullet is better when the water’s slightly warmer, so they’re at their very best during the summer. Then when it gets colder in the winter the red mullet will drop off, and you’ll get something like monkfish coming in, because that’s a cold water fish and it’s best in the spring tides when they’ve been feeding. Turbot goes into summer and starts to roe, so it makes the fish a bit smaller and it isn’t as good as it was before. I only use Cornish lobsters, and they’re at their best in the summer, so that’s when I use them – I don’t use lobsters outside of June, July and August.

Has the quality of British fish always been of a standard to serve in Michelin-starred restaurants?

Since I’ve been cooking, yes. I just think that more people are aware of it now. Obviously things like peaches are not going to be as good in Britain as they are in Italy, and you’re never going to grow mangos here, but Britain has some fabulous produce. You go to Orkney and the langoustines and the scallops are the best in the world.

We’re fortunate in that we’re close enough to use it and appreciate it, but I think a lot of it has come from British people being more interested in where their food comes from and how it gets used then they were a decade ago. Today there are farmers markets where you can find produce you’re not going to get in a general supermarket, and foraging has become a big thing, with people getting into wild garlic and elderflower. I think the ingredient quality has always been there, but people are now more aware of it.

What’s next for Angler? Do you have your eye on a second Michelin star, perhaps?

Everyone says: “Oh it would be nice, but I’m not chasing it,” but of course everyone’s going for it, they just don’t want to say. I’d love to get two stars, but I’m fully aware of how much hard work and dedication goes into getting to that point and maintaining it. So we’ve got hard work in front of us but it’s definitely something I’d like to achieve in my career.

Questions of Taste: Alex Atala

The multiple Michelin-star chef and Jiu-Jitsu brown belt talks sustainability, success and the riches of São Paulo

There are few chefs as wedded to the land that they sprung from than Alex Atala. After years of travelling Europe, acquiring the skills he would later use to storm the global gastronomical league table, Atala returned to his roots to prove that Brazil’s cuisine was worthy of international attention.

For over a decade D.O.M., the restaurant Atala founded in the Jardins neighbourhood of São Paulo, has consistently appeared in the prestigious San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best list. But the critical acclaim has not compromised its founding principles of celebrating all things native and authentic. Using previously marginalised techniques and ingredients, Atala has reinvigorated Brazilian cooking and raised the region’s culinary status. It is no exaggeration to say he is adored, from South America’s toughest critics to the greengrocers of São Paulo.

Having conquered fine dining, Atala has his sights on greater challenges. With the number of people on earth thought to rise to around 8.6 billion in 2030, feeding an ever more insatiable world could be one of the greatest challenges of this century. To confront this, together with his food diversity organisation the ATÁ Institute, and chef Felipe Ribenboim, he will soon be holding a symposium called FRUTO to discuss the issue.

To find out more, I caught up with Atala to discuss success, sustainability and the food scene in São Paulo.

D.O.M. is currently ranked as the 16th best restaurant in the world

After years of living abroad – what called you back to your roots?

I’ve been connected with Amazonian cuisine, ingredients and flavours since my earliest childhood. I believe that its this richness that comes from the forest and other Brazilian areas that forms the backbone to all my work. Brazil is so vast – almost the size of a continent – and there’s a huge diversity in many aspects. In just one country, there are so many different ways to deal with food, in both terms of the culture towards food and the produce available.

For decades, Brazil resisted fine dining, almost feeling that the national cuisine was ‘unworthy’ – what changed?

It’s not something that happens overnight. It is largely the result of an effort by all the Brazilian chefs that defend our gastronomic culture on a daily basis, even with all the difficulties we have to deal with, such as the lack of support from the government and the lack of structure for family-run agriculture and the indigenous and riverside communities that survive by cultivating these ingredients. The government needs to recognise the work of these young and talented chefs. They are the true ambassadors of this brand called Brazil.

Pupunha heart of palm fettuccine with Yanomami mushrooms

What are your hopes and fears with FRUTO?

Food waste and over consumption have always been two of the main concerns of the D.O.M. Group as a whole. And lately these concerns have led to launching the FRUTO congress, which the ATÁ Institute is organising in January 2018.

One of the most tangible and possible ways to solve these problems is to use 100% of the ingredients we have. That is the main guideline in both Açougue Central and Bio, the two newest additions to the D.O.M. Group. In both these restaurants we show people that it is possible to use the whole ingredient. For example, in Açougue (our meat-speciality restaurant) we receive a whole bull carcass every week and, of that carcass, we use everything: meat goes to grill, oven or pan; bones are used for broths; fat is used to deep fry other ingredients.

Things are very similar in Bio. The menu provides healthy dishes, with quality ingredients, in an attempt at conscious consumption. The Canastra cheese is maybe one of the most delicious cheese varieties currently produced in Brazil. In Bio, it is used as a cream to compose the fruit and Canastra salad, and its peel, which would usually go to waste, is used in pastry to provide the final crunchy topping to the Dulce de leche pudding. 

The reason for all of this is simple: we want to help raise awareness in our clients. It is possible to use the whole ingredient and for there to be no waste – you don’t need to buy more than you are going to eat. And it is important that not only chefs consider this but that all of us as individuals are aware – we can be the turning point for everything. Eating today is not simply feeding, it is a political, economical, biological, social and cultural act.

That is exactly how the idea of FRUTO was born. A congress divided into three axes (social, cultural and biological) that will bring together thirty of the most important minds in the fields of sustainability, science, gastronomy and industry to discuss alternatives on how to bring quality food to a world population that could reach 8.6 billion people by 2030.

Can you give me a good example of ATÁ in action?

I believe our work alongside Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) with the Baniwa chili deserves to be mentioned. The Baniwa are an indigenous people living in 200 communities across Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. They produce the Baniwa chili, a unique product made with a variety of native peppers that are dehydrated, milled and mixed with a bit of salt to form a potent spice. It didn’t get to the market because we didn’t know about it and the Baniwa people didn’t have the structure to commercialise it. Today, thanks to the partnership between ISA and ATÁ, that chili can be found in Mercadinho Dalva e Dito, at our stands at Mercado de Pinheiros, and in dishes at D.O.M. and Dalva e Dito. Because of that, many Baniwa people prefer to work producing the chili instead of working in mining, for instance.

Is there an ethos behind D.O.M? Could you define it in one sentence?

Creativity, with Brazilian soul.

Manio beiju pancake


How do we begin to re-establish a meaningful connection between humankind and the natural world?

We must revisit our relationship with ingredients and nature itself and understand that there is no point in only protecting the rivers, seas and forests. We can only ensure the defense of our biodiversity if we also protect the humans that make their living from that which the rivers, seas and forests provide. The food chain is a powerful tool to support those people. That is our job in the ATÁ Institute. We work on several projects to strengthen all points of the productive food chain. The more we understand and develop that relationship, the more space and demand the market will have.

Photography Rubens Kato, Ricardo D’Angelo and Sergio Coimbra