Questions of Taste: Nicholas Balfe

Chef patron of Salon and Levan discusses his latest project, Larry’s

Photography T. Mitchell

At the age of three, Larry Levan could work a record player. Later in life, his disco, dub and synth-pop sets were so rapturous they were referred to as ‘Saturday Mass’. Hailing from Brooklyn, the late great producer and DJ would change dance music forever through his decade long residency at the NYC Paradise Garage club in the late 70s. Nicholas Balfe – chef patron of Salon, Brixton – is one of the many devotees to Levan and his sonic legacy, having named his latest two projects after him. Both Levan and Larry’s can be found in Peckham, and the latter enjoyed only four days of service before lockdown, followed by a four month pause which saw it adapt and offer everything from takeaway to online cooking demos.

Taking its culinary cue from Italian-American and Jewish diners – decked out with orange laminate tables and a vintage Celestion Ditton sound system – the bite-size restaurant is now back up and running, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. I relished each and every sharing plate I was treated to; crisp potato latkes, cosy aubergine parmigiana, a Negroni (or two), ‘nduja soaked focaccia, roast gem lettuce and a decadent chicken liver pappardelle all contributed to me coming home ten pounds heavier with a smile on my face.

I caught up with Balfe afterwards to talk about his start as a chef, SE-inspiration and tentative hope for hospitality.

How did you start cooking?

I suppose I came to cooking relatively late, in the grand scheme of things. Prior to and throughout university, I worked at a restaurant called Pinocchio’s. I started as a pot-wash, which was a rite of passage for any 14-year-old in Harrogate, where I’m from. I met friends for life there. It was a basic, brilliant trattoria and we used to do 300 covers on a Saturday night. Madness. I carried on working in restaurants after my degree before working in an office for a bit, but decided that wasn’t for me. I had a quarter life crisis after a particularly heavy weekend, listening to some bullshit about marketing strategy for Bacardi, so I sacked it off and did a little culinary exploration of the Spanish hinterlands on the Portuguese border. Starting off in San Sebastian, then Santiago, I made my way due South and ended up working in a little agriturismo guest house. I was only gone for eight months, but it felt like a culinary reawakening. 

When I got back, I started working in restaurants in earnest and because I was a little bit older and driven, I probably rose through the ranks fairly quickly. I carefully picked the people I wanted to work for and made it my business to extract as much as I could from them in a short period of time. In 2012 I opened Salon, so it was a fairly short, truncated, fast-track career working for other people. The truth was that when I started Salon, I knew fuck all, I was so green. I had a range of technical cooking skills and I was confident in my palette and knowledge of produce, but I knew absolutely nothing about running a business. I spent the first year of Salon getting everything wrong, spent the second year working out what I was doing wrong, and then the third year I fixed all my mistakes. It wasn’t until year four that it was actually a viable, growing concern. It was pretty fucking hard, and I always say to young chefs asking for advice, maybe don’t do it like this…It was all part of my journey, though, and our reputation was definitely earned!

Why Larry Levan?  

Me and Mark (Gurney), who looks after our wine and is one of the co-founders alongside Matt (Bushnell), are big into disco. Before we opened Levan, we knew we wanted to do something related to the French gastronomy movement, fine but semi-causal dining. Coming back from a research trip in Paris we were drinking some wine and listening to a Larry Levan set on our little speaker – probably being incredibly antisocial – and knew immediately there and then that we’d call it Levan. After a while, we were lucky enough to be able to open up next door, somewhere even more causal and approachable. We like to think of Levan as the older, demure sibling living in Paris, while Larry is the younger one who jetted off to New York and hung out in Brooklyn.

Is this where the food takes its cue from?

We wanted the food to be representative of the melting pot of every city, but with New York as a kind of framework, a lens to look through. That wonderful mix of cultures is present in London, but especially in Peckham. All you need to do is stroll up Rye Lane to see it. It’s incredible to have Kurdish, Jamaican, Turkish, South American, Japanese, Nigerian – and so much more – restaurants and grocers within walking distance. It means we have a lot of creative freedom to play with different flavours. Because the restaurant is built around the idea of city life I hope it’s relevant to everyone, because we’re urban animals for the most part.

Will the menu change?

Some dishes have been around since we’ve opened and others have rolled on a bit of a cycle. The plan is for one thing to change on the main menu every week and for the specials to change almost every day. We want it to be fluid enough that if you did come here for lunch three times a week, you’d be surprised every time. We’ll try and be responsive as well – if it’s going to piss it down we’ll do a nice hearty stew, if it’s going to be boiling hot we’ll fix up something like a watermelon salad.

Four days of being open, then a four-month hiatus – are you relieved to get back up and running?

We’ve been through the whole motion of it. The team was on furlough and then we did takeaway, Instagram videos, cooking demos – you name it! Whilst hospitality was hit really hard, as an industry we’ve received quite a high level of support from the government, despite them doing so cynically in order to stimulate the economy. I hope they realise how important eating out is to the economy as well as the soul. The attitude of guests has been buoyant and we’re very lucky to be where we are, i.e not in Central, which is still pretty ghostly. We’re feeling relatively positive about where we’re at, but I have no idea what’s going to happen next. We shall see.

Favourite dish at the moment?

The pappardelle with chicken liver and ‘nduja. We were going to do something different originally, inspired by Silk Road in Camberwell – a pig’s head ragù with Szechwan pepper – but I love chicken livers. They’re so cheap, nutritious, buttery and abundant. Delicious. 

larryspeckham.co.uk

Photography Matt Russell

Foraging

Nicholas Balfe, the founder and head chef of Salon in Brixton, takes Port through a recipe of a foraged herb salad and poached duck egg

Foraging has shot to prominence in recent years with the rise of chefs exploring ancient techniques, ingredients and flavours in their food – but using wild food in cooking is nothing new.

I was introduced to the idea of using wild ingredients by my mum and grandma when I was young. I have vivid memories of picking elder flowers in Dorset and cooking them up in fritters, dusted in icing sugar and served with thick clotted cream.

When I began cooking professionally in my mid-20s, some of the chefs I came into contact with were already using foraged ingredients in their dishes. Back in 2007, the idea of pairing mussels with sea purslane, or pork with fennel pollen and wild herbs seemed mind-bogglingly exotic, yet inherently native at the same time.

When I opened my own restaurant, foraged ingredients became an important part of the food we serve. Being heavily guided by the seasons, it makes sense to look to nature for inspiration. I like to use what’s abundantly available at any given moment, and to source ingredients as locally as possible. If I can pick the ingredients from a local park or hedgerow, then all the better.

There’s no specialist equipment you need to go foraging – just a carrier bag and some rubber gloves if you’re picking nettles. Good foraging etiquette is to never take more than a third of what you see, so there’s some left for the next person, and don’t worry if you don’t recognise everything immediately. Start with one or two types of wild food, keep your eyes peeled, and slowly you’ll build a nice repertoire of things you can pick and use.

Wild herb salad with poached duck egg, pancetta and fennel
Serves four as a light lunch or starter

This recipe is very adaptable, so feel free to add whatever wild herbs or vegetables you come across (or buy in the supermarket, if worst comes to worst).

Ingredients

For the salad

4 handfuls of any of the following: chopped three-cornered garlic, wild leeks, Alexanders leaves, fennel fronds, nettle tips (blanched), wild garlic (blanched), samphire (blanched), sea purslane or sea aster (blanched), wood sorrel

1 bunch of watercress
1 handful chervil
1 handful dill
1 head of fennel, thinly sliced
1 bunch of radishes, thinly sliced
A dozen or so cooked new potatoes (optional) Two thick slices of good quality bread

A clove of garlic
A drizzle of olive oil
4 duck eggs
100g diced pancetta
Sea salt and black pepper

For the dressing

100g crème fraîche
1 dessert spoonful of Dijon mustard
Juice of one lemon
Pinch of salt and black pepper
Handful of nely chopped three-cornered garlic or chives

Method

Pick through the ingredients you’ve foraged to remove twigs, stems, dead leaves and grass. Wash thoroughly and set aside in a large mixing bowl with the watercress, chervil, dill, fennel, radishes and cooked new potatoes.

Prepare the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients and check the seasoning – you might want to add more salt, pepper or lemon juice.

Sauté the pancetta in a drizzle of vegetable oil until nicely crisped. Drain and add to the bowl with the herbs.

Toast the bread, rub with a clove of garlic, drizzle with olive oil and tear into bite-sized pieces. Add to the herb mixture.

To poach the eggs, put a deep pan of water on the stove on a high heat and add a generous slosh of white wine vinegar. Crack the eggs into four separate cups. When the water reaches a rolling boil, swirl it around with a slotted spoon, add the eggs and immediately turn the heat down. Leave to poach for two minutes. Remove from the water and drain on a cloth. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the dressing to the herb mixture and gently toss together until everything is nicely dressed. Season with salt and pepper and divide into four bowls. Top each bowl with a poached egg and serve immediately.

Nicholas Balfe is the founder and head chef of Salon

Photography Suzie Howell

 
This is an extract from issue 22 of Port. To buy or subscribe, click here.
 
Port presents the essential outdoor kit for foraging. 

Port Issue 22

The Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Port – featuring writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and David Hallberg, the greatest male dancer of his generation – is out now

Photography Mamadi Doumbouya

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the foremost intellectual voices in the United States today. The author of Half of a Yellow SunPurple Hibiscus and Americanah – as well as of one of the most-viewed Ted talks ever, sampled by Beyoncé, no less – Adichie transcends the barriers between literature, art and music. For the cover story of Port issue 22, she met Catherine Lacey in Washington DC to discuss her extraordinary books, the complexity of recent gender movements and to give a hint at a next big project.

Photography Suzie Howell

Elsewhere in the magazine, we speak to 6a – the most exciting architecture practice in London; discuss Netflix and race with the director of Mudbound, Dee Rees; and travel to rural Netherlands to meet the pioneering Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf. Also featured: The photographer Christopher Payne visits one of the largest flag factories in the US, and we uncover the secrets and beauty of space with astronaut Nicole Stott.

Photography Tereza Cervenova

In the fashion section, celebrated photographer Kalpesh Lathigra and Port‘s fashion director Dan May travel to Mumbai to shoot a 40-page story around the sprawling, seaside city; Scott Stephenson styles this season’s collections and Pari Dukovic shoots the greatest male dancer in the world, David Hallberg, wearing Saint Laurent.

Photography Kalpesh Lathigra

Commentary pieces come courtesy of Will Self, Lisa Halliday and Jesse Ball, as well as Samuel Beckett‘s seminal Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit. Highlights from the Porter include Tilda Swinton remembering her friend John Berger; an interview with the British artist Gavin Turk; foraging with chef Nicholas Balfe; and ex-director of the Tate Modern, Vicente Todolí, on his passion for citrus fruits.

To buy Port issue 22, click here.