Meet British chef Adam Handling, the Masterchef star who is taking London’s culinary scene by storm
Masterchef finalist, Chef of the Year, and the youngest person chosen by Caterer magazine as one of their “30 under 30 to watch” are just some of the awards Adam Handling has received throughout his career.
“I started out at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland and was their first ever trainee chef,” he says. “In the beginning, I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef and just wanted to avoid going to uni, but I soon fell in love with the feeling of being in a busy, fast-paced kitchen. I then went on to become Fairmont’s youngest Head Chef, which culminated in winning Scottish Chef of the Year in 2011. After that came MasterChef in 2013 and I opened my first independent restaurant in 2016. I’m now 30 and I have six venues – it’s been a whirlwind career so far!”
With his latest project, Adam Handling Chelsea in the Belmond Cadogan Hotel, garnering impressive reviews just over a month after first opening its doors, I decided to speak with the busy chef about how he balances family and work and find out who he’d love to have as restaurant guests.
You now have restaurants all over the capital. What are some of the unique characteristics of each?
All my restaurants share the same foundations – flavour is the most important thing we focus on in our group and I try and build all my venues on the same four pillars: food, drink, music and art. But I also want to make sure guests have a different experience at each of the venues, so they all have unique characteristics. Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden is my “flagship” restaurant and it’s a little bit more formal than The Frog Hoxton, which is more relaxed. Each of my venues [is influenced] by the local area, which is very important for me. Adam Handling Chelsea draws inspiration from its British history as it would be silly not to; it’s such a historic and iconic building to be in.
Sustainability plays a vital role across all the venues, especially with my zero-waste café and beer shop, Bean & Wheat, where we use all the leftover surplus foods and off-cuts from The Frog Hoxton to create fresh salads, sandwiches, potted toppings in Kilner jars—nothing gets wasted. I’m passionate about reducing waste not just in my restaurants but [in my] bars too. Both Eve and the bar at Adam Handling Chelsea are zero-waste; even the garnishes have been transformed from something left over in the kitchens. It’s a great way for my chefs to be creative with ingredients which would ordinarily have been thrown away.
What are some of the seasonal ingredients you’re excited to introduce into your menus?
With it being Spring, there’s an abundance of fantastic ingredients like asparagus, wild garlic, peas, lamb. It’s my favourite season. I have just introduced a wild garlic risotto with charred broccoli and curd onto the menu at Adam Handling Chelsea. It’s great to be able to celebrate and showcase British produce when it’s at its best. I use influences from all over the world, but essentially my cuisine is Modern British, so using British ingredients is fundamental to that.
If you could have three people come and dine at any of your restaurants, who would they be?
Sat Bains, Massimo Bottura and I’d have to say my grandmother. Sadly, she didn’t get to see how far I’ve come, but I’d like to think she’d be proud of what I’ve achieved.
Could you share your thought process when it comes to developing your menu?
It’s definitely a collaborative process between myself and the teams across the venues, but I still make the final decisions. It can take a long time to develop menus. In fact, I worked on the Afternoon Tea menu at Cadogan’s by Adam Handling for over a year with my Executive Pastry Chef Chris Underwood to get it exactly how I wanted it. I’ve recreated flavours my grandmother used to make for my tea in a very modern and precise way whilst also reflecting elements of a traditional High Tea. It is a real experience, but nothing gimmicky. We’ve illustrated the journey Sir Hans Sloane made across the world in the ingredients. We take inspiration from absolutely everywhere.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a chef so far?
When I opened Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden, I was bringing people in to take on the design and build of the site that I hadn’t worked with before and they didn’t see my vision; they almost ruined the restaurant. There was a point when we couldn’t even open and it broke my heart. It’s a difficult situation to be in when you’re essentially a small company and you end up fighting a huge corporation. It really brought my whole team together—the chefs, the front of the house—as we all worked so incredibly hard to [launch it as best we could]. I’ve had my team with me for ten years. We’ve been through thick and thin together. I look back now and think that was such a challenging time, but thankfully everything is perfect now and the restaurant is a huge success.
What made you develop an interest in Asian techniques and flavours and how do you bring those into your cooking?
My cooking used to be very influenced by Asian cuisine, and I still read that everywhere, but right now I’m inspired by London. The city is a culinary melting pot and this inspires me to use techniques and flavours from all over the world. I travelled a lot when I was younger and I completely fell in love with Asia, so that had a big impact on my cooking early in my career and [is] definitely something I’ve carried with me. But my cooking style has definitely changed over the years.
What’s your favourite restaurant in London right now (aside from your own)?
I think Core by Clare Smyth is without a doubt one of the best restaurants in London. The food is unbelievable.
What’s the last meal you’d have on earth?
It would have to be lobster tart, a huge plate of BBQ king crab legs, followed by apple tarte tatin. If it’s my last meal, I’m going all out!
How do you manage to maintain a good work-life balance in a notoriously pressure-filled environment?
Currently, there isn’t much “me time”. That’s the joy of running your own company. But in truth, when you love what you do, every day is fun. When I’m not working, I love a bit of family time. My son Oliver is nearly one, which is keeping us on our toes! I also love to eat out and try new restaurants as much as I can. It’s something I think is important as a chef to see what’s going on in the industry, especially in London as it’s always evolving. I can’t wait for Oliver to get a little bit older so he can start coming and trying them with me.
Tell us about Adam Handling Chelsea. Why should we book a table and what should we order?
The restaurant itself is really special, but it’s been such a massive project. Not only am I overseeing the restaurant, but I’ve also developed the menus and concepts for the entire F&B operation at the Belmond Cadogan Hotel—from Afternoon Tea, to room service, and even event catering.
Adam Handling Chelsea showcases the absolute best of seasonal British produce, taking inspiration from the building’s iconic history and London itself. You can find a few of my signature dishes on the menu, such as “Mother” which is a celeriac-based dish that draws on all the flavour profiles, and the much-loved chicken butter and cheese doughnuts. But also there’s some exciting new creations like Highland beef, celeriac, blue cheese ragu, house pickle or John Dory, lettuce gazpacho, oyster. Essentially, it’s a luxurious, British restaurant and the ingredients we use are premium. But it’s still in keeping with my informal dining approach, and most importantly, if you book a table, it will be a delicious experience.
Image at the very top of the article credit: Tim Green