London Stock was opened on the site of the historic Ram Brewery in Wandsworth, only a short while before the Covid-19 pandemic cruelly shut it down, but head chef Nico Fitzgerald has come through it all keener and more focused, food and drink journalist, Nick Harman wonders if it could be his military background.
Is it true you were once an army chef?
I grew up in Gibraltar and my dad was in the army. Everyone said don’t be a chef but it was what I wanted to do. I was inspired I suppose by the way my mother and grandma cooked for hours to make people happy. And so, I took various catering jobs when starting out and one was in the army. Tough customers to please, a brutal workplace, but loads of chips and thousands of scampi thrown into the deep fat fryer usually worked! It was a great experience.
But not particularly formal?
No, after that I went to the Le Cordon Bleu school in London. It’s very classical French training and I think that’s still important. I’ve been shocked recently when trialling chefs to discover how many can’t make a béchamel sauce, can’t butcher beef, don’t know how to take a fish apart. You don’t make money buying things ready-portioned and you don’t get the useful scraps either. There are some important skills being lost.
What was your first significant kitchen experience?
I was dropped in at the deep end at Heston Blumenthal’s Hinds Head in Bray. I went in for a trial shift on a Saturday, having previously done a ‘stage’ at Dinner By Heston. They had 80 covers on that night in Bray, so it was an ‘interesting’ evening! I was offered a job as a result and began as commis-chef. And it was basically starting my education again, learning to apply the classic techniques I knew, but as the basis for the very modern kind of gastronomy the Hinds Head was noted for and what I do here. For example, here we make a classic French onion soup, but I use a modern technique of aerating it to make it lighter for the contemporary diner.
What’s the philosophy of London Stock?
Well, the greatest compliment I get is ‘wow!’. I love giving people new experiences and this has been our philosophy. Our initial tasting menu was a journey, an informal one though. Fine Dining has a bit of stigma, but doing food well shouldn’t put you in a box. I make good food, I don’t want a label, I want people to be a bit surprised and not be put off by the ‘tasting menu’ thing. Is it fine dining? I think we’d rather let the customer decide at the end of the day.
How was lockdown for you?
We were told on the Friday, after the week before, when no one was sure what was going on, that we had to close. We sat down, the directors and I, and said ‘what are we going to do? We can’t let this roll over us’, we’d only been open two months after all.
So we looked at the large tasting menu, and converted suitable dishes to become a takeaway menu. For example, we turned our pork belly dish into a pork belly sandwich, a halibut dish into a fish finger sandwich.
Chefs need to be in the kitchen, to go from full on work to doing nothing would send you nuts. I didn’t want to sit around, and I wanted us to be ready for the day we were told we could open again.
Is there a signature dish?
Signature dish? Well, I get bored with cooking the same thing, but you know I don’t get to choose the signature dish, the guests do. Our molten miso soufflé at Christmas has become a much loved dish, perhaps because it has hops and malt extract in it which fits in with this old brewery location.
What’s your favourite cooking utensil?
Most chefs would say the knife I suppose, but I always have tweezers and my team laugh at me as I’m constantly losing them. They’re perfect for putting those tiny leaves on the plate, but you can get a bit of stick with tweezers, they have got a bid of a bad rep; ‘Oh you’re one of those chefs etc!’.
What’s your favourite culinary time of year?
Well, of course we’re seasonal, but I like the time between late March and April, the bit we missed this year, of course. It’s great because the English produce is just starting to come in but it’s not summer, when it can be a little overwhelming as there’s so much great British produce available. My least favourite is the early part of the year when there’s not much about.
What’s your favourite ingredient?
Has to be mushrooms. Although I could say salt. I like risottos and I love Hen of the Woods mushrooms that are coming in now. We just kiss them on the barbecue for a barley risotto.
Do you cook at home?
Yes, I do like a good curry, I became obsessed during lockdown experimenting with spices and flavours. I did also go a bit mad making complicated things like tortellini and my partner is like ‘I just want food! How much longer are you going to be making those things?’.
And if you weren’t a chef?
I could never sit in an office. I was quite into the soldier lifestyle as a boy, along with my brothers, but my mother was keen to not encourage us. But then they call a kitchen team a ‘brigade’ and there’s a lot of discipline and hierarchy in a restaurant, so maybe it’s still an army thing.
Have you got a favourite London restaurant?
I was one of the first into Monica Galetti’s new place, which was fantastic and I do love a little Iranian place that’s near to me. It’s not fine dining but it’s great.
How can we sum you up?
I just want someone to make me food that’s bloody tasty when I eat out and that’s what I always try to do here.
Address: 2 Bubbling Well Square, Ram Quarter, Wandsworth, London SW18 1UQ
All imagery used in this article credit: Al Stuart