IN THE KITCHEN WITH ROBBIN HOLMGREN
FIFTEEN STORIES STEPS INTO THE KITCHEN WITH THE HEAD CHEF OF FIFTEEN LONDON ~ INTERVIEW & IMAGES BY BETH DRUCE
Robbin Holmgren is talking pig's cheek. Not any pig’s cheek mind, rather the meltingly crunchy kind that builds to a crescendo in your mouth as you savour its crispy, salty goodness. "Pig's Cheek is one of the first things I learned how to do when I worked in Sweden”, Holmgren tells me, as he assembles the dish in the kitchen of Fifteen London. “I had to fry it for fifty minutes, and start with a cold pan and turn and turn and turn it until I got this crispy skin. When I got here I realised I could bang it in the fryer and get the same result, I think all the other chefs found it quite amusing”.
Fifteen London was the first restaurant opened by Jamie Oliver, in 2002. It pioneered the apprenticeship scheme, from which 500 chefs graduated, some of whom now have Michelin stars. It yielded the arrival of Fifteen Cornwall four years later in 2006, whose food and ethos lit up the Cornish coastline, and whose apprenticeship scheme creates some of the most talented chefs in the region.
Holmgren's style is characterised by a dogged pursuit of perfection and the many small yet fundamental stages of his creations; their journey from a single idea or flavour combination to a finished plate. “The pig's cheek has always been perhaps not my signature, but one of my favourite things” he tells me. The dish is one of the restaurant's opening gambits; 'Crispy pig’s cheek, roast red pepper, spicy tomato and horseradish' as the menu reads. “It has the richness, and also, when you prepare it like this, it has the crispy and the crunchy. I had a Bloody Mary one morning and thought hang on, why don't I create a Bloody Mary dish with the pigs cheek? And this is how it came out. There's the spicy tomato, the celery, the black pepper and the horseradish, which is not common with pig but it works in this instance, because of the heat".
Holmgren was born in the far north of Sweden. As a young boy he was driven into the wild countryside on snowmobiles with his family and they would cook on an open fire. “There were five generations, I have a big family, and everyone brought their most preferred food. We ate a lot of reindeer, ElkMoose and Arctic Char. I guess the taste of burning silver birch has stuck with me as I love the flavour of fire and smoke”. Always interested in food, Holmgren first cooked at Den Gyldene Freden, an old and very renowned restaurant in Stockholm, before joining Mistral, working as part of a small, two-man kitchen team who picked up a Michelin star in their first year. When he arrived in London, Holmgren spent six years at St John. “I learned the most at Bread and Wine under James Lowe, working as his sous chef” he tells me. Holmgren joined Fifteen in 2013 when John Rotherham became head chef, and played a key part in the shift away from its original Italian leanings to the Modern British restaurant it is today.
This Modern British element can be seen the 'short rib, burnt celeriac, smoked bone marrow and chive', a dish that delights with its combination of meltingly soft beef rib and earthy, winter flavours. "Short rib has always been on the menu and it always will be, in some form” Holmgren explains. “It's a dish that celebrates colder days. With vegetables, I look to do them not just one way but a number of different ways, so with the celeriac, we add lots of butter and then put it in the oven until it literally burns, but it gets this sort of sweet, sour and caramel-like flavour. It's quite heavy if you just have it on its own but we serve it with pickled celeriac which brightens everything up; there needs to be things happening in the mouth, otherwise I get bored. Every bite should be 'ooh, what is happening there?'".
A dish of 'cod, umami broth, turnip and crispy shallot' is in a very different vein, and Holmgren suggests it as his take on Asian food. “it’s lighter, the broth is full of flavour and I add my Swedish touch, some smoked creme fraiche”. “That’s my signature” he exclaims “there needs to be some dairy somewhere, otherwise I lose my identity!”.
Holmgren’s identity, his Scandinavian heritage, is evident in a starter of 'flamed Cornish mackerel, blood orange and pickled fennel seed', and I ponder out loud with him how flavours that erstwhile might not be the most obvious bedfellows are delivered as natural and harmonious on the plate. “Every dish is unique, and they don't all come about in the same way. As the food I'm cooking is mostly seasonal all the ingredients lend themselves to each other. When thinking about a new dish I first cook it up in my head. I then test the main components and get everyone in the kitchen to give me feedback. I then change anything we aren't happy with, and cook it again”.
“People get frustrated with me sometimes" he continues, for not coming up [more quickly] with something new. But I would rather not put it on the menu until I am happy. Many of my friends, a lot of the chefs that I have learnt from, their main thing was to always have new dishes on the menu, and to change things daily, but for me that doesn't stick. It always feels a bit forced because it is not yet perfect, and it feels like you are just changing dishes because you have to”.
Certainly Holmgren is not a man who does things because he has to, and even less someone who leaves anything to chance. Rather it is a mixture of applied skill, creative invention and a great palate that makes each dish on the menu here at Fifteen London on the one hand intriguing and unexpected, and on the other, an absolute sure-fire win.