10 October 2017

The alumni of St John and Ottolenghi

Many who have got their start in the kitchens of these two Michelin star restaurants have gone on to found their own ventures.

Behind many of London’s most successful, in vogue eateries are two restaurants: St John and Ottolenghi.

With its plain white frontage, white linen and bare walls, St John makes for an unshowy institution, despite its Michelin star. Yet it’s here that many of London’s best chefs trained or spent several years of their careers.

St John’s 20th-birthday party in 2014 was like a who’s who of London’s culinary scene. The founders, chef Fergus Henderson and business partner Trevor Gulliver, were joined by a crowd of chefs, past and present, who between them run many of the UK’s most highly-acclaimed restaurants and food businesses. For all, St John was formative.

When St John opened its doors in Smithfield in 1994, it began a quiet revolution. While menus boasting seasonal ingredients and local produce are now in abundance, it was St John that shooed them in. Its remit is seasonal, unfussy food and a low-waste, ‘nose-to-tail’ philosophy of butchering its own meat and using all parts of the animal.

Ottolenghi is a different story. With bright, exotic dishes, and lengthy (and much-googled) lists of ingredients, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s five restaurants, numerous cookbooks and newspaper columns have ushered in a new era of Middle Eastern cooking in the UK. 15 years since the first bakery-deli opened in Notting Hill, tahini-drizzled aubergines and pomegranate seed-encrusted salads have become the darlings of food bloggers and weekend supplements in a way St John’s devilled kidneys and lambs’ tongues simply have not.

What links the two is an attitude: towards food, but more importantly towards people. Staff can start as dishwashers and leave as head chefs; turnover is low; creativity and responsibility are encouraged.

How has St John hatched so many founders?

St John has spawned dozens of businesses, ranging from Black Sabbath kebabs to a twee jam producer with a Japanese fan base.

Zero Waste

Douglas McMaster

Founder, Silo restaurant

Chef de partie, St John Smithfield

Having made headlines opening the UK’s first zero-waste restaurant in a Brighton warehouse in 2014, McMaster’s next project sounds equally adventurous. Cub, which opened in September in partnership with cocktail creator and bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana, will use experimental ingredients grown on-site in London.

Artisan Ice cream

Kitty Travers

Founder, La Grotta Ices

Pastry chef, St John Bread and Wine

Unlike most St John alumni, Kitty Travers decided against opening a restaurant. She sells small batches of ice cream, made using seasonal ingredients, from a railway arch in Bermondsey and via three stockists, applying St John’s no-waste, nose-to-tail philosophy to fruit and flora.

‘The amazing thing was that it was my first cooking job, and I was left to it. It was really exciting. We used to do about eight to 10 desserts every day, and there would be scope for you to have a go, as long as you kept within the framework. There would be people keeping an eye to check you didn’t veer off course too much.

It’s a bit cultish I think. Once you’re there, the way you think about food changes. It’s quite ego-less cooking. Not messing around with anything too much, really appreciating the perfection

of a carefully grown or reared piece of food in season, and letting it shine.

I started there 13 years ago, and British food didn’t have such a strong identity. It’s amazing how influential St John has been, how many British restaurants there now are. I wonder what would’ve happened otherwise. It needed someone like Fergus, with that strong vision at the top, and a really particular stubbornness.

The difference [from other restaurants] was really noticeable, from the first day. The staff lunch – all eating together at a big long table. It’s convivial and has that kind of nice noise – a happy, contented restaurant, where people aren’t stressed.’

Posh Preserves

Lillie O’Brien

Founder, London Borough of Jam

Pastry chef, St John Bread and Wine

Lillie O’Brien opened a shop, London Borough of Jam, on east London’s Chatsworth Road, in 2013. Three years later, she began outsourcing production to a larger kitchen in Somerset so she could start supplying a new distributor in Japan.

Fine Dining

James Lowe

Founder, Lyle’s restaurant

Head chef, St John Bread and Wine

Awarded a Michelin star in 2016, James Lowe’s Shoreditch restaurant is a devoted – if slightly straight-laced – disciple of the church of St John, from food to aesthetics.

Foody Pub

Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram

Chefs and co-owners,

The Marksman pub

Both previously chefs at St John Hotel

Heralded Michelin Pub of the Year in 2016, Hackney’s The Marksman serves traditional English food, using local suppliers and seasonal produce: everything you’d expect from two St John protégés.

Pasta Sensation

Tim Siadatan

Co-founder, Trullo and Padella restaurants

Chef, St John Smithfield

Italian restaurants Trullo and Padella are the offspring of Tim Siadatan (trained under Jamie Oliver at Fifteen, before St John) and Jordan Frieda (ex-front of house at The River Cafe). They’re wildly popular; Padella’s queues still twist around the block, a year after opening.

All-day Dining

Anna Hansen

Founder, The Modern Pantry cafe

Head chef, The French House Dining Room (under Fergus Henderson)

A few streets away from the original St John in Clerkenwell is Anna Hansen’s cafe, restaurant, shop (and now cookbook), The Modern Pantry, which opened in 2008. In the 1990s, Hansen went from dishwasher to head chef at The French House Dining Room – the restaurant Henderson ran prior to St John.

Gaelic Grub

Ruairidh Summers

Founder, Summers restaurant

Sous chef, St John Bread and Wine

Ruairidh Summers’ kitchen residency above a pub in west London ended in August. During its brief lifespan it sported a British and Irish menu with Gaelic influences – such as the pigs’ trotters known as ‘crubbeens’.

Gastro Expansion

Jonathan Jones

Chef, Anchor and Hope pub, and co-owner, Great Queen Street restaurant

Chef, St John Bread and Wine

In 2003, Jonathan Jones and Harry Lester of Farringdon’s The Eagle opened the Anchor and Hope in Waterloo. It’s grown to a small group of four darkly-wallpapered pub-restaurants known for great food.

Greek Empire

Theodore Kyriakou

Founder, The Real Greek, Livebait, More and The Greek

Larder restaurants

Chef de partie, St John Smithfield

Theodore Kyriakou has launched a succession of restaurants, including the now well-known chain The Real Greek in 1999 and, more recently, The Greek Larder in King’s Cross in 2014.

Family Business

Terry Blake

Co-founder, Sparrow restaurant 

Head pastry chef, St John Bread and Wine

The latest of St John’s children has landed in Lewisham, south London, from married duo Terry Blake and Yohini Nandakumar, who briefly worked at St John too.

Open Kitchen 

Tom Pemberton

Co-founder, Hereford Road restaurant

Head chef, St John Bread and Wine

In 2007, head chef Tom Pemberton struck out on his own when he opened Hereford Road in a former butcher’s shop in Notting Hill. There’s an open kitchen and a menu that changes every day, including St John-inspired dishes such as calf’s liver and kidney

Trevor Gulliver

Co-owner, St John

‘In the early 1990s, working in hotels and catering was a bit like joining the merchant navy. We were lucky enough to have a different social attitude: you work for the people who work for you, and the customers. If you focus that way around, it’s a good way to start.

We were so far removed from the older ways of doing business. People relied on an ordered system of management. If anything, we were disordered. Our confidence in the people we worked with was probably what was different.

Creating an environment for our folk to do well in is a very important thing. If they’re happy, that informs how the front of house is and gives them a sense of confidence in what they do. Having two staff meals a day is common sense. If you can’t feed yourselves, you can’t feed others. We don’t believe in doing double shifts. It’s important you can pay your staff, even when it is difficult; if necessary, don’t pay yourself.

The menu changes twice a day. It’s a very dynamic environment to work in. We butcher everyday. The ingredients aren’t compartmentalised, they don’t arrive in bags ready to cook.

Every day is a work in progress. We are very open with our knowledge, and how we do things. We employ chefs, not operatives.

Ideally, if you’ve worked at St John, you will want to go and do your own place, because [working here has] taught you that it’s you that creates a happy kitchen. You have the confidence that a) it is difficult, and b) it can be done. You know you have the skills the day you run a busy service at Smithfield on Friday afternoon, with all the customers’ expectations.

Quite often chefs come and say, “I’ve been offered this job, what do you think?” And I say, “You’re ready to go”, or, “Perhaps that’s not best for you”. We talk about what they should do next, and if we can help with that, we make a phone call that other people perhaps can’t. Our folk are still an extended family. The most important thing we’ve done is that our chefs, who are many and diverse, in the UK and beyond, are “St John”, but they sing with their own trumpets. Every week someone comes by. There’s never enough time to catch up with everybody.’

Ottolenghi effect

A string of Ottolenghi graduates have launched ventures, riding the mainstream interest in Middle Eastern food.

Israeli Kitchen

Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich

Co-founders, Honey and Co restaurants

Executive chef, Nopi, and head chef, Ottolenghi (respectively)

A tiny spot down a Fitzrovia side street, packed with preserves, cookbooks and piles of cakes, Honey and Co serves homely Israeli fare and a legendary cheesecake. Sarit Packer took on the task of opening Ottolenghi’s restaurant Nopi, then left to start her own venture with her husband, fellow chef Itamar Srulovich.

‘Ottolenghi was always a very friendly place to work, and not very hierarchical. I’d done the proper brigadier kitchens before – the more fine dining, formal training kitchens, where you go in at your level and everything is by rank.

Kitchens like Ottolenghi, Moro, River Cafe and St John do a lot of investing in the people who come in. They can leave with a lot of knowledge. It’s a more relaxed style of service and food. At Honey and Co, we carry on the [policy of] no official, regimented structure.

At Ottolenghi, I had the freedom to manage my own section properly. I was in charge. You know that no one is going to solve problems for you; if anything goes wrong, you solve it. You’ve had to deal with the fuse that’s tripped, or someone burgling the shop and breaking the window.

That style of management leaves you the space to also be very creative with solving problems – and then carry that on to your own business. It really is about understanding how to deal with everything that comes; it’s about so much more than the food.’

– Sarit Packer

Swedish buns 

Daniel Karlsson

Co-owner, Bageriet bakery

Head pastry chef, Ottolenghi 

Since 2013, Covent Garden has been treated to real-deal cinnamon buns from Swedish baker Daniel Karlsson.

Co-Working Chef

Louis Solley 

Co-founder, Jago restaurant 

Head chef, Ottolenghi

Chef Louis Solley and manager Hugo Thurston’s restaurant Jago opened inside co-working space Second Home in 2014, although Solley has since moved on.


Ramael Scully

Founder, upcoming restaurant

Head chef, Nopi

For more than a decade, Ramael Scully has worked in Ottolenghi’s kitchens (and co-authored the Nopi cookbook). He’s opening his own restaurant soon.

Sharing Plates

Eran Tibi

Co-owner, Bala Baya restaurant 

Chef, Ottolenghi

Less than a year old, Eran Tibi’s first restaurant brings Middle Eastern sharing plates to a railway arch in Southwark.

Dinner Lady

Nicole Pisani

Chef, Gayhurst community school

Head chef, Nopi

Making headlines for swapping genteel diners for 600 rowdy school kids, Nicole Pisani took over a Hackney school kitchen in 2015. She is also working on a training centre project, School of Food.

Gourmet Kebabs

Josh Katz

Founder of Shawarma Bar and Berber and Q grill houses

Chef, Ottolenghi

Josh Katz’s two ventures in Haggerston and Farringdon have become as renowned for their barbecued cauliflower as their meat kebabs. He credits Ottolenghi for his menus’ bright colours and punchy flavours, and his respect for vegetables.


First appeared in Issue 19 Oct/Nov

Your weekly dose of inspiration, advice & generally smart stuff.

Courier Workshop
Courier Weekly
Please wait...
Thanks! You've been added to our mailing list.
Oops! Something went wrong. Please try again.