“Hello, darling, kiss, kiss,” go the customers at Kartouche. Dubbed London’s latest trust fund baby hangout, the new restaurant and members club on the Fulham Road is noisy with nasal chatter. In their midst is Josh Hampton, an Australian chef with a difference.
Forget the four-X stereotype: this Australian avoids his compatriots and views women as equals. “Two glasses of wine and I’m anybody’s,” says Hampton. “I didn’t travel 12,000 miles to hang out with other Australians who drink beer and talk about ‘sheilas’ – not my bag.”
I remember Hampton for his red mullet with squid chips served with beurre blanc and squid ink, a dish he produced at west London restaurant 192, before joining Kartouche. The black ink sat in a swirl inside the creamy yellow sauce, the crisp red-skinned mullet topped by crunchy tentacles. At Kartouche he’s doing it again. The roasted sea bass with fennel (£13.25) arrives with a bright lime and ginger dressing floating artistically in some olive oil.
“I’m still going through my Picasso stage,” he quips. But then artist Joshua Reynolds is one of his relatives, isn’t he? “That’s how the story goes,” he grins. His full name is Joshua Gerard Reynolds Hampton.
Brought up in Adelaide, Hampton’s first cooking job was in the bush town of Robe, which had a population of 300. “It was like Huckleberry Finn, a case of growing up in a hurry – either grow up or get beaten up.”
Tiring of small-town mentality, Hampton travelled to Sydney and became his own person.
Hampton passes out a couple more lobster and chips, then joins me for lunch. The din hits Kensington Place levels. Roasted garlic and a small pot of hummus arrive with baguette and olives (£1.50). Squeezing a bulb, Hampton says: “I thought I’d have a bit of high drama here – too much garlic – but they’ve responded to it well.”
Hampton persuaded Kartouche owners David Phelps and Piers Adam to drop their original idea of bangers and mash and go for something more Asian, more exciting. “I cook for the public. I didn’t want to be like the Argyll. Sastry was cooking for the food critics and they weren’t making money. I have to watch myself, I go a bit crazy on the chillies. But also I had to think about the area: Chelsea is a bit old school.”
Grilled swordfish, salad and tsatsiki (£11.75) reminds the locals of their Greek holidays, says Hampton: “I know it’ll sell.” Peach Knickerbockerglory (£4) also makes an appearance.
“I like eating, as you can see,” he says, patting his generous stomach. “This is the balcony over my toyshop.”
Thai fishcakes with sweet chilli dressing (£5.50) were transported with him from 192. “I’ll tell you the story of these. I spent a few months travelling in Thailand and a 70-year-old woman taught me how to make them. Every time she hit the chopping board, woof, 100 flies leapt up.”
At that time, he was en route to England with his British girlfriend Carol, whom he met while she was nursing in Sydney.
“Yeah, the best thing the Australian government did was to import 5,000 British nurses,” declares Hampton, slipping up on his new man image for a moment.
Hampton’s first taste of England was the icy North Sea wind at Seahouses in Northumberland. “The colour left my body. I went straight to the nearest pub, downed some whiskeys and thought ‘what have I done?'”
Now 33 years old, this is Hampton’s sixth year in Britain. Starting as senior sous chef in Braganza, he then moved to 192 to work with Maddalena Bonino, returning a year later as head chef.
“Mad and me got on like a house on fire. The two years I spent with her were marvellous. She taught me passion – my hands start when things go wrong,” he laughs, gesticulating wildly.
“Angela Dwyer’s another one. I really admire women chefs. They’ve got it tough in the kitchen. There are still a lot of men who think women shouldn’t be there and that’s a sad attitude. Although I have a male team now, it’s not through not wanting women in there. None came through the door.”
Hampton opens a file he’s brought to the table. It’s crammed with reviews. When he was head chef at the Canal Brasserie, it won Time Out’s 1992 Modern British Restaurant of the Year. This March’s issue of Vogue Entertaining kept his name in circulation back in Australia.
“Keeps my mum happy,” he smiles. “A few more years here and I could go back and earn a fortune. If I’d stayed in Australia I would have been an average player.”
“I reckon I’ve got another 10 years in this game. You can’t work 16 hours a day, six days a week for the rest of your life. On top of that, if we have children, I wouldn’t mind seeing them. It’s a young person’s trade. There are exceptions: Franco Taruschio is one of my heroes. He’s managed to do it all through his life and still be pleasant.”
The food scene in Australia, while innovative, is about two years behind, says Hampton. “London is where it’s at.”
But he got a shock from the considerably lower salaries and flippant attitude towards the industry here. “When I first got here I was treated like a blue collar worker instead of a professional. In Australia it’s different.”
Hampton enthuses over British ingredients previously undiscovered by him – “samphire: bloody marvellous” – and wild mushrooms.
What does he miss? “Kangaroo,” he titters. “I have a natural feeling towards it.” Had he been attacked by one? I ask. “Something like that,” he says mysteriously. “I get great pleasure out of cooking it.”
“Violet Crumble bars, Twisties [cheese snacks] – they’re the business.” With Vegemite completing the nostalgia trip, it seems some connections with the old homeland just never get worn away.
Chef’s Take Five series continues on 18 August when we’ll be featuring five chefs from the shadows: the world of sous chefs.