Since launching the Five Fields in London's Chelsea nearly two years ago, chef-patron Taylor Bonnyman's cooking has attracted critical praise, a legion of fans and a few awards to boot. But until now he has steered away from doing any press. Tom Vaughan meets the elusive chef
He's been incognito for nearly two years - since his London restaurant, the Five Fields in Chelsea, opened in such hushed ceremony that even the most persistent of restaurant bloggers admitted to being caught unawares.
Yet when they did discover it, critics were quick to lavish the restaurant with praise - Time Out described it as "stellar", The Telegraph lauded its "culinary wizardry" and Square Meal heralded it as "a shining beacon of the enduring appeal of top-end dining" (see panel, p53).
Accolades came thick and fast - including the Square Meal BMW Restaurant of the Year 2014 and 39th position in The Sunday Times Top 100 Restaurant List 2014. Bonnyman, however, kept his head below the parapet and his hand on the saucepan - until now, when he has decided that he ought to do a little press; spread the word. So who is the man all this hype has been about?
I'm sitting with Bonnyman in the elegant first-floor lounge at Five Fields. Dressed in an apron and white T-shirt with an unremittingly polite look on his face, an interview seems like one of the last things in the world he would choose to be doing.
"When people write about you in the third person it is still very surreal," says the 29-yearold history graduate. "It's still not something I am particularly comfortable with or find easy to digest."
Conversation quickly turns to this reluctance to do press. Restaurants have been opening in the capital in prolific numbers over the last two years and the PR squabble for column inches has reached fever pitch at times. Why the radio silence?
"We weren't ready at the start," answers Bonnyman coyly. "The product wasn't right. We wanted it to grow organically and it has taken a long time to get to the point where we felt ready to tell people."
One of the biggest surprises is that Bonnyman arrived almost from nowhere. His CV reads well enough - following a history degree and a failed attempt to be an accountant ("like every other nice middle-class boy") he decided to pursue a love of cooking.
He has worked as chef de partie at London's Roussillon along with spells at Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley (also London), Daniel Boulud's New York restaurant Daniel and Paul Liebrandt's nearby two-Michelin-starred Corton. But he's had no head chef position; no spell as a long-serving deputy itching to go it alone. It's no surprise the Five Fields launch caught so many industry observers off guard.
What's more, at a time when almost every new restaurant was extolling its informal vibes and dude-food menus of burgers, hot dogs and ribs, here was an unashamedly traditional fine-dining restaurant, opened by a twenty-something.
"I never thought Five Fields was that controversial an idea," reflects Bonnyman. "We are always told how unfashionable we are, but I think we are kind of timeless. We are not fashionable, it is not a transient style - good food, cooked well in a nice place and served by nice, generous personalities is always going to be popular."
For Bonnyman, a restaurant like the Five Fields - which is named after an area of Chelsea from Georgian times - has always been the goal.
Explaining how it got off the ground, he says: "We have some generous, silent and trusting backers. It is largely family owned. They all watch us keenly and proffer their advice, but it is really nice that they don't heap too much pressure on us."
The build for the 40-cover restaurant was almost two years, a period during which Bonnyman worked in New York and generally prepared himself for running a restaurant.
A key factor in the success has been his decision to surround himself with expert individuals plucked from the local area. His head chef, Marguerite Keogh, came from Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley (now Marcus); manager Matthew Widdowson came from D&D's Bluebird; and head sommelier Nicolas Arthuis has worked as head sommelier at Hotel du Vin Cambridge,Tom Aikens, the Savoy and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Royal Hospital Road.
Meanwhile, Heather Young, formerly of Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons, manages the restaurant's vegetable garden in East Sussex - more of which later.
"We don't take ourselves too seriously; we take what we are doing seriously, but as people we're not terribly narcissistic or self-obsessed," explains Bonnyman. "And we are very fastidious in choosing people who are right for us. We have a couple of people who keep an ear to the ground in the business and every so often they send someone they think would be great and 99% of the time they work out."
The hour spent with the genial Bonnyman is perfectly pleasant, but he's clearly much happier talking about the subject of his undergraduate degree, American history, than he is about himself or even his food, which he dodges categorising or comparing. But when he does talk about it, it is almost as one might discuss a novel.
"I think the food is a nice blend of modern, classic and some new ideas in there as well. We love natural form and we love macabre gothic. It is definitely recognisable as food, but everyone in the kitchen loves nature, the wilderness, seasonal change. We are getting better at telling the story we want on the plate."
That all sounds quite high-concept - but that's because it is. Take the rock pool tasting menu dish, which is actually three dishes in one: "It is a little global tour, celebrating all the creatures you find in rock pools and the different ways of serving them internationally."
The first dish packs in lots of Japanese flavours: yuzu, matcha tea, caviar, mackerel, ponzu, smoked eel, teriyaki. "There is quite a lot going on if you think there should only be three flavours on a plate that are distinguishable. That is not really the point. They grow into something that is bigger than that."
The next dish is an interpretation of a bloody Mary with oyster, horseradish and cucumber: "It's more like a cocktail sort of thing you might have on Bourbon Street, Charleston," he says.
The last dish of the three is inspired by Thai tom yum soup and served with langoustine. "They hang together under an idea. When people really engage with it, it is great, if they don't, then hopefully they find it tasty."
Everything, Bonnyman stresses, is a collaboration between himself and Keogh, with a lot of input from the rest of the kitchen. The tasting menu and Á la carte are run as independent projects, with dishes not replicated across the two.
"If you want regulars you've got to have three courses," he explains. "But the tasting menu is a little progression, rather than constituent parts."
As well as the food and service (10 front of house staff ensure it is a very slick operation) the restaurant has been widely praised for its value - three courses are £50 and the tasting menu is £75.
"It is a nice boast for us to say we are good value. Our margin is a bit squeezed, but that's OK; even if we were world-renowned it is nice to be democratic with prices," says Bonnyman.
Although, with the five weekly services fully booked every week and tables turned when the opportunity arises (despite the fact Bonnyman stresses that guests have the table for the night if they want it), the cover numbers certainly help keep the prices down.
So too does the kitchen garden - a three-acre plot near Bonnyman's parents' house in East Sussex. From it comes an abundance of vegetables and herbs around which the menu is constructed. "Heather is great at running the plot and we calculated that we are saving an immense amount of money on flowers, herbs and some vegetables."
The one industry admiration he does cite is for Nigel Platts-Martin: "I thought his restaurants were always incredible, blending sophistication with comfort while being surprisingly laid back," he enthuses.
As for the Five Fields, one gets the impression that Bonnyman is aiming for a similar feel: "We want to be a restaurant where we have regulars, rather than be a destination that people tick off and don't return to. The whole pricing thing is part of being accessible to a market that is going to keep coming back."
At times our chat resembles a somewhat impotent after-match interview with a footballer - the brief to take nothing for granted, talk down your chances and defy comparison.
Some chefs freely admit they want to run the best restaurant in the world, but I'm doubtful Bonnyman would publicly hanker after owning the best restaurant in Sloane Square. But when you wade through Google, you'll find his only printed quote; a guilty reveal that he is aiming high.
"We don't want the Five Fields to be a flash in the pan," he told Square Meal on accepting its BMW Restaurant of the Year Award. "We want it to be a restaurant that is here years down the line, somewhere about which people will say: 'I remember when I ate at the Five Fields when it was just fledgling new opening.'" Watch this space.
£50 for three courses
- Garden: herbs, fruits, flowers and vegetables
- Rock pool: mackerel, caviar, langoustine, smoked eel and oyster (£12 supplement)
- Foie gras, shimeji mushrooms and beetroot
- Cornish turbot, laver, razor clams and blackberries
- Old Spot pig, chickpea, aubergine and beef tendon
- Yorkshire lamb, onion, snails and ewe's cheese
- Mango, peanut, celery and buttermilk
- Lemon & coffee, lemon brÁ»lée and butternut squash ice-cream
- Orchard: herbs, fruits, flowers and vegetables
What the critics said
Then I made the smartest choice I have made all year (from the £45 three-course menu), by pure chance, since nothing in the description made it sound spectacular: foie gras with shimeji mushrooms and rainbow carrots.
It came as an orb that, from some angles, looked as though it were glowing; the foie gras encased in a beetroot jelly, dusted with gold - magical. In front of it, arranged like a fairy garden, were rolls of julienned carrot in various shades, tiny mushrooms with an earthy, pickly flavour, and little flowers whose name I know not.
Zoe Williams, The Telegraph, rated 4.5/5
Dishes are simple and playful. 'Kitchen garden' is a celebration of own-grown herbs, fruits, flowers and vegetables - and far more than mere salad. 'Rock pool' demands a supplement (£8), but is well worth it for the gustatory drama of exquisitely prepared fish and shellfish arriving in stages. Flavour combinations beg to be tried: veal sweetbread with glazed shin meat, gooseberries and chicory, say; or braised beef short rib (a trendy cut) with beetroot, cherries and smoked ricotta.
Guy Dimond, Time Out, rated 5/5
Luxury ingredients from the restaurant's gardens in Sussex are deployed in wonderfully diverse dishes designed to delight the eye as well as the appetite: a starter called 'rock pool' brings together sea urchin, caviar, langoustine, smoked eel and oyster, we loved fallow deer richly paired with trompettes, black pudding and onion, and there's a sensational chicken combo enhanced with almond purée, pumpkin seeds, apricot and a whole egg yolk. In short, Five Fields is a worthy recipient of the BMW Square Meal Restaurant of the Year - one of 2014's must-visit eateries and
a shining beacon of the enduring appeal of top-end dining.
Square Meal, rated three stars (top award)