The young MasterChef graduate is making his mark with unique and unusual flavour combinations, says Neil Gerrard
To call Adam Handling energetic is something of an understatement. He may have youth on his side (he is only 26), but his schedule is hardly for the fainthearted. On top of working a 95-hour week, he is fresh from competing in the National Chef of the Year competition and was in training for the Tough Mudder endurance race when The Caterer spoke to him. And that's not including his book, Smile or Get Out of the Kitchen, or his own range of chocolate.
In fact, it has been something of a momentous year for the young chef, well-known for reaching the 2013 final of MasterChef: The Professionals and now holder of the title of British Culinary Federation Chef of the Year. His reward for all that effort is to have his name above the door of what used to be the Caxton Grill at St Ermin's hotel in St James's Park in London, now called Adam Handling at Caxton.
To top it off, the 72-cover restaurant received three AA rosettes just before it relaunched, at the end of September.
That's not to say the slabs of meat aren't there. The restaurant offers Buccleuch beef from the Duke of Buccleuch's estate in Scotland, matured for a minimum of 45 days, along with a 250g vintage rib-eye steak at £27 and a 450g dry-aged striploin at £45.
There's also a lunch menu, with options such as the Caxton Wagyu burger with rosemary chips (£25) or Caxton fish and chips (£17), but it is the Á la carte and tasting menus where Handling really gets to express himself.
"At night time it is really cool," he says. "The candles go on the tables, the lights go down and the music goes awesome."
To begin with is a selection of 'nibbles', at £4 each. "We used to serve different types of bread in a little basket, some nice salted butter and then an amuse," says Handling. "But I am too young for all that stuff - I am sorry," he says, without sounding all that apologetic.
"That's how I was trained, but I wanted to do something else, so we put these snacks on and they sell like there's no tomorrow."
And it is in some of these dishes that you see the "unexpected harmony" that Michel Roux Jr described Handling's food as possessing when he competed on MasterChef: The Professionals. 'Beetroot, beetroot and more beetroot', for example, is beetroot sugar tubes piped full of beetroot panna cotta, beetroot and yuzu gel, accompanied by a beetroot pickle and beetroot dust. It has flavours you wouldn't expect, from
the earthy panna cotta to the sharpness of the yuzu gel and the sweetness of the sugar tubes.
The yuzu points to another important aspect of Handling's cooking: Asian influences.
His use of ingredients from Japan and other parts of Asia, such as soy sauce, mushroom powders, seaweeds, misos, different fruits and so on, comes from a trip around the world, nine months of which he spent in Asia, and which he took following his departure as head chef of the Fairmont hotel in St Andrews.
"I left the Fairmont because I was chasing the guides and I cared about nothing else. I wanted to be the youngest person in history to win a Michelin star, which was 22. I didn't achieve it, and I became a very nasty person, basically," he admits.
His partner convinced him to travel, and he undertook culinary classes in each of the countries he visited. "I came back the most chilledout
person ever," he says. The warm chicken and lobster with coconut and chilli velouté (£18) is one of the recipes he learned, and to which he has made very few changes.
When it comes to mains, it is the beef fillet (ashed) with parsley, barley, girolles and dulse (£26) that is a best seller, not least because it is
a dish Handling devised before he competed in MasterChef and has been refining ever since. It is cooked with burnt parsley, mint, dill and chervil, which are turned into a powder and sprinkled over the fillet to give it a molasses taste.
Handling says he has an unusual approach when choosing those flavour combinations: "When it comes to eating or drinking, an automatic
spider chart pops up in my head, which has one ingredient and then all the different ingredients that have a similar taste to it," he explains.
You see the different derivatives, then you play with it, taste it, make it again and just keep on improving it."
Handling's sous chefs, Steven Kerr and Jonathan McNeil, have worked with him for several years. "They run the restaurant, not me," he says. "I just come up with the crazy ideas and develop everything. At this moment in time, I am passionate and happy and I love what we are doing here."
From the menu
- Mackerel teriyaki, rice, miso £4
- Crispy chicken, yuzu and black sesame seed £4
- Salmon, fennel pollen, courgette, basil, sweet and sour wasabi £12
- Piglet belly, octopus, soy consommé, burnt lemon £13
- Quail, tea, sweetcorn, popcorn £23
- Cauliflower cheese tagliatelle, English truffle, roasted hazelnut £16
- Chocolate truffle, blackberries, dried, iced cassis £9
- Mango, lime mousse, caramelised pineapple, yogurt £9
Adam Handling at Caxton
St Ermin's hotel
2 Caxton Street, London SW1H 0QW