Adam Byatt's love for cooking has been reinvigorated by catering to a new audience at a different price point. And his new commute is only a few extra paces up the stairs. Hannah Thompson reports
It's a sign of Byatt's search for perfection that only these few dishes have made the grade. The restaurant offers small plates of lovingly prepared produce with a daily spontaneity that Byatt's original restaurant, the upscale Trinity, would never even try to match.
We're in the heart of Clapham, south west London, and Byatt is on a roll. In the 10 years since he launched Trinity - the fine-dining ground floor restaurant that has gone from strength to strength - Byatt has expanded his estate threefold. His more casual brasserie, Bistro Union, on nearby Abbeville Road, opened in 2011, and Trinity has now graduated to become the older sibling of Upstairs, which is, unsurprisingly, above the restaurant.
Where the original Trinity has a sumptuous dining room serving fine-dining dishes to match, Upstairs is reclaimed wooden tables, high metal stools, rustic brick walls, open-flame cooking and crates of great wine.
Walking through one to reach the other - via the new staircase in the restaurant itself - feels akin to discovering a cosy, hidden sitting room at the back of a busy hotel. It's relaxed and friendly, with a level of service and quality that belies its high-end background.
The restaurant manager of Upstairs, Matthew Hartzenberg, has worked with Byatt for six years, and he moves around the dining room with warmth and grace, chatting to regulars, recommending wine, and letting talkative tables linger as long as the canoodling couples. Byatt is usually to be found behind the pass.
"I wanted to cook food that was a bit closer to how I would cook if guests came to my house," he says. "It gives us some great opportunities to cook with smaller quantities. It's been a great thing."
He explains that the dishes upstairs are a bit more modern than his classical French style. There's also a bit of British bistro added in.
"It's about working with some of the incredible French, Italian and Spanish suppliers - taking the very best gorgonzola and pairing it with the very best figs, say," he says. "I'm trying to develop a really fluid repertoire of food."
All this in spite of the fact that 10 years ago he told this magazine that he planned to "take a step back" and hand the reins at Trinity to another chef. What happened?
"I just wanted to carry on. I never found the right person to take over," he says. "One of the key focuses for me was to get to a point where I can still cook every day, and get some kind of work-life balance. Opening Bistro Union [in 2010] was a great milestone, but Upstairs has given me a rejuvenation."
It's fitting then that Upstairs is aimed at a younger audience than Trinity - "the 20s, first-date market and early-30s, pre-kid market," Byatt says. Byatt admits he was feeling a little tired after Trinity's 10 years, and has welcomed a return to the best bits of his earlier days, including his first solo site, Thyme, which opened on nearby Clapham Park Road in 2002.
"Thyme was a bit like this," he recalls. "I changed the menu every day, and just cooked what I wanted. But it was incredibly inconsistent and haphazard. Here, it is more controlled, and there is an enthusiasm that is new."
That new energy is palpable, and it drives Byatt to come out from behind the pass to serve the dishes himself. Despite his experience, creativity and confidence, he's still obviously a chef that wants you to love his food.
"I've never felt like the product was good enough for me to step back. In this day and age, you need to be able to capture different markets," he says. "I've got high ambitions, and my business now has to seriously deliver. Fast-forward a year and a half, and I think it'll get really exciting."
Byatt has seen a lot as a chef and restaurateur. As well as the success of his Clapham ventures, it would be an omission not to recall the failure of Origin Bar & Dining Room in 2004, with his then-business partner Adam Oates (Byatt's current business partner is Angus Jones).
He is quite candid about the impact the experience had on his attitude. "Without what happened there, there's no way Trinity would have been the success it was," he says. "It was the most painful period of my life, but I found a great business partner and managed to create a robust business, and never looked back. In lots of ways, it was the best thing that could have happened."
This openness is central to Byatt's ongoing creativity. He's a chef who knows his own style and is led by a clear sense of what he wants to achieve. He has eschewed gimmicky trends and reverted back to a philosophy focused on good ingredients and bold flavours.
Upstairs is deeply inspired by the food traditions of Trinity, and Byatt uses many of the leftover ingredients or less high-end elements of the existing produce to create tasty plates for the customers on the first floor.
His barbecue squid with hummus, for example, has character in spades; a dish flecked with reds and yellows, with a buttery texture and a smoky chargrilled aroma that points straight to Byatt's enthusiastic use of the Robata grill.
"We've got waterbaths and stuff like that," he says. "But I love that primitive bit, just cooking over wood. Lots of things taste great over charcoal; it brings an earthy richness."
The vitello tonnato dish is different again, but also wholly representative of Upstairs' approach. The meat comes from the loin of English rose veal: downstairs it's served with artichokes and lemon and thyme, whereas upstairs the off-cuts are served with a generous pool of pinkish mayonnaise. This sharing of ingredients help keeps Trinity consistent and Upstairs interesting and original, says Byatt.
The desserts reveal similar thinking. On a given night the menu might offer a bowl of salted caramel ice-cream, or a chunk of 32-month aged Comté with sliced demi-sec figs. There are no gel purées or arranged-by-tweezers flower petals here.
"If you want a fancy pudding, then downstairs is where you need to be," says Byatt.
Byatt has always been adamant that diners' average spend will be reasonable. At Upstairs it is about £50, thanks to people's tendency to enjoy a good quantity of drink with their meal, and this, the chef says, is more than he would ideally like. Put simply, he doesn't want the place to become so expensive that customers hardly ever come back.
But Byatt is not on the path towards world domination, either: despite its casual feel, we won't be seeing a roll-out of Upstairs."I never look at a business and think, 'It's scalable.' Even with Bistro Union I can't picture myself with 10 restaurants, looking at spreadsheets, driving between sites and worrying about how many grams of salmon go into a fish pie."
And yet, Byatt shows no signs of dropping the pace. There's planning permission for the floor above Upstairs, and a plan to open three guestrooms, named Trinity Rooms, later this year.
He is also vocal about the importance of being present in the kitchen, and recently hit the headlines with a comment about young chefs neglecting to "learn their craft", in favour of a quick rise to the top via street-food vans.
"What I meant by that," he explains, "is that the industry needs more training and education. More mentoring and fewer heroes."
Upstairs feels collaborative. Chefs from downstairs regularly take shifts at Upstairs, giving them a chance to master the simpler dishes in parallel to the complex plates at Trinity. This is a process which Byatt is passionate about. He has been co-chair of the kitchen for the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts' Annual Awards of Excellence (AAE), recognising the achievements of young chefs, pastry chefs and waiters, for five years. He's also careful to train his staff well.
"The commis chefs now have a mentor each, and are challenged to progress with us," he explains. "We don't focus on the cookery side yet; they are taught to work, clean, label, tidy and organise. We show them that training on food is done by teaching passion, rather than bollocking them because they can't fillet fish well enough."
"I think the industry has a long way to go in how it looks after its staff. If you overwork and underpay them, and don't respect them, then what do you think is going to happen? I've got people here who have worked for me for 11 years, because they feel like they've got ownership and involvement in the business and the journey. I've always worked hard for that."
Byatt is also spending much of his time as an ambassador and consultant for foodservice company Bartlett Mitchell, helping with clients, chef masterclasses, recipes, blogs and dish development. "I was approached by Bartlett Mitchell and thought they were a spectacular operator," he says. "Wendy Bartlett is an inspirational lady. It's an honour."
But even with all his projects, he's not seeking a break. Even now, he's looking over at the pass, itching to get ready for tonight's service.
"There are people that at 6pm on a Friday night want to be in the pub with their mates, but to be honest, I'd rather be right here, about to cook 40 covers," he says. "That's what I get out of bed for, that's what keeps me alive."
He estimates that his sites serve 1,500 people per week in Clapham, but he is rather humble about it. "I'm still flabbergasted that people want to eat my food," he says. "There is nothing better than going home, knowing that you've had three restaurants rammed full of happy guests. I think chefs are some of the most insecure people you'll ever meet. I'm still surprised every day that the restaurant is full. It's a privilege."
With the arrival of Upstairs, it seems Byatt is the strongest he's been to date. This chef's holy trinity of sites looks truly blessed.
Adam Byatt's restaurants
4 The Polygon, London SW4
Covers 60 seats
Average spend £85
Style High-end French/British
Upstairs at Trinity
Upstairs, 4 The Polygon, London SW4 Opened 2015
Covers 32 seats
Average spend £45
Style European-British sharing plates
40 Abbeville Rd, London SW4
Covers 48 seats
Average spend £40
Style Brunch and brasserie-pub
Bartlett Mitchell on working with Adam Byatt
Adam Byatt's exclusive collaboration with Bartlett Mitchell and Inn or Out Events sees him work with chef-director Pete Redman, and all the company's chefs, on masterclasses, sustainable sourcing, live food demonstrations and events.
Redman says that since Byatt came on board last November, he's brought a "wealth of experience and knowledge to the business".
"His focus on provenance, seasonality and skills training matches our ethos," says Redman. "He's approachable and a 'chef's chef'. His workshops are inspirational, and the team have fed back that his enthusiasm and knowledge is infectious. Having Adam focus on us in his own restaurant environment is a real privilege."
Clients have also had the benefit of the partnership and enjoyed learning insider tips and tricks at Byatt's masterclasses. "The Adam Byatt menus developed exclusively for Inn or Out Events bring the unique Trinity restaurant experience direct to our clients," adds Redman. "In fact, I've never been in Adam's presence and not learned something new."
Adam Byatt and Pete Redman
Barbecue octopus with hummus
- 1 octopus, ideally frozen Spanish Galician
- 500ml and 2tbsp olive oil
- 3 red onions, peeled and sliced
- 2 heads of garlic, peeled and sliced
- 50g sweet smoked paprika
- 2 large red chillies, halved lengthways
- 1 bunch thyme, picked
- 800ml white wine
- 1 litre passata
- 2.5 litres white chicken stock
- 500g fresh chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water
Defrost and wash the octopus two hours before cooking. Preheat the oven to 170Â°C, then place the oil into a heavy-based casserole pan and heat gently.
Add the onions, garlic, paprika, chillies and thyme and sweat over a low heat, then deglaze with the white wine.
Add the octopus, passata and chicken stock and season. Cover the pan with a paper lid and bring to a boil, then place into the oven. After 20 minutes add the chickpeas, then mix well.
Replace the paper lid and return the pan to the oven for one hour, then remove it from the oven and allow to cool, ideally overnight.
Once cooled, remove the octopus from the pan and reserve for later. Take the casserole pan and strain everything through a colander to separate the onion, garlic, chillies and chickpeas from the liquor.
Put half of the cooking liquor off to one side, and pour the other half into a pan with the onion, garlic, chillies and chickpeas. Allow it to reduce until the chickpeas and onions have absorbed the liquid.
Then pour the onion, garlic, chillies and chickpeas into a blender and blend until a smooth hummus forms. Reserve it on a tray.
Take the octopus, lay it on a chopping board, and cut away the hood of the head and the beak. Separate the animal into its eight tentacles, keeping them as whole as possible. Then put the remaining cooking liquor into a pan, and reduce by half. Remove it from the heat and pass it through a chinois.
To serve, barbecue one tentacle over charcoal or simply pan-fry it in olive oil. Warm a portion of the cooking liquor, pour it into bowl and place the tentacle on top. Place a spoonful of hummus next to it. Make a well in the hummus and fill with olive oil.
Adam Byatt's CV
- 2015 Upstairs at Trinity, Clapham
- 2011 Bistro Union, Clapham
- 2006 Trinity, Clapham
- 2005 Origin, Covent Garden
- 2004 Thyme at the Hospital
- 2001 Thyme, Clapham
- 1996 The Square, Mayfair
- 1995 The Berkeley, Knightsbridge
- 1990 Apprenticeship at Claridge's, Mayfair
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