After winning Great British Menu and securing a restaurant in his own name, James Cochran thought all of his dreams had come true. But when a nasty trademarking case soured his hopes, the Whitstable-born chef looked back at his roots for inspiration. Emma Lake reports
In the spring of 2018 James Cochran was poised to be named Great British Menu's ‘champion of champions', when he discovered a former employer had trademarked his name and stripped him of the ability to trade on his own success.
It's a tale that has gained the status of folklore in the capital's restaurant scene, but 18 months on, with his own Islington restaurant and a growing profile, the chef himself is contemplative about the situation.
"I was just a bit naïve," he says. Cochran had initially been ecstatic to receive a call about a new opportunity: "My restaurant [Fix in London's Hackney] had closed, suppliers were chasing me, and this guy had said, ‘do you fancy coming to check out this restaurant?'. It was a dream come true."
The restaurant became James Cochran EC3, which opened in 2016, after an eight-month pop-up in Soho, just a short walk from Liverpool Street Station. A rave review from the Evening Standard's Fay Maschler contributed to commercial success, but the chef felt restricted in the City of London site.
Come Easter 2018, with Great British Menu soon to air, Cochran and new business partner Dan Henry were searching for investment to create another restaurant in their own vision. The chef says he had kept the owners of James Cochran EC3 – which operated under a company called Rayuela – informed and had proposed promoting an existing chef to lead the kitchen while he delivered quarterly menus.
But over the long bank holiday weekend, Cochran received calls from two of his chefs saying they had been sacked. Then his phone rang and he was told not to bother coming back to the restaurant.
Cochran says: "I'd never signed a contract. There was nothing I could do – they gave me I think it was two weeks' pay and that was it. It had been a gentleman's handshake. "I got off the phone and I was like, ‘OK what the fuck am I going to do?'. Then I thought, ‘I need to get my name back'."
It soon transpired that this would be easier said than done as, unbeknown to Cochran, the company had trademarked his name around the end of 2017. It would go on to not only trade under James Cochran, but also to sell operators the right to license his recipes and offer those dishes, under his name, for the grand price of £25 a week.
He says: "I was like, fuck, you can't do this, but, actually, they could. I could have contested the trademarking if I'd known about it, but I hadn't known about it.
"Everything I wanted to do, they had a hold of me. If I was doing a pop-up, they'd ring the venues and say, ‘you can't use this name or we're going to sue you'. People were saying I was going to have to change my name. I was being attacked at every angle."
Following an uproar of support on social media for the chef that made the national press, James Cochran EC3 closed. But the chef has not regained the legal right to trade under his name, and he thinks it may be a decade before he can bid on it. He says: "It's a distant memory now. It has made me stronger and now I'm super-cautious of everything. In a way, it's a blessing in disguise."
A fresh start
Cochran and Henry did eventually secure £100,000 investment from a friend and opened 12:51 in Islington's Upper Street in August 2018, in the site formally occupied by Chinese Laundry. The name is taken from a song by The Strokes, which it transpires Cochran neither knows or likes, but it happened to be playing when the pair decided to go into business together following a successful pop-up and a couple of drinks.
Cochran and Henry had just a couple of weeks to turn the site around on a shoestring budget, which was largely consumed by property costs. The resulting 48-cover, two-storey space features mismatched furniture, distressed wood, hanging spider plants and artworks picked by Cochran and Henry. It might not be slick or shiny but, as Cochran wanted, it is his and Henry's vision, from walls to music to menu.
He says: "It's all been organic. Every bit of money goes back in and, when we can, we get a new bit of kit for the kitchen or repair a broken fridge. When people come, their expectations are low, but we want them to leave with them up there [he points to the sky]. We let the food and the service speak for themselves."
A style of his own
The menu at 12:51, served to a playlist of hip hop and funk, is as eclectic as the interiors. Cochran is half-Scottish, half-Vincentian and was raised in Whitstable on the Kent coast. He was schooled in a strict convent, and says his dad had ambitions of him pursuing a career in medicine or law, but from a young age the chef knew his future was in the kitchen.
He spent his teenage years working at the renowned Wheeler's Oyster Bar in Whitstable (where, years before, he'd sat in a pram eating crab sticks), and went on to study at Thanet College. His career has seen a stint at Read's in Faversham, Kent, the Harwood Arms in Fulham and six years at the two-Michelin-starred Ledbury in Notting Hill.
Cochran says that after leaving the Ledbury his cooking was "Ledbury 2.0", so he looked back to earlier influences to develop a style of his own, such as the fried chicken his mum would take him to eat at Brixton Market in the 1990s, as well as her "mismatched" roast dinners of jerk lamb, plantain, roast potatoes and Yorkshire puddings, as well as the seafood of Whitstable and produce from Scotland.
He says: "I think people like to know where food comes from. People are interested in a story and I think it's integral for chefs to have a story about what they do.
"The first dish I put on at Fix was Jamaican jerk buttermilk chicken with pickled chilli, coriander and corn nuts. People loved it. Now, if we have 100 people coming in, 95 are going to have the fried chicken. Then I wanted to look into it more, so I was like, what have we got in Scotland? – whisky, razor clams, scallops, Douglas fir, langoustines."
All of these influences can be seen on the rapidly changing menu at 12:51, where roast haunch of venison, parsnip, pear, Douglas fir and smoked bone marrow sits neatly with crispy goat kromeski and scotch bonnet jam, as well as line-caught, cured and torched Cornish gurnard with ‘Nduja, cucumber, pork crackling and yogurt.
The diversity of the menu saw The Observer's restaurant critic Jay Rayner declare 12:51 "bold, imaginative and fun", while the Evening Standard's Jimi Famurewa said that in Cochran's hands it all makes "mad, brilliant sense".
Cochran heaps praise on his business partner for giving him the freedom to focus on the food and talks of the importance of finding someone that "shares your vision and goal".
"He's the rock; he allows me to be creative and do events to build my profile. He's the glue on everything. I'm a chef, and have been a chef for 20 years, but being a businessman is a whole different kettle of fish and he allows me to do my thing," he says.
Looking to the future
Cochran's own thing includes the retail launch of his scotch bonnet jam, for which he has plans of world domination, with a Kickstarter campaign already launched, and the development of street food concepts. The latest of which, Goat, saw Cochran expand his partnership with Cabrito, the goat supplier set up by former chef James Whetlor, to source kid meat from British dairy farms and pass it on to restaurants, butchers and catering suppliers.
Cochran's Goat serves up Jamaican jerk-spiced shoulder of goat in flatbreads and was launched in Street Feast's Model Market in Lewisham before moving to Boxpark Croydon in July last year. After making the decision to leave Boxpark, Cochran is now in search of a new London home for Goat, which he hopes will suit the concept better. He also has an eye on a fried chicken concept, confident his "pretty banging" offering can make waves in a competitive market.
What about further restaurants? "No," he says. "For my general mental health, I really don't want to. It's not my dream." Cochran is busy enough with other dreams, including a takeover of the food offering at Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, which saw him at the helm of five restaurants for a match day and which the fan described as a "highlight of my life", and one that may be repeated, if a deal can be reached.
And don't be surprised to see him pop up on television again. After experiencing the boost served up by Great British Menu, when his starter, ‘cep-tional' (cep brioche, a cep custardfilled cylinder, savoury soil, sliced cep and truffle mayonnaise) reached the banquet, he's keen to keep building on his profile. It's a prospect that must seem all the better now no one else is reaping the benefits of his work.
- Flatbread, smoked pork butter, pork crackling £4
- Bombay swede, curry leaves, coriander £ 6.50
- Brussels sprouts, blue cheese, beef fat, pecans £12
- Cep mousse, feuille de brick, cep mushrooms, savoury soil, truffle £16
- Cured and torched Kent coast gurnard, cucumber, yogurt, ‘Nduja, pork scratchings £13
- Poached Kent coast hake, chorizo, chicken skin, broccoli, blue cheese £14
- Poached, roast breast of pheasant, celeriac, Savoy cabbage, grains £14
- Slow-braised pig's cheek, pickled leek, apple, granola £14
- Blue cheese mousse, walnut and raisin bread, celery chutney £8
- Clementine, spiced yogurt, white chocolate, almonds £9
James Cochran on...
...Great British Menu
"I'd never done TV before and it was so daunting, but as a general platform for me to build my profile, it was amazing, and I thank Great British Menu for that. The highlight for me was the chefs I met; everyone was so supportive of each other."
"When you go into business with someone, just make sure it's your vision, your dream and your goal. They have to invest in you."
...goat meat "Goat is a slow-burner. If you put a chicken shop, a burger shop and a goat shop in front of 100 people, they'll all go for the chicken or burger. But, for me, it's integral to promote goat meat as much as I can."
"I find Michelin-starred restaurants kind of stuffy; I wanted to do the opposite. We don't want to get in your face too much; we want our staff to make you feel super-relaxed and just explain the menu. "You're basically going to get flavour bombs through the whole menu. I love to hit flavour through and through."
...guest chef nights
"If you want to build the brand, get your name out there and get the restaurant consistently busy – you've got to be doing these kinds of things. I love it because you meet new people, make new friends, you get a few new ideas and it's a case of, ‘you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'."
...Upper Street, Islington
"The lunch trade is difficult here. There are more than 100 restaurants on Upper Street and there's not a big corporate lunch market. Dinner is much easier. We're a busy, established restaurant in the neighbourhood now."
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