Of all the chefs I would have expected to see sporting a huge sleeve tattoo, Adam Handling isn't one of them. In an age when there's nary a chef without an illustrated epidermis, it looks a little incongruous on the budding 28-year-old restaurateur at first.
Perhaps the freshly inked tattoo is striking because it stands out so prominently against the Dundee-born chef's pale skin. Or perhaps it's because, rightly or wrongly, tattoos are often associated with a rebellious streak and a healthy disrespect for authority - yet Handling is no insurrectionist. He mentions that his father is a military man and, without that self-discipline and drive, he could hardly have managed to accumulate a list of culinary honours that includes an Acorn Award, BCF Chef of the Year in 2014 and Scottish Chef of the Year in 2015, not to mention being a MasterChef: The Professionals finalist in 2013.
Although, in a way, he's an outlier too, in the sense that he possesses prodigious talent in the kitchen - talent that led Michel Roux Jr, erstwhile MasterChef presenter, to comment that his food created "unexpected harmony" in that it successfully combined ingredients in playful and surprising ways and employed a high level of technical ability.
But if you look closely at the tattoo, you'll see it's partly a story of his career, partly a declaration of intent, rather than a vacant expression of insubordination. There's a compass and maps of the countries in Asia that he has visited, including Japan and China; an eye on his bicep to remind him to open himself up to different cultures, concepts and foods; and, most prominent of all, a large frog.
It's the amphibian we're here to talk about, because it gives its name to Handling's first solo restaurant, the Frog in London's Shoreditch, which he opened in June 2016.
Handling jokes that he came to Shoreditch and couldn't grow a beard, so he got the tattoo instead, but he later admits that he barely even knew where Shoreditch was until one of his chefs spotted an available site.
That's not a shocking revelation when you consider that Handling has spent much of his time in fine-dining establishments, starting at Fairmont St Andrews in Scotland, where he became the Fairmont group's youngest-ever head chef, before moving to St Ermin's hotel in London, where they considered him sufficiently important to change the name of the Caxton Grill to Adam Handling at Caxton.
Given that Handling had been handed the reins of the restaurant at St Ermin's and that he was happy, after spending his early career at the Fairmont being, by his own admission, an "angry little bugger" fixated on becoming the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star, why move on?
"It was my name on the door, but it wasn't mine," he explains. "Money was not an object. You don't become a chef to make money. We do it for the love and hopefully, one day, the money will come, but you are in someone else's house. I wanted to be busier. In Westminster [prior to the regeneration of nearby Victoria], we were close to everywhere but in the middle of nowhere and we didn't have the backing of the operation to be noticed, as every chef wants."
A solo venture was more or less inevitable then, but the Frog, it is probably fair to say, is not the solo venture Handling originally envisaged, nor the one most people expected.
"I wanted to open a signature restaurant," he says. "All my biggest idols have a restaurant like that, and I wanted to be one of the up-and-coming chefs, creating trends."
There was, of course, a problem with this ambition, as Handling was soon to realise - such restaurants rarely make money and finding someone to back the dream with cash proved a challenge. But that changed just over two years ago when he cut short a holiday in Thailand with friends to return to cook at Adam Handling at Caxton for a group of investors from venture capital firm Toucan Ventures.
He had already approached the firm's founder, Rasha Khawaja, who was interested enough in Handling's ideas to hold her meeting at his restaurant.
"I flew back to cook dinner just on that one night; I was sunburnt as hell," he recalls. "I looked like a right buffoon. I came to the restaurant halfway through their meal after my flights were delayed. As soon as I got there, I put my whites on and went out to speak to them and they absolutely bloody loved it."
One of the party was Philip Seers (see panel), now chairman of Handling's company. "He asked me if I had ever thought of opening my own restaurant. He told me about business, how to raise money, ideas on how to approach people, and so on," recalls Handling.
The pair met up and Seers counselled Handling to come up with a business plan.
Handling enlisted the help of his father for ideas on Restaurant Adam Handling, and worked away at night with his headphones on and a stack of how-to books around him. But after months of work, the plan still wasn't cutting it. Eventually, Toria Ewart-Perks from Toucan (now chief operating officer of Adam Handling Ltd) helped the chef out, and gradually Handling reached the conclusion that the
problem was the restaurant concept itself.
It was about this time that the Shoreditch site came up. "I liked the place and saw the potential, but I hated the area," says Handling.
"I thought everyone was dressed strangely, there were too many beards, and there was too much graffiti. The truth was, I was intimidated by it and I didn't really know what was going on. I realised I was so out of focus with what was
happening in London."
Handling needed a concept that was more accessible and casual, and so he started to form the idea of the Frog. He says he followed Kermit the Frog's maxim that "everything starts with a leap" (although it isn't clear that Kermit ever actually said this). He went to Fat Punk Studio and commissioned them to come up with a "graffiti-ish" logo, even before he had secured the backing for it. It proved to be the catalyst for the whole concept. Finally, Toucan and Seers felt they had something that could work, and so the Shoreditch restaurant was born as a "proof of concept".
That said, the Frog isn't a complete reinvention for the chef. Many of the playful and technically accomplished dishes for which he is best known - such as 'beetroot, beetroot and more beetroot', cheese doughnuts, and bread with chicken butter - are still there on a £50 tasting menu. But there are also more accessible sharing plates in the shape of 'British tapas' and a wide selection of beers, all served in an unstuffy environment with bar stools and wooden chairs and not a tablecloth in sight - along with loud music that Handling happily admits his mother wouldn't like.
The 68-cover venue launched in June 2016 and seven months later it was well on the way to beating its financial projections, taking £1m against a target for the year of £1.2m. That paved the way for Handling to secure a larger site in Covent Garden, with the backing of Toucan Ventures, which is likely to open in July.
The new site, the precise location of which is not yet revealed, will be 90 covers, operating all day, seven days a week. It will be set across two floors, with a large open-plan kitchen and with a table on the pass capable of seating 12-15 people.
"The pass will be gigantic - it's very much a show kitchen," Handling says. In the basement, Handling plans to open a speakeasy-style bar that will have a separate identity to the Frog. It will have a secret side entrance and focus on 10 or so quality cocktails.
"Instead of making a 180-cover restaurant where you cannot possibly do the same calibre of food in the same style and the same ethos, we are going to be splitting it up," Handling says. "We are going to have a private dining room downstairs in the bar where you will have to push a wall to open it and it will have its own kitchen." The downstairs bar will also feature its own DJ stage and artwork by a "very influential" artist. "The Frog and the bar are definitely going to attract two types of clientele. The bar will be so controversial and exciting," he adds. Critical comments Indeed, controversy is something Handling is not a complete stranger to. Last year saw him hauled over the coals in the press for branding a customer who left a negative TripAdvisor review of the Frog an "imbecile". He later went on to elaborate that the comments the diner left were "unfair, frustrating and personal". In fact, even *The Caterer* fell foul of Handling recently when we reproduced a rare negative review of the Frog in its early days by *Guardian* critic Marina O'Loughlin in the Review of Reviews section. O'Loughlin branded it a "rather silly restaurant" despite scoring Handling 7/10 for the food - a comment that this magazine repeated. Does he think that he needs to change the way he deals with criticism in future as his restaurant empire expands? Maybe, but don't bet on it. Handling is very much his own man, and he is passionate about what he believes in. "That month, I had Bloomberg giving me five stars," says Handling. "I had so many people giving me five stars. One person gave me three stars and said my beetroot looked like a tampon, and sadly *The Caterer* republished that one.Everyone has their own opinion, but what means theirs is the final opinion? You have a little chef like me and I have maybe 40,000 followers on social media, so I am nobody in London, but my socks are pulled up and I am trying my best and we are trying to create something and we are learning. If they came in now, my God, it would not be the same review. If it is, I will sell the restaurant straight away." He's unlikely to need to do that. When it comes to TripAdvisor, it is slightly hard for an outsider to understand what the fuss is about - after all, as Handling points out, the restaurant sits at number 75 out of 17,949 in the capital, so one bad review doesn't really say much. But the chef doesn't see it that way. "If you get upset and angry, it shows that you give a shit and that you really care," he says. "You could say, 'Oh, it's just a negative review, forget about it guys, we're doing great, carry on'. No. You get a good review, you have a glass of Champagne, the whole team is motivated. You get a bad review and you read it 10 times to make sure that mistake doesn't happen again. But if they are not mistakes and they are someone's personal preference, what do you do?" It's a problem he is likely to have to grapple with again in the future, as his success and his number of restaurants grows, but Handling is learning more and more about what is truly important, hence the shift away from his fine-dining ambitions to the Frog. "I always used to want to have one of the best restaurants in the world when I was younger, but I don't give a crap about that any more," he says. "I want the Frogs to be the favourite restaurant in their area. You go to the best restaurant in the world once, maybe twice. If you are that excited by it, then sometimes it doesn't always live up to your expectations. But if you have a favourite restaurant you will go again and again." Toucan Ventures and Adam Handling Handling hopes to open a new restaurant a year for the next five years, and for that, he is going to require some financial backing - which fortunately he has in spades. Philip Seers, chairman of Adam Handling Ltd, sits on venture capital firm Toucan's board. The company claims to offer more than simple financial investment - rather, it says it supplies an 'ecosystem' that supports creative entrepreneurs in the food and beverage, lifestyle and retail markets. Seers is Handling's mentor and he has experience in the industry, having been involved in the set-up of Pierre Koffmann's La Tante Claire on London's Royal Hospital Road (now Restaurant Gordon Ramsay), as well as backing chef Jean- Louis Taillebaud's London restaurant, Interlude de Tabaillau, in Covent Garden in the 1980s. "Adam has the passion, the competence and the vision," says Seers. "What Toucan does is put people like me together with him and say, OK, how do we get into a position where this is fundable? \[The Frog\] was a proof of concept, so it didn't require huge funding. It was £300,000, but it brought the place to life." And there's more where that came from, by the look of things. Other shareholders include Michel Ray de Carvalho, the British financier and former Olympic skier and actor and husband of Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken, who inherited the Heineken empire in 2002. Another is Guy Chisenhale- Marsh, owner of Gaynes Park estate and wedding venue in Essex. But despite all this financial firepower, Handling doesn't feel intimidated. "They trust me and leave me to it," he says. "Philip is as obsessed about structure and professionalism as I am but he doesn't tell me what to do. He gives me advice and teaches me and, if I don't listen to him, I am an idiot." Extracurricular activities Adam Handling isn't one to make his schedule too easy for himself. He has seemingly boundless energy and, when he isn't busy trying to create a restaurant empire or competing in events such as Tough Mudder, he has one or two other roles to keep him occupied. Handling takes part in numerous culinary competitions and was recently named chef-patron of the Association of Catering Excellence (ACE) to help it in its aim of encouraging more young chef talent. (Handling was also a judge at last year's ACE Ready Steady Cook event, an award for promising chefs under the age of 25.) He has also been appointed by Sodexo as a consultant chef to support the company's corporate services business in London, a role that sees him creating signature dishes as well as delivering skills classes to Sodexo chefs. Handling says: "I want to work with students or young chefs who want a stepping stone into restaurants. Sodexo is a phenomenal company, so when \[Sodexo culinary director\] David Mulcahy asked me if I would be interested, I thought it would be pretty cool. I have to keep busy - I love it."
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