After deciding to retire hotdog restaurant Bubbledogs during lockdown, owners James Knappett and Sandia Chang are relaunching their two-Michelin-starred Kitchen Table, with more space and a revamped interior. Knappett talks to Tom Vaughan about refurbs, recognition and taking their restaurant to the next level.
James Knappett is talking soap. "Each one, I ask: is it a nice smell? How long does it linger? Is it overpowering when you have a glass of wine?" He's been talking soap for a good five minutes.
"One of my favourites is absolutely incredible but the scent lingers on the hand. Then if you have a glass of wine you end up smelling something like seagrass and fennel, and you want to be smelling that glass of Champagne."
In fact, it's hard to stop him talking soap. "And then, you've got to consider things like – does the soap match the candle? Even if no one notices, I'll know that what we are doing will be a next-level experience from before."
Knappett is three weeks shy of the big relaunch of his two-Michelin-starred restaurant Kitchen Table, and there's no micro-detail that he hasn't spent the past six months poring over. Everything has to be perfect for when the restaurant takes the next big step on its journey, right down to the soap. Because, as Knappett says, this next step is a "gamble", possibly the biggest gamble of his career.
Knappett is sitting in the refurbished space that was once hotdog and Champagne restaurant Bubbledogs, brimming with the nervous energy that the final leg of a building project and the effects of a nine-week-old baby can induce. Dust sheets cover chairs and there's a line of rejected tables to be returned. Knappett and his wife Sandia Chang – who together co-founded the site in 2012 – took the decision to retire Bubbledogs last year and when the site reopens, it will be dedicated to Kitchen Table.
"Bubbledogs put us on the map as much as Kitchen Table did," says Knappett, "but it was always hard finding staff, even before Brexit and Covid. Even though the buns and sausages were handmade, people would think: I haven't been a chef this long to be a hotdog chef. And it was unpredictable. Sometimes we'd be packed on a Tuesday and dead on a Saturday, then we'd be quiet on a Tuesday and full all weekend, whereas Kitchen Table was fully booked. So we looked at it as a business and we wanted to take Kitchen Table to the next level. We decided it was worth the gamble."
The refurb has turned Bubbledogs – formerly the front half of the narrow Fitzrovia site – into a bar and lounge. The back half of the site – the 20-seat counter that is Kitchen Table – remains largely unchanged. The aim: to elevate the Michelin heavy-hitter to new heights, with Knappett feeling that the limited space was holding it back from its full potential.
"If you go from a Champagne apéritif to a whiskey digestif, it's a four-hour experience. Four hours in the same room in the same chair is a long time for anyone," he says.
There's no doubting that many of its loyal fans will be sad to see Bubbledogs go. A concept that many thought doomed from the start proved to be a massive hit for eight years, and Knappett certainly feels vindicated by its success.
"When the news first came out that we were doing a hotdog restaurant, everyone was like, ‘What are they thinking? It'll be a few weeks before they are back to the drawing board'. And then people couldn't get in here for six months because of the queues."
Knappett says it was over two years before it did less than 200 covers in a day. Part of that was Knappett's culinary hotdogs, another was Chang's list of small-grower Champagnes sold at competitive prices, which swiftly picked up multiple industry awards.
While it may be the end of the line for Bubbledogs (for now at least – more on that later), it is a new beginning for Kitchen Table. The couple are putting the final touches to a revamped drinks offering for the lounge and bar – Chang's hugely popular Champagne list is being retained, while Knappett and his team are finalising an eight-strong cocktail list.
"We've put so much work into them," he says. "One of them is made with foraged stinging nettles. These are cocktails that don't exist in London."
At the back of the site, the open-kitchen restaurant remains largely unchanged, although the refurb has let Knappett tweak and improve his equipment, with new meat-ageing, cheese-ageing and fish-ageing cabinets. Meanwhile, all 20 staff, who were formerly spread across both sites, will now be solely dedicated to the fine dining restaurant.
Knappett refers to the move as a gamble, and surely the end of Bubbledogs will present a sizeable loss of revenue for the business? "Yeah, financially it will be a hit," he agrees. "But I don't think we've ever done either of the businesses to make money. It's more about the journey of a concept and the experience we want to give people. And as we refine Kitchen Table, there will be an increase in revenue there."
I don't think we've ever done either of the businesses to make money. It's more about the journey of a concept and the experience we want to give people
The obvious suggestion is that this refurb – both expensive in outlay and lost revenue – has been done with an eye on a third Michelin star. The restaurant picked up its first star in 2015 and a second in 2019, but Knappett is adamant that three stars isn't the primary motivation behind the project.
"I don't for a second think that just because we refurb a building we're going to win three stars," he says. "We still have to put all of the work into it. It's the same as when we started here – we never set out thinking, ‘this will win a Michelin star'. We did everything we wanted to do because we loved it. Anything that happened on the way was a bonus."
However, there's no denying that – like any fine-dining chef – Knappett sees three Michelin stars as among the ultimate culinary accolades, or that it is firmly in his crosshairs: "I guess everyone needs to strive to something. To achieve that final star and then have to maintain it – that's definitely a drive for us." But, in the same breath, he does not let it consume him in, say, the same way as it did his first employer Gordon Ramsay (see below).
"In my head, I know, there's another level that we can go to. I respect Michelin a great deal, but I don't come to work every day to please guides. If I know my 20 guests that day loved it, and we love the food we're cooking, and we never get that third star, that's just the way it's meant to be."
In my head, I know, there's another level that we can go to
If Knappett did become just the fifth British chef to win an illustrious third star, it'll be the pinnacle of a long journey for the self-professed ‘country boy' from Soham in Cambridgeshire. His first break in the industry came from turning up unannounced at Ramsay's Royal Hospital Road restaurant, fresh out of catering college, and winning a job in the infamously tough kitchen as it chased three Michelin stars.
Even though Knappett only lasted six months, getting by on two hours' sleep a night in chefs' digs in Earl's Court, it was the first step on a journey that took him through some of the world's most illustrious kitchens: Restaurant Rick Stein in Padstow, Pétrus in London, the French Laundry in New York (where he met Chang) and Noma in Copenhagen. Then finally, the Ledbury in Notting Hill, where he was working when JKS Restaurants approached him about the Bubbledogs/Kitchen Table site.
"We told Karam and Jyotin [Sethi, co-owners of JKS] about our concept. Sandia said: ‘[Bubbledogs] is the restaurant I want to do'. I was like: ‘I'm not going to be a hotdog chef – this [Kitchen Table] is the restaurant I want to do'. We couldn't choose, so we decided to do them both in the same room."
JKS immediately backed the couple and have continued to do so ever since, with Knappett full of praise for his business partners. "They don't micromanage us, they don't tell us what we need to do. Our success is respected and they let us get on with it."
The past nine years have not only seen the couple grow both concepts and win numerous awards, but start a family as well. They already have a two-year-old and Chang gave birth to a baby boy in April. And with both of them so dedicated to their craft, their young family is a challenge unto itself.
"We've sacrificed so much in our careers to get to where we are, but we need to find a balance now. I can't be that hardcore chef any more, arriving at work at 6am and getting home at 2am." Chang, normally a huge presence front of house, will be off work until the end of the year at least, and Knappett admits that she finds the absence hard.
We've sacrificed so much in our careers to get to where we are, but we need to find a balance now
"It's very tough for her because she wants to be involved in the relaunch and all the small details. She loves service. She wants to be pouring wine, serving food, talking to guests. But we're far from the first couple to have a restaurant and start a family, so we just have to find that balance and make it work."
If a new baby and a relaunched restaurant isn't enough, Knappett is also making his first foray into other ventures, including helping with the relaunch of Chelsea's Cadogan Arms with JKS. Is this a one-off or do Knappett and Chang hope to expand? "It's definitely in the plans for the future – opening different sites with different concepts." Could there even be a return for Bubbledogs? "You never know, right? Sandia and I have definitely not said that Bubbledogs will never exist again."
Another venture or two under their belt aside, what would success look like in 10 years' time? "I'm not usually the kind of chef to talk like this, but three stars would be something that I'd like to think that we could achieve within 10 years. I'd like to think that, by that time, I wouldn't have to micromanage my restaurant any more. I have a team that manages it for me, so that the balance with my family is a lot better."
Then, with a grin he adds: "But the big, big dream, after more than 10 years, is a village pub – shoot days, no stress, scampi and chips, a great set of regulars."
The country retreat as well as the city- centre three-star, I ask? "Well, I can't hang on to Kitchen Table for ever. I'm a country boy at heart. And I've been in London a long time. So I've got to go home one day."
James Knappett on the visionary chefs who forged his career
Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road, London
"It was beyond an obsession with perfection. I've never seen a man so driven in my whole life. And what he went through in the pain to get there, it was incredible – incredible guy. He was so supportive and he really took me under his wing. It was a kitchen of grown men who were carving lamb with amazing technique then stuffing it with peach. All those skills stayed lodged in my head."
Rick Stein, Rick Stein, Padstow
"At Rick's it was the opposite [to Ramsay]. A piece of turbot with hollandaise – that's the main course. Goan fish curry, mussels and black bean sauce – everything delicious, the best seafood, but it was a lifestyle as well. They looked after you. You were working shifts: in the afternoons you're on the beach and at the weekend was a staff party. It was the best company to work for. I made my best friends there."
Marcus Wareing, Pétrus, London
"No one called me James for a year, people said: "Just do that and fuck off." Then after about a year, you've proved yourself and you're one of the lads. You get this nice chef jacket and you're actually cooking on the stove and you never get bumped. When that happened I was like: ‘Fucking bring on the hours, man!' It became like adrenaline."
Thomas Keller, the French Laundry, New York
"It was another level. It was the best school – from how you should treat guests and staff to cleanliness. It was like there was no money involved. If I'd broken a salad spinner in other kitchens, I'd patch it up with tape or buy a new one with my own money. If you broke one there, there would be five other new ones waiting. Nothing could ever jeopardise your job. They believed that if you set yourself up to succeed, only you can fail."
René Redzepi, Noma, Copenhagen
"The guy is a genius. Everything I knew about food got turned upside down. We were taking the leaves off watercress and just serving the stalk – the opposite of what I'd spent years doing. One day he made this incredible sauce with redcurrant juice and butter. I put salt in it and he was mad – why put salt in it when it tastes this nice? And he was right. You start looking at another way of cooking."
Photography by Laurie Fletcher
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