Adam Handling on being the bad boy of British TV

07 June 2023 by

Fresh from being crowned Champion of Champions of Great British Menu, chef Adam Handling talks about the haters, TV personas, and bouncing back

Ten years from launching himself into the public consciousness with a star turn on MasterChef: The Professionals, Adam Handling still knows how to grab a headline. Our hour-long conversation is littered with dozens of his trademark, no-holds-barred soundbites, each one punchy enough to go straight to the top of a feature article.

Would it be better to lead with his thoughts on his Great British Menu persona ("I was an arsehole")? The fallout from it ("I got told to trip on a knife and die")? His group's near-collapse during the pandemic ("I thought it was game over; I melted down")? His surprise exit from the Belmond ("I hate snakes")? Or any one of a half-dozen other quotes? Time may have rounded his edges, but the once self-proclaimed "rebel" still likes to say things as he sees them and damn the consequences.

Let's start with Great British Menu 2023, where Handling had a tough act to follow after a less than wholly warm reaction to his to his 2022 appearance."Last year, I was an arsehole and I got portrayed as that," he says, his Dundee accent as strong as ever, despite over a decade in London. "But it's only because I had a load of stuff going on with the businesses. I hadn't practised as much as I possibly could, and I was stressed as shit. The shows are pretty natural – they portray it as it is. And it showed that I was a stress-head with very little patience."

The fallout saw an army of keyboard warriors round on him. "I got annihilated. I got thousands of abusive tweets. I had to read every single one of them. If I don't, it just plays on my mind. But it makes me stronger. I don't bask in the glory of positive comments, but I do dwell on the negative ones, because it's like, goddammit I need to do better."

When the 2023 competition came around, Handling left nothing to chance. "I made sure I had everything in line beforehand. The business was in a good place and I wanted to show everyone that I can cook."

He estimates that he practised for 75 days straight, squeezing in a three-hour trial run before 10am. And it paid off. By the end of the competition, his trifle-inspired dessert ‘Food Fight' – a homage to comic books the Beano and Dandy – not only made it through to the final dinner, but was voted best dish overall and saw him crowned Great British Menu Champion of Champions.

Yet nothing is that straightforward when it comes to Handling and television cameras. And it was his onscreen criticism of chef Tunde ‘Abi' Abifarin – for leaving shell and a waste pipe in a lobster dish – that grabbed tabloid headlines rather than his eventual triumph. For the second year running, the trolls crawled out of the woodwork.

"I got death threats because I'm a bully! I got told to trip on a knife and kill myself!" Handling, though, is unapologetic. "Abi is a super-nice person, but I don't care about your personality when I'm tasting dishes. I can't stand wasting food. Hate it. We represent Scotland. I don't want another bloody region in England to be like, oh Scottish chefs are shit aren't they?"

Is all the criticism and abuse worth it? Does Handling ever regret putting himself in the shop window like this? "Never! Money can't buy PR like [Great British Menu]. In terms of figures, the first week you're looking at about half a million pound on the books, and 68% of my Q2 occupancy across the group was booked up by the end of Q1 following on from the show. In my business plan I forecast 80%. We'll pick up the extra 12%, no problem. To have that lack of worry, especially when restaurants are struggling at the moment, it makes me really, really happy and makes it all worthwhile."

Adam Handling's first TV win was on Masterchef

Even though Handling claims to be a much more "chilled" person these days it was his forthright personality – coupled with innate kitchen talent – that saw him first pick up a foodie following en route to the MasterChef: The Professionals final in 2013. That, in turn, led to his first named restaurant – Adam Handling at Caxton, in London's St Ermin's hotel.

Following an acrimonious split in 2016, Handling took the plunge and opened his own restaurant, the Frog E1 in London's Spitalfields. It proved a success and started four years of high-profile openings, including flagship Covent Garden restaurant Frog by Adam Handling, a relocation of the Frog E1 to Hoxton, and Ugly Butterfly in Chelsea (see panel). Handling even fought off star-studded opposition to land the contract at the Cadogan, a Belmond hotel, one of the biggest hotel launches in London of the last five years. Everything seemed to be going so well; the Dundee boy had done good. Then the pandemic hit.

As Covid gripped the UK, Handling admits that his world came crashing down almost overnight. "We were we were up against the rocks. I thought it was game over for the whole group." With the country locked down, his East London sites – Frog Hoxton and Bean & Wheat – were forced into a Compulsory Voluntary Arrangement because of the high rent. "The administrators came in and realised that the debt had outweighed the assets. And we had a lot of assets so imagine the debt I had.

I melted down. I've never been so broken in my life because I felt so powerless. I don't have an endless chequebook behind me."

The pandemic also precipitated the closure his two Chelsea restaurants – Ugly Butterfly and Adam Handling Chelsea at the Cadogan hotel. After his acrimonious departure from Adam Handling Caxton, did the Cadogan contract end more amicably? "No," he says, bluntly, as from the sides of his Zoom screen, his operations team clearly start to fear that we're verging into potentially libellous territory. "I'm getting the evil eye," he says. "But I don't care. I'm never doing a partnership again." What follows is a blow-by-blow account of the fallout. It is – as his team predicted – too sensitive to detail here, although he is quick to absolve landlords the Cadogan Estate of any blame. "I just don't like snakes," he concludes. "It ended that badly that I will point blank never go into a partnership again."

Two years on from its closure, the scars may still hurt, but Handling is able to take positives from the experience. "The beginning was phenomenal, but I'm glad it ended the way it did because it allowed me to concentrate on my businesses. I took my team out of there, pushed them back into the Frog and the other restaurants, and it meant that as soon as lockdown ended, we were able to hit the ground running."

Handling credits his executive director Nicola Gartenberg, group chef Steven Kerr and restaurant director George Hersey for stepping in and rescuing the group, which was gradually able to claw back money thanks to the launch of food delivery service Hame. Its success meant that as lockdown ended the group was in a position to expand, coupling internal cash with bank loans to open pub and restaurant the Loch & the Tyne in Windsor and reopen Ugly Butterfly in Cornwall.

"The group has never been so financially stable [as it is] now," says Handling, who has plans afoot to expand the Frog brand. "We do have something in the pipeline. I can't say much now but it's very exciting. Something big – the biggest we've ever done."

Michelin star for Frog by Adam Handling

So far, his biggest opening of 2023 has been one that diners will never actually set foot into – a development centre in central London to serve the wellbeing and training of his staff. The four-floor building on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden has a space for training as well as a full kitchen with a family-style dining room for breakfast and dinner.

"Our staff do four-and-a-half days a week. The half day, they can pick whatever they want to do at the development centre. If they want to study to be a sommelier, the company puts them through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications. If they want to learn about cocktails, they can do that. And they can come in on their off days. We spent half a million pounds on it. I won't see the money back immediately, but the hope is that it keeps the staff so engaged that my return will be through the longevity of staff and saving on training new staff."

The easing of lockdown also saw Handling achieve one of his biggest ambitions – winning a Michelin star for Frog by Adam Handling in February 2022: "It was the most emotional video call I've ever had in my life.

I saw the director of Michelin on the other end and I didn't hear a word he said, I just bawled my eyes out. I was so happy."

But he doesn't want to stop there. "We want two stars next year. We've been planning what we're calling ‘the two-star refurb'. In January we refurbished the bar at Frog by Adam Handling and in a few more months we're doing all the kitchens. That should hopefully give the team the canvas to curate that two-star service and two-star food. The food is my fault. If I don't get it. It's 100%. I'm the only one to blame, not the team."

With a drive for more Michelin recognition on the cards, can viewers expect further headline-grabbing appearances on Great British Menu? "I'd love to go back, to be fair. I think I'm just a sucker for punishment. I recently saw this awards speech that Nicki Minaj did and I related to it so much. She said, ‘I want to thank all of my fans for supporting me and watching my music. But mostly I want to thank all the haters who listen to my music just so they can slag it off.' And I thought, that's fucking awesome because it's true!

"My lockdown experiences have relaxed me and not made me care so much about what people say. At the end of the day, as my operations team tell me: at least they are saying my name."

Adam Handling timeline

2006 Lands his first apprentice role at Gleneagles, Auchterarder

2012 Joins St Ermin's hotel, London, as head chef

2013 Becomes the youngest ever recipient of The Caterer's Acorn Award

2013 Enters MasterChef: The Professionals, finishing as runner-up

2014 Launches Adam Handling at Caxton at St Ermin's hotel

2014 Wins British Culinary Association Chef of the Year Award

2015 Wins Scottish Chef of the Year Award

2016 Leaves St Ermin's hotel and opens the Frog E1, London

2017 Opens coffee shop and deli Bean & Wheat on Liverpool Street, London

2016 First appearance on BBC's Great British Menu

2017 Opens Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden, London and the Eve bar

2018 Relocates the Frog E1 and Bean & Wheat to Hoxton and Opens Iron Stag bar also in Hoxton

2019 Opens Adam Handling Chelsea at the Cadogan, a Belmond hotel

2019 Opens zero-waste casual restaurant pop-up Ugly Butterfly in Chelsea, London

2020 Named Restaurateur of the Year in the British GQ Food and Drink Awards

2020 Is forced to close Frog Hoxton, Bean & Wheat, Ugly Butterfly in Chelsea and Adam Handling Chelsea due to the Covid-19 pandemic

2021 Opens pub with rooms the Loch & the Tyne in Windsor

2021 Moves Ugly Butterfly to St Ives, Cornwall

2021 Cooks for G7 world leaders during the G7 Summit 2021 in Cornwall

2022 Wins his first Michelin star at Frog by Adam Handling

2023 Is crowned Champion of Champions on series 18 of Great British Menu

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