The couple behind Sheffield restaurant sensation Jöro, Luke and Stacey French, have just announced plans for a gastro-hotel that will cement their reputation as the food power-duo of the North. Rosalind Mullen caught up with the innovative restaurateurs.
Chef Luke French and his wife and business director Stacey are not letting a mere global pandemic curb their ambitions. With their 40-seat restaurant Jöro forced to close for the three lockdowns, the Sheffield-based couple have used their time to think and plan. Or, as Luke describes it, "to chip away".
"We've been working on a few concepts; developing stuff," he adds. That is an understatement.
Not content with running the acclaimed restaurant and spin-off street food outlet Konjö, they have just signed a local deal on a gastro-hotel called House of Jöro; are opening Nama, a sushi and sashimi counter in Liverpool, and will also expand their street food concept there; they have launched a nationwide Sunday Lunch box with the rapper Professor Green; and they have replaced their three-course, locally delivered meal kit with a barbecue box in time for relaxed lockdown rules around people mixing outside.
The couple, who met while working at the Milestone Group (see below), have been on the culinary radar since 2016 when they opened Jöro, Sheffield's first-ever Michelin Bib restaurant, following the success of their eponymous pop-up. Luke's cooking – informed by classic training and ancient culinary principles from Japan to Norway – quickly attracted rave reviews, such as: "Some dishes are merely good – others are downright extraordinary," from The Guardian, and the rather alarming: "A cracking restaurant. I would probably strangle my firstborn to eat the duck again" from the Financial Times.
There are two tasting menus – five courses at lunch and eight at dinner – and dishes might include the likes of barbecued hand-dived Orkney scallop in beef fat and scallop dashi, and squash and tartare of Scottish wagyu with gherkin ketchup and pommes frites.
"We get bored easily, so we keep the menu evolving and moving quickly," says Luke. Most years, Jöro is usually booked up to 12 weeks in advance. "We were at our most successful point before coronavirus struck," says Stacey.
The hip venue is in Krynkl, a business, restaurant and retail hub created from upcycled shipping containers in an area dubbed the Shoreditch of Sheffield. It was the scheme's architect-developer David Cross, founder of Coda Studios, who brought the pair in, having seen the success of their pop-up.
"They loved what we do," says Stacey. "David said: ‘We want to put you into this shipping container building that we are creating'… at that point, we couldn't visualise it."
But they signed up, with Cross investing in building and fitting out the restaurant, and the couple buying equipment and furnishings. The initial five-year contract is a capital exchange deal whereby the initial investment into the build is exchanged for an agreed contractual lease term of the premises.
"We did it on shoestring budget. It would have been unfeasible without [their support]," says Luke.
Thanks to this relationship, the couple are now opening a gastro-hotel called House of Jöro in June, which will showcase Luke's cooking. Located in a £10m mixed-use development at Palatine Gardens, completed by David Cross's company Coda Planning, the hotel comprises four en suite bedrooms with the deal again based on a five-year rent repayment contract.
"It will be an extension to Jöro – it's a five-minute walk," says Stacey. "We could have paid ourselves, but we decided [the deal] worked well last time and now [with Covid] we're glad we didn't outlay cash."
Its USP is a communal space with a 10-seat dining table and kitchen. The vision is that, at weekends, the bedrooms will be booked by small groups and Luke or high-profile guest chefs will cook a bespoke tasting menu. During the week, it will be available as a private dining space – meeting demand from corporate customers – and there will also be a midweek package for individuals or groups, with dinner at Jöro and a night at the hotel.
Ideal for foodie staycations, a weekday package for an eight-course tasting dinner for two at Jöro and overnight stay will be £265, which Stacey says is low- to mid-range on the overnight stay for the city and will include breakfast hampers.
The weekend rate is based on a bespoke package for four couples and will start at £1,100 per group, including drinks.
"I don't think you can find anything like this in Yorkshire – a chef and a private space. People are open to that now," says Stacey.
I don't think you can find anything like this in Yorkshire – a chef and a private space. People are open to that now
Luke's style of cooking seems to be driving the expansion. His cuisine is partly informed by his year-long travels around India and south-east Asia. "I would ask if I could mess around on their food stall or kitchen and learn to cook – call it a stage if you will, but I just knocked on back doors," he says. "I always loved the flavours and I've always loved Japanese and Korean food, but spending time there sealed the deal."
This love of quality street food spawned Konjö, which the couple opened in 2019 in nearby food hall the Cutlery Works. Stacey had recently left her full-time job as operations manager and they felt they needed to push themselves more – and give each other space.
It might be street food, but the ingredients are sourced from the same suppliers as Jöro and are cooked over Japanese Konro barbecues using binchotan, a smokeless Japanese charcoal brick from oak. As well as yakitori sticks, popular dishes include crispy shredded chilli wagyu beef and sticky rice (£8.75), filled bao buns (£8.50) and what Luke describe as "wicked fermented vegetable dishes".
"There were a few who thought it was expensive, but it isn't for the produce we are using and, similar to Jöro, after a few months, some start to appreciate that," says Stacey.
It's run by a team of five, all of whom have worked at Jöro, and has attracted a new customer base. With 12 food vendors the food hall offers choice and space for groups and attracts heavy night trade. Although usually open five days a week, Konjö has provided a takeaway service during lockdown from Thursday to Saturday.
The concept has worked so well that the couple plan to open a second at GPO food hall in Liverpool's MetQuarter, with Konjö's kitchen manager, who started as sous chef at Jöro, becoming brand manager.
Luke and Stacey reckon it's just the beginning. "Konjö is a good brand to pick up and drop wherever. We'll continue to replicate that brand. We've got ideas beyond Liverpool and are looking at other cities," says Stacey, who adds that they will be funding new street food projects themselves.
They point out that food halls are a good entry route for start-up businesses as set-up costs are low and they can test their concept before investing in bricks and mortar. "There are far better opportunities now to get yourselves out there than when we started," says Stacey. "It is [also] a good opportunity if anyone has lost anything during the past 12 months – it's good way to get back into the business."
As well as staple Konjö fare, they'll introduce new dishes to the Liverpool site to test the water, liaising with British fishermen who will send their best catch of the day – sustainably and responsibly sourced. The chefs will then cook whole fish and vegetables over the fire.
Luke adds: "There will also be hand-dived scallops from Orkney, served with broths and puffed grains and seaweed, so there are a few things that we are introducing that are not strictly Asian street food, but there will be heavy Asian influences and ingredients."
Before then, however, in late May, the pair will unveil a new concept called Nama (meaning raw) at the Liverpool GPO, which will have higher price points and only open at weekends. This Tokyo izakaya-inspired kitchen counter will major on premium, sustainably and responsibly sourced sashimi-grade fish and nigiri. Launch dishes include Cornish sea bass with truffle yuzu and soy; temaki (open hand rolls) with Sicilian red prawn, katsu furikake and soy; tartare of wagyu smoked à la minute with caviar wasabi and ponzu; and seaweed Caesar salad.
April has been busy. As well as launching barbecue boxes online to replace the meal kits, the couple have also been collaborating with rapper Professor Green to create a Sunday roast meal kit, which launches in partnership with national delivery platform Finish & Feast this month.
"Professor Green and myself are friends and share a passion for food," says Luke. "He loves a Sunday roast and we both love music. Further down the line we're working on combining the two and using it as a platform to do some events."
The pricing will be similar to pubs and Luke says the ingredients will be good quality to ensure they taste as good when reheated. "We've done most of the work. You receive it on a Saturday, pop it in the fridge, wake up Sunday, turn the oven on and get it all cooked within 40 minutes. It's a no-stress, epic Sunday lunch."
With no outdoor space, the couple can't open the doors at Jöro until 17 May, but the couple are upbeat. "In the first couple of months, we worried and took a step back. After that point, we tried to remain positive and focus on new projects and look at what we already do. We'll never get that time again – it's good to take a step back. It will take time [to recover] but everyone wants to eat out and socialise," says Stacey.
Luke has yet another project in the pipeline – a rooftop fine-dining restaurant, terrace and bar set to open at Sheffield's Cambridge Street Collective. "We're working with Sheffield City Council as part of a new retail and hospitality complex that is due for completion in autumn next year. It will be a similar size to Jöro – but we're not confirming the concept just yet…"
So, as they say, watch this space.
Luke's love of cooking began aged 14, when he started as a kitchen porter at the White Pheasant in Fordham, Cambridgeshire. Since then, he's honed his skills on the job. "I went to Cambridge Regional College for a fortnight and didn't gel with it," he says. "It didn't suit my way of working. I'm more practical."
Instead, the White Pheasant supported him to gain a level three apprenticeship in hospitality and catering. From there, he moved on to work at establishments such as Michelin-starred Alimentum (now closed) in Cambridge, followed by a stage at the Fat Duck in Bray and a year expanding his knowledge of food while travelling around Asia.
On his return, he became head chef at the White Pheasant before moving to Sheffield to join the Milestone Group, progressing to executive head chef. It was during his time at Milestone that he met Stacey, who was operations manager. She had also worked in hospitality from the age of 14, trained by her mother who was a hotel manager. Later, while studying for a law degree at Sheffield Hallam University, she worked in restaurants part-time. "I fell in love with it. I started moving up the managerial ladder, took opportunities and didn't look back," she says.
Snapshot of Jöro
Jöro has come a long way since it opened in 2016 with a team of five – there are now 25 staff to prepare and serve the five-course lunch tasting menu and eight-course dinner menu.
It took nearly a year to get business going, but they toughed it out, with Stacey also holding down her day job as operations manager at Milestone Group to provide a much-needed salary.
"Some nights there was no one – it was worrying. Then we had a couple of good local reviews, then national press reviews and a couple of awards and then Twitter started, so it was word of mouth and it took off."
As well as the Bib Gourmand, Jöro's awards include three AA rosettes and a score of five in The Good Food Guide.
"When we opened Jöro, we didn't anticipate it becoming what it became," says Stacey. "At that time there were no tasting menus in Sheffield and we weren't sure if it would go down well, so we didn't go into that full on. But after nine months it was apparent that the tasting menu was going well. Now, we're at the point that it is just tasting menus."
Luke adds: "We took a big risk. When the locals found out about our food and the ingredients they said ‘you're mental', but we stuck to our guns."
We took a big risk. When the locals found out about our food and the ingredients they said ‘you're mental', but we stuck to our guns
In line with the local demography they maintain sensible pricing. The lunch tasting menu is £35 and wine pairings are £30, while the dinner tasting menu is £65 and wine pairings are £55.
There is a two-seat chefs' bench where guests can get close to the action, but Stacey stresses the restaurant is not pretentious. "We create an experience," she says. "There's no dress-code and we play loud music. It doesn't work for some – but we're creating a different atmosphere where you can relax. We create a conversation to find out what guests like or don't like."
Luke says he's not inspired by any chef in particular: "I'm inspired by everyone. With social media and Instagram you're constantly seeing things done in a different way. We see things that are cool and try them."
In the early days, however, he took notes from American chef Matt Orlando of Amass and René Redzepi of Noma, both in Copenhagen. "René has inspired so many. He's changed the way we think about food, with wild food, fermentation and waste," he says.
Fermenting foraged foods is now one of Luke's passions, having learned "through trial and error".
"It eliminates waste and is a good constant project for the team," says Luke. "For example, we turn fruit tree blossom into vinegars and syrups. We've always got things bubbling around the place."
Portrait photography: Zachary Turner. Food photography: Tom Kahler
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