Hi Tony, it’s great to have you taking part of The Pass’ exclusive Chef’s Q&A series. Tell us about your journey as a chef so far..
Thanks for having me. Mine is an unusual journey. Having appeared on MasterChef back in 2015, I took the opportunity to step away from my career in architecture and recruitment and don chef’s whites.
Being a few years senior of the commis chefs working the circuit, I decided to go out on my own and establish a private dining business which I ran for three years. During this time I cooked for some amazing clients in their homes and developed my own cooking style and repertoire of dishes.
I also spent this time cooking on and hosting food festival stages and demonstrations at markets.
I absolutely loved the private dining scene, however, spending long days preparing a menu on my own and loading crates of plates into and out of my truck was taking a toll, and I decided it was time to find a permanent location.
My wife and I are very fortunate to live in a lovely village in South East London that was screaming out for a good restaurant, and as such we went into the market for a property.
Having found the perfect site, we started the process of raising capital and building a team.
Our first point of call was previous MasterChef contestant Rob Parks, who joined me in the kitchen.
Rob and I are the creative minds behind the food at the restaurant and are seen behind the stoves most nights.
Two years on and the restaurant is going from strength to strength.
We’re looking at expanding into a second site and I’m continuing working with food festivals, awards and markets to push our brand.
Where did you get the inspiration to found Copper and Ink?
When I think about what I like about a good restaurant, it starts with the food.
The food has to be tasty, creative and ideally seasonal.
This much, so many restaurants get right. Then it’s the atmosphere.
Far too often, my wife and I found we’d enjoy a great meal out, but the service and atmosphere had let us down.
The high end restaurants were stuffy and cold and because we might not look like your traditional diner, we would get treated like second rate guests.
We decided that we wanted to challenge that situation.
Opening a restaurant in Blackheath meant we would be feeding local residents.
People that have come to be our friends.
These guests needed to have the best service. I’m not talking about someone to lift a cloche and pour on a jus, but someone who could talk to them personably, be warm and friendly, and who would be accepting of them, whoever they are.
The food would follow.
It would be seasonal, locally sourced (we use a butchers opposite the restaurant for all our meat and list our suppliers on the menus) and full of flavor.
It was important to me to run the restaurant as I would want any business run.
We try to treat all our staff fairly and better than elsewhere.
We give chefs an opportunity to be creative and design dishes, whilst front of house can input into the drinks menu and service standards.
We don’t scream and shout and are supportive.
I think this comes across in our food and service and has meant we still have a number of staff who have been with us since day one.
And where do you get the inspiration to your creativeness as a chef?
I’ve been fortunate to be able to eat in many lovely restaurant in my previous career and I take most inspiration from those meals. Looking at presentation, flavor combinations and technique.
I also love a good cookbook.
Between us, my wife and I must have at least 400 books on our shelves in the dining room and these are an endless source of inspiration. Instagram is great for plating techniques and I truly believe that working with other chefs is the best way to learn and develop.
Although Rob and I have final say on the menu at the restaurant, all the chefs have an opportunity to present an idea and this introduces new ingredients, cuisines and styles.
Who or what has influenced your cooking the most?
Family has to be the biggest influence for me, at least getting me into cooking. Growing up in a Greek-Cypriot family, food was about bringing people together and conversation.
Without that upbringing, I would have the love for food that I now do.
As a chef I’m influenced by everyone I meet, but working with a local chef, Guy Awford, I was taught to think more about seasonality and provenance. It’s really shaped the way I approach food.
It’s key to think about what ingredients are best and also who will be eating them.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?
The work is tough.
Its long hours and hot kitchens, but the work is really rewarding.
If you don’t love the work with every bone in your body, it’s not the job for you.
Learn something new every day and keep pushing yourself.
That’s how you’ll make it worthwhile.
At the start of your career, expose yourself to a range of cuisines and chefs to see what you enjoy doing and ask questions, lots of questions.
Where would you take your out of town guests for a memorable dinner?
Becky and I were really fortunate to have enjoyed a meal at Restaurant Hjem the week before lockdown and it has to be one of the best experienced of my life.
Ally provides some of the nicest, most relaxed service in the industry and Alex cooks food that quite literally brought tears to my eyes.
It was a 660 mile round trip, but one I would love to share with a friend.
If, however, you’re coming into London from out of town, we’re heading to Chez Elles Bistro on Brick Lane.
In among the curry houses and convenience stores sits this gem of a French bistro.
The food is unashamedly French, the wine equally so, and the service warm and coated in red lipstick.
It’s a favorite of mine for classic food cooked well and served with panache.
Which single item of kitchen equipment could you not live without?
This is a question that comes up in our kitchen regularly along with your top 5 fruits, and whether you’d rather lose your left arm or right leg.
Any chef who doesn’t list his/her knife up there needs talking to.
I use my knives constantly throughout the day, from prepping veg and filleting fish to slicing the meat that’s about to go on your plate.
I love a blender as much as the next chef and my passion for induction cooking is up there, but without a knife, I wouldn’t be able to consider reaching for the next bit of kit.
What are you most excited about right now in the food scene?
I think I’m most excited about change.
Without getting bogged down in the depressing reality of Coronavirus, the pandemic has forced all chefs and restauranteurs to adapt and evolve.
It’s also given us all an opportunity to address the issues we’ve faced over the past year as a collective.
No-shows, which have plagued us all, are now more dangerous than ever but the industry seems to be tackling it as one.
Restaurants are sadly shutting their doors, but their chefs are finding innovative ways to bring their food to the public and that is really exciting to me.
Tomas Lidakevicius, of City Social and Peninsular, has brought his stunning dishes to Borough Market in partnership with Turnips and I’m so excited to experience his food in that setting.
These are cool times!
What’s your go-to ingredient?
Because we change our menu monthly, I tend not to have one go-to ingredient, but instead play with what is at its best at the time.
Herbs and spices always feature and I’d struggle without onions and garlic. Butter is massive in our kitchen but as we try to keep things accessible, we always feature dairy free and vegan dishes on the menu.
Which seasonings do you think are underrated and how would you use them in your day-to-day cooking?
Dill and tarragon are such stunning herbs and don’t get used enough in my opinion.
When speaking to Becky about next month’s menu, I stated “I want a dish on that is built around dill”. I love it! Whether it’s a garnish, oil, used in a cure or chopped into a filling, I think it’s stunning.
Your favourite 5 minute meal..
I know, it can be a bit boring, but a good salad is amazing.
When you’re eating quickly and running around a salad can be filling but also light enough not to slow you down.
I love offal so some flash fried chicken liver. I also love acid so some quick pickled beetroots.
Throw those into a salad and dress it gently and you have a lovely thing.
Tell us one funny moment related to your career as a chef..
I spent a number of years cooking on stage at food festivals and was often asked to demonstrate chocolate work, something I was known for on MasterChef.
One particularly hot summer I’m stood in a 35 degree tent cooking for an audience of about 200.
Do you think I could get the chocolate to play ball? Of course not!
Did the audience have a laugh at my expense? Absolutely!
But it’s all good fun and as I always say, if things don’t work out the first time, try again, if they still fail, call a takeaway.
Food should be fun, not stressful.
Later that day I was backstage talking to Mark Tilling, master chocolatier and winner of Bake of Crème de la Crème.
He told me her was baking a cake, because doing anything with chocolate in that tent was a recipe for disaster.
He’s a sensible man.
Fill in the blank: If I weren’t chef , I’d be…..
“Rested”. I love my job but I put my heart and soul into it.
If I’m not in the kitchen I’m thinking about food.
My days off are spent designing new dishes, judging food, cooking on stage and talking food.
When I’m lucky enough to find a free evening I’m hunting for a restaurant to try. I am exhausted, but I’m also very satisfied!