“People aren’t going into town anymore. People aren’t engaging in mindless consumption. People are spending more time in their neighbourhoods. There’s been an explosion of European-style, lazy, fun, promenading café culture – which I think is what so many of us have been wanting for”
Interviews with chefs tend to follow a well-trodden format. They’ll say something about their ‘passion’ for local ingredients. They’ll tell you something vague about their ‘philosophy’ for great food. At some point, they’ll namecheck Rene Redzepi.
Jackson Boxer, it is fair to say, does not have time for these kinds of blandishments. And Covid-19 has done precisely nothing to dampen his endlessly quotable ebullience about restaurants.
“I have never, ever found a period of work as rewarding as this,” he tells me from his home in Stockwell on a rare Monday afternoon off from working at his two all-but-ubiquitously acclaimed restaurants, Brunswick House Café in Vauxhall and Orasay in Notting Hill."
“The gratitude of people coming in to eat is unparalleled in my entire career. I think people adore being reminded of the joy of being cooked for by somebody who really cares – and how lucky we are to still have restaurants.”
Opened a decade ago, when Jackson was just 23, in the corner of a beautifully dilapidated, Georgian-era townhouse on Vauxhall roundabout, Brunswick House Café was, and continues to be, a genuine game-changer for the London restaurant scene creating dishes that balance the impressive act of being both comforting and innovating.
Dishes shimmy around notions that are both decadent and demure; from Tamworth duck and pistachio sausage rolls with plum ketchup, to roast Brixham hake with crookneck courgette and borlotti beans. It’s all unpretentious, modestly priced and, most importantly, hugely fun – helped, in part, by the room also being used by Lassco, purveyors of architectural antiques, salvage and curiosities. It means you could find yourself dining in close proximity to anything from a Beaux-Arts chandelier to a cast-iron Victorian radiator, beneath a ceiling full of chandeliers. Jackson hosted friend Florence Welch's birthday here in 2019 and Benedict Cumberbatch has also been known to pop by.
Orasay, on Notting Hill's Kensington Park Road, has an entirely different aesthetic but continues the culinary theme, with a stronger steer towards piscine pleasures. Named after the Hebridean island where Jackson would take summer vacations with his father as a child, the menu here is free of fuss and foam, with the main attractions allowed to sing freely in dishes such as roast cod, with courgette puree, peas and brown shrimp and (utterly sublime) Dorset clams, served with King oyster mushroom and burnt corn.
Jackson is following an impressive family culinary heritage. His grandmother is the esteemed cookery writer Arabella Boxer, his grandfather, Mark, edited Tatler, his father Charlie runs the wonderful Italo deli in Vauxhall and his brother runs the eternally-cool Franks Campari Bar on a carpark rooftop in Peckham.
Although Jackson didn’t follow the established path of chef apprentices – choosing to study English at Cambridge, instead – much of his culinary education took place within his own home with family friends including the likes of Mark Hix and St. John founder Fergus Henderson – whose children he would regularly babysit.
Operating a delivery service during lockdown which included sending meals to NHS workers in Lewisham and Paddington, Jackson admits that the task of cooking for key workers wasn’t entirely altruistic.
“I needed that ever-evolving sense of what people wanted,” he admits. “My greatest fear was that after reopening, I would completely lose my knack for imagining what people would be happy to eat. You’ve got to be constantly challenging your own expectations of what makes people happy.”
With both of his restaurants now open to the public again, Jackson is bullish when it comes to the question of how London restaurants can possibly survive in the present environment.
“The worst thing any restaurant could do is close right now. For me, the hardest thing to recover from is entire cessation. You must keep cooking,” Jackson insists, stating that if his restaurants were ever forced to close, he would immediately open a soup kitchen instead.
“Restaurants have got to make a strong case as to why people should keep using them at all. It’s more noticeable than ever now how elitist London is, what a lack of democratic free spaces we have and what role restaurants need to play in this conversation. Are restaurants just for one type of person? Morally, can we afford to base restaurants around one type of lifestyle or income category?”
These are challenging, and rarely heard, words from a pioneer in an industry full of chefs waiting for an opportunity to seal their financial futures by working for investment-led corporate restaurant groups.
Jackson fully admits that his current operating model is not sustainable (“we’re serving half the amount of customers with twice the amount of staff to clean up afterwards”) but believes that now is the time that we need to start asking ever more questions about the role restaurants can play in the ‘new normal’ London.
“The world has changed in distinct and indistinct ways. People’s lives have been upended and habits have changed. Leaving the office and going for a drink with your colleagues, going out for business lunches, going out from the office for an hour for a coffee. All the ways we relate to urban life through work have ceased to exist and may never return.”
Despite receiving numerous letters and e-mails from regulars at Orasay and Brunswick House stating that they wouldn’t be dining there again due to health concerns, Jackson is finding that the customers who are coming back have returned with a noticeably altered relationship with food post-lockdown.
“People are looking for a different emotional tone to their food,” he reveals. “People aren’t really looking to be overawed by sophisticated tasting menus right now. My guests do want to be reassured by food. But, counter intuitively, it doesn’t mean that we’re abandoning innovation completely. There’s still a gorgeous world of endless new frontiers and experiences out there but it is a balance.”
As we begin to skirt the issue of comfort food in all its contemporary guises, Jackson begins to bristle:
“Comfort food can be misleading as it’s not comforting if it isn’t cooked with care and love. There are so many restaurants serving burgers and mac and cheese in London but it’s often not comforting because it’s being prepared in a joyless place where nobody’s inspired and nobody cares enough to inject it with love.”
Cocking a snook at the endless array of chicken shacks and BBQ joints that appeared to be slowly drowning London in a sea of chipotle mayo and craft IPA pre-lockdown is one thing. But Jackson’s relentless positivity is never absent for long in conversation.
“I’m genuinely excited by the future of restaurants,” he enthuses. “People aren’t going into town anymore. People aren’t engaging in mindless consumption. People are spending more time in their neighbourhoods. I’m seeing that people are really using their local neighbourhood places a lot more. There’s been an explosion of European style, lazy, fun, promenading café culture – which I think is what so many of us have been wanting for – for years!”
Now 35, Boxer cheerfully admits that, even prior to lockdown, restaurants were “always a terrible way to make money”. Yet, his commitment endures, partly due to an absolute reticence to think much beyond the next few dinner services.
“The rapidity in which things are changing means that long term or medium term plans are foolish. I hate it when people ask me ‘where do you see yourself in six months’ time? I have no idea. It’s totally hubristic to think about long term planning. To do it is willing the God’s to defy you right now!”
With that, Jackson has to go to look after his three kids who happen to provide him with his all-time favourite food on a daily basis: “Leftover kids pasta, slightly dried out and chewy and leathery is the greatest. The tomato sauce is dry and becomes super concentrated. I then get a dribble of oil and some parmesan then cover it with chilli flakes and black pepper. I have terrible dreams afterwards but it’s worth it – this is still my favourite food in the world.”