by Emily Millett
Infamous in some circles for bland curries, mushy peas and cardboard steaks, the Brits are currently in the midst of a culinary revolution. Helping the nation shake off its bad gastro reputation are epicurean innovators like chef James Ferguson and restaurant owner Kieran Clancy—two of the creative minds heading up the team at Beagle in Hoxton. We visited recently to see for ourselves how great style, taste and a passion for quality food is proving to be a recipe for success.
Since opening in March, Beagle has enjoyed considerable recognition, what do you think sets you apart from the competition?
Kieran: I think the most unique thing about Beagle is the site itself. We're based in three Victorian railway arches and they are truly stunning. It's not often that you get to eat great food in a genuine industrial space that is also architecturally beautiful.
What is the philosophy and inspiration behind the dishes at Beagle? What can diners expect to find on the menu right now?
Kieran: The aim is to deliver simple cooking, with a focus on fantastic produce and seasonal dishes. There are some very classic dishes but James—who has full control over the menu—also injects his own innovation. People keep talking about how our menu is broadly British, but actually there is also a very strong Mediterranean theme running through a lot of the food, probably because James grew up cooking in his parents' Greek restaurant.
James: Our menu changes daily, but I'm using a lot of octopus right now—I like the way it looks on a plate and its texture when eaten. Fresh English peas are delicious at the moment as well. English goat kid is another one of my favorite things to cook. The meat is sustainable and can only be free range. We buy ours whole from a company called Cabrito. It comes straight from the farm and tastes delicious.
What are your favorite dishes on your menu at the moment?
Kieran: I love all of James' fresh pasta. He is doing meatballs, tomato and scamorza tagliolini at the moment and it is proper comfort food. There isn't enough decent fresh pasta in London. He also does some incredible octopus off the wood grill, and his terrines are becoming legendary—currently it's ham hock and pigeon.
James, have you always wanted to be a chef?
James: No. Despite growing up in a Mediterranean restaurant and always having a passion for cooking, I actually trained as a classical pianist. It was only when I reached 22 that I realised I could make a career out of doing something I already enjoyed.
You already have an impressive background having worked at The Connaught, French fine dining establishment L'Escargot and experimental British lunch hot spot Rochelle Canteen. How did these experiences shape the chef you are now?
James: Each restaurant had a different impact on my cooking technique. The Connaught was my first job in London. It was here that—working alongside Angela Hartnett—I trained in fine dining and learned the pressures of working in a kitchen with a reputation. L'Escargot was the first time I worked in a restaurant that was exclusively classical French cuisine. I worked as a sous chef for Warren Geraghty. It was a high pressure environment, which I thrive on. When I left L'Escargot, I felt I wanted to try something different. Rochelle Canteen was the opposite of fine dining. Margot Henderson gave me a free reign in the kitchen—it was here that I was able to experiment with cooking simple, pared back food.
What else has influenced your personal cooking style?
James: I have always been influenced by restaurants like St. John, as well as the Greek style of cooking I grew up with. My Greek grandmother has influenced my cooking style more than anyone. She comes from a poor family in Athens and was one of three sisters, all of whom were amazing cooks. Some of the dishes that are on my menus today are taken straight from my grandmother’s kitchen table. Her lemon potatoes are still something that I enjoy cooking.
How would you describe your signature as a chef and how do you keep evolving?
James: That is hard to answer. I would describe my style of cooking as accessible. It is simple and pared back, which is a reflection of the design of Beagle. I encourage my chefs to take responsibility for their role and the need to adapt is important; it definitely requires focus and passion. Even at home I'm always cooking. I cook for my housemates—it's the best way to grow and try out new recipes.
Kieran, you are also involved in the music and entertainment scene in London as one of the co-founders of Krankbrother. How much do these other passions influence Beagle?
Kieran: One of the reasons that we found the arches was because we were constantly looking for sites to host our music events. There is also a strong musical ethos at Beagle; we've leaned on lots of DJs and collated all our own records to create an enormous playlist of funk, rockabilly, psyche, world music and more.
You've been dubbed "destauranteurs" for your role in helping to shift London’s dining scene toward a rise in "all night dining, drinking and music destinations." What culinary movements are happening now that excite you?
Kieran: I'm hoping the American junk food trend in London will die out soon as I really don't have much time for it. There are restaurateurs doing really interesting things here, but what I think is most exciting right now is the amount of mid-range or reasonably priced restaurants available in London. We're catching up with New York in that sense. I think the entire dining scene has been democratized, which is fantastic.
Images courtesy of Beagle