We are all aware of the celebrity and TV chefs who receive all the attention of our media. For the most part, such recognition is thoroughly well deserved, but there are hundreds of extremely talented chefs working across the London restaurant scene, most of whom go unrecognised. Where I am able to do so, I want to draw your attention to these unsung heroes so you too can enjoy the fruits of their labours.
The Straight + Narrow Restaurant in Narrow Street, Limehouse, London E14 is a relatively new restaurant to East London and has already had an impact. Despite offering a short menu, any diner will find themselves too’ing and fro’ing between the dishes on offer. All are interesting and will challenge your tastebuds! From the first time I dined at the Straight + Narrow, I knew I had to get to know Chef responsible for my meal.
Dave Cousin is the Head Chef and allow me to introduce you to him.
Sitting down over a cup of coffee one morning, Dave and I were the only people in the restaurant. I wanted to chat about his food journey, his approach to food and where he sees the future. Our conversation started with an astonishing revelation – Dave has had no formal training as a chef! So how on earth did he rise to become a Head Chef?
While many young boys had a paper round to earn some pocket money, the early starts did not suit the young Master Cousin. Fortunately for him, his elder sister worked as a waitress at a local restaurant, La Forêt in Odiham, Hampshire and at the tender age of 14 Dave started work as a Kitchen Porter. Working in a confined space, he was literally rubbing shoulders with the chefs and in time he would find himself being asked to plate up a dish and then being asked to prepare a dish and so his food journey began.
Dave’s training in food has been entirely based on on-the-job practical training, which took him through restaurants, hotels and pubs, most notably the Apollo Hotel in Basingstoke, The Hampshire Arms in Crondall, Hampshire and The Compasses Inn in Tisbury, Wiltshire where he was Head Chef for eight years. Unsurprisingly then that some of the influences on Dave’s outlook on food are grounded in the traditional British pub. He is a fan of Tom Kerridge, but perhaps one of his biggest influences is the multi-award winning Paul Morgan from the Hampshire Arms who really instilled into Dave a passion for fine dining.
Dave has a simple and refreshing philosophy when it comes to food – use seasonal, British produce and “less is more”. His guiding principle is no more than four flavours on a plate and waste nothing. He talks about a “flavour train”, layering in and deepening flavours over time, for example, the gravies for Sunday lunch are started on Friday. When making a stock, use nothing that you would not eat. So you will never find carrot peelings in a stock at the Straight + Narrow! They make their own tomato ketchup, brown sauces and mustard – and the diners benefit as a result.
The calm before the storm
By this time, we had finished out coffee and moved into the Straight + Narrow’s small kitchen. We continued chatting as Dave got stuck into prep for that day’s evening service. This is “quiet time” at the S+N when Dave has the time to think and reflect on his menus and food in general. As Dave made bread, washed salad and broke down chickens our conversation ranged far and wide. As in most people who are passionate about their career, Dave is animated when he talks about food and how he gets inspired for recipes and menus.
His ideas come from from a variety of sources, be it eating out at other restaurants or reading the recipes of others (he likes Tom Sellers at Restaurant Story and Lee Westcott at The Typing Room). But perhaps his greatest inspiration comes from his team at the S+N. He has two full-time chefs (Sous Chef Jack and Chef de Partie Drew) and one part-time chef (Alfie) in his kitchen – and they all talk about food, bringing new and fresh ideas to the kitchen. Refreshingly, Dave is also happy to listen to his customers, there is none of the arrogance of the “Chef who knows best”. This is a man who is interested in the opinion of others, takes on board criticism and suggestions with grace and will do his best to accommodate his customers, particularly those with food intolerances or allergies.
At the age of 36 and having spent over 20 years in professional kitchens, I asked Dave where his ambitions for the future lie. “It’s simple”, he said, “I want to make this place (The Straight + Narrow) successful. I’ve got a modern kitchen with the latest equipment and we can do interesting things with food.” And speaking of interesting food, to close, I would point you to a special menu that the Straight + Narrow is offering in June. Participating in the Evening Standard’s London Food Month, Dave and his young team has designed a menu focussing on Childhood Memories – retro dishes with a modern twist (http://www.thestraightandnarrow.co.uk/evening-standard-london-food-month/). I have booked a table for this and I would encourage you to do the same.
My final question to Dave – “What would be your last meal?” His response – “LASAGNE!”
Mr Cousin has experience beyond his years and deserves all the support he is given. Check out his restaurant, book a table and you will be very pleasantly surprised.
Straight + Narrow
Address: Mosaic Building, 45 Narrow St, London E14 8DN