Let's Eat

New faces, new food challenges for 2016


Zest at JW3 is the only kosher restaurant in London we can be proud of.

The Sephardi-influenced menu has won critical acclaim and been nominated for not one but two Tatler restaurant awards.

Last month, Eran Tibi, the only remaining member of the opening team, departed. He and former co-head chef, Josh Katz - both freelance chefs - were contracted to work on this project, so this was always a possibility.

With him, Tibi took charismatic front-of-house manager, Tomer Amar. Also gone is Davina Sasha - Zest's hospitality manager.

In their place are two new faces: head chef, Dan Burrell, and general manager, Joshua Owens-Baigler, both not Jewish. So is the golden era set to end and how did two non-Jewish boys end up heading up the best kosher restaurant in London?

Burrell was no rookie in the Zest kitchen: "I went in last January as an agency chef. Working within strict kosher rules was of course daunting as I had no direct experience with it but I learned quickly with training and with my own research, and soon started to really enjoy the style of cooking."

When Tibi left, Burrell, from Devon, who had quickly moved up the kitchen ranks, was thought to be the best man for the job. His experience is varied, from the gastro pubs to hotel kitchens, but predominately in fine dining.

Tibi had set up all the necessary kosher suppliers and trained Burrell in the dietary rules.

Burrell says he has enjoyed the challenge presented by kosher cooking: "I've been experimenting with fish gelatine, seaweed gelatine and even one made from chickpeas.

"We do have to be very organised - if we forget to order something we can't just run out to Sainsbury's to pick it up," laughs Owens-Baigler.

What was a shock was the price of kosher dairy ingredients. "Crème fraîche is about £6 a tub - we've had to take cheesecake off the menu in the café as it costs us so much to make. We would need to retail them at £9 a slice which was crazy; and we have to be more careful with things like cappuccinos which are more expensive to produce."

Burrell's plans include upgrading the presentation of the Mediterranean influenced food. "As I'm more classically trained, I'm hoping to use that and create a Sephardi/classic modern fusion. There's no reason for the food to be plain simple kosher food. I'd like to introduce some plated starters as well as a mezze option."

Owens-Baigler, who took over the front-of-house role five months ago, is quick to add that the formal plating style will not affect the service: "We'll keep the relaxed Zest service so that it still feels accessible." For him, working at Zest has been nostalgic. "My grandparents on my father's side were Jewish and kept kosher, but my father was not observant. Once his parents died he relaxed even further. I sadly lost all the heritage as he died when I was 18. I have found working here a revisiting and quite a comforting thing."

His surname double barrels his Scouse mother and Jewish father's surnames: "I have had people see my surname and come up to talk to me - it's a return to a community I thought I'd lost."

He has worked in some of London's most fashionable eateries, including the River Café, Boca di Lupo and Hix and has found the diners at Zest keen to share their views.

"There is far more customer engagement here. I receive 25 to 40 letters a month from guests - in previous restaurants I may have received one a week. I think it's because our guests really want Zest to do well so they provide plenty of feedback."

Both young men - neither have left their twenties - feel they have plenty to bring to this niche eaterie. Recognising the kosher eating-out crowd is limited in numbers, Owens-Baigler knows his challenge is twofold - to meet the needs of their current regulars and also attract in a more mainstream crowd.

"Our backgrounds mean we have a wide network, so we can create collaborations like December's one with south London Italian restaurant, Artusi, which Boca di Lupo promoted for us - allowing us to introduce a new clientele.

"The majority of our customers are moderately religious, keep kosher and have only about 10 restaurants to go to. If the menu changes only once a quarter, they will never visit us regularly - why come back weekly if the menu is small and doesn't change often? So now we change the lunch menu regularly and keep it very seasonal," says Owens-Baigler.

They are still getting to know and understand their current audience, which means some initiatives may need tweaking.

The "bottomless brunch" - a concept fashionable in several London eateries - offers diners limitless drinks with their Sunday brunch. At Zest, guests can opt for one of three menu choices, giving them unlimited drinks at three different price points - either coffee and juices or cocktails or Pommery Champagne - with their food.

"We tried it for the first few weeks with just free drinks but many of the diners said they didn't want the free drinks and were asking to pay less," Owens-Baigler laughs. "So we introduced free food as well, but within a 90-minute window for each table and that has been successful."

The kosher obligations will always make working different. "It can feel very exclusive at times. I spend hours educating myself in and ensuring kashrut compliance but then cannot serve non-mevushal wine to an Orthodox customer. I understand that, but it is a challenge. Having said that, everyone has been very welcoming and supportive and welcomed us as non-Jews."

Burrell adds: "Everything about the restaurant is different but I admire the great sense of community and family here. I've gained a much broader understanding of Judaism - any religion that celebrates food so widely will always impress me!"

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