Five minutes with Adam Handling

He’s the 2023 Great British Menu Champion of Champions, and owns three restaurants at just 34, including Michelin-starred Frog by Adam Handling in London and Cornwall’s Ugly Butterfly. So, what’s his secret? The chef talks to Kerry Fowler about his eyebrow-raising approach to workplace wellbeing – and why black pudding makes everything better.

Five minutes with Adam Handling

Great British Menu 2023 paid homage to British animation and illustration, in honour of Paddington Bear’s 65th birthday. Tell us about the inspiration for your winning dish…

My Food Fight dessert was inspired by the comics Beano and The Dandy, not by real life! If I had done that when I was a kid my dad would have given me a clip round the ear. I grew up in Dundee where the comics were created, and there is a statue of Desperate Dan in the city centre. There are pictures of me and my brothers and sisters climbing on top of him.

What are your early memories of food?

I was 18 the first time I ate out. My parents weren’t wealthy at all. Food was about nutrition, staying alive for tomorrow, not about enjoyment – we certainly didn’t go out to eat. The first time was special: I went to The Grill at The Dorchester in London with my girlfriend, me all suited and booted. It was awesome and I was so impressed by the huge Scottish murals on the walls.

Why did a career as a chef appeal to you?

I went into hospitality so I didn’t have to go to university. In Scotland university is free, and the idea in our family was that you got your degree, left Dundee and did something with your life. That avenue was embedded into me and my brothers and sisters, but I was the less bookish one and more on the creative side. I went down the apprenticeship route and ended up – this skinny little boy in his dad’s suit – arriving at the five-star hotel Gleneagles for my very first interview. It was held in the ballroom and I thought, “What the hell, do people live like this?” Everything was so beautiful. I was 15 years old and I got the job.

What did you want to achieve with your own restaurants?

When I was about 25, I went to a two-star restaurant in London. It was a treat. My girlfriend and I had saved our pennies to go. I don’t remember any of the food, but I do remember how I felt. I hated every moment. We were given the best table because I’d just won a Chef of the Year award, but I was made to feel so rubbish, like I didn’t fit in, because I wasn’t wearing the right clothes. From then the vision for my own restaurant became all about how it feels. The food brings people once, my name brings people once. But the service is everything.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Every restaurant has to do something the guests can’t do at home. When you provoke people’s imaginations, or thunder up some nostalgia, they invest in it a lot more. “That parfait tastes exactly like one my grandmother used to make…” Frog’s dishes in particular are very emotional. It’s about how I owe my career to my family, my team around me, so a lot of the dishes have stories around them. The story is the dish.

And how do you stay inspired?

I have no problem with self-motivation. When I am excited about something, I become a little bit obsessive. I want to know the history, where it comes from, everything about it. I am always curious.

Tell us about your interest in sustainability.

The amount of food waste in this country is a sick joke. But it’s all about educating people in an inspiring way. I love to work with charities such as The Felix Project, which promote that mentality – not “You’re doing it wrong”, but “This is what we could do to make things better”. The Ugly Butterfly is built on sustainability and zero waste; it means a lot to me.

Working in hospitality is notoriously demanding. What’s your approach to workplace wellbeing?

You can have the best staff but if they’re miserable, they will ruin your service. We have invested in a townhouse next to Frog with training rooms, development rooms, chill-out rooms and a staff restaurant, which only serves fried food once a week. We also subsidise gym membership, and give non-smokers or non-vapers an extra week’s holiday as an incentive to lead a healthy lifestyle. If you’re better in your mind and body, you work better. It’s all about endorphins.

What do you cook for yourself on a day off – or after a long shift?

I like one pot wonders and when I need a bit of a boost, I make my special soup: a heap of onions cooked down with garlic and ginger, followed by chicken stock and lentils. I chop in black pudding for iron and finish it with lots of lemon. It’s my healthy soup on steroids and it’s wonderful. I’m a white burgundy boy, and would serve the soup with that it if I had friends round and was prepared to share my pot of food. Otherwise, I make it a rule not to drink at home on my own.

What do you do to relax?

I box three times a week and go to the gym even more. That’s the extent of my unwinding. I’m married to the job – it’s the reason I’m single. My pleasure comes from working on the pass at Frog or Ugly Butterfly, watching all the people in the kitchen making wonderful dishes. They all have to make up a dish before service for the team to eat. It’s our final checkpoint and it inspires them to fight to make it their best. That’s why I do this job.

What does success mean to you?

When my guests leave with memories, it makes me the happiest man in the world. That and seeing my staff happy and my restaurants full!

Find out more about Adam’s restaurants at and follow him on Instagram @adamhandling

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