Five minutes with Farokh Talati
Head Chef at St. JOHN Bread and Wine, Farokh Talati is of Parsi heritage (a community of Zoroastrians that fled Persia in the 8th century to India). The food culture is a mix of Persian and Indian cooking, and Farokh hopes to open London’s first Parsi restaurant.
We caught up with Farokh to find out about what it’s like working at a legendary restaurant such as St. JOHN, and discover what advice he’d give a young person looking to start a career in the restaurant industry.
What’s your very first memory of food?
My mum making chapatis in the kitchen, I would go in there and watch her roll the dough, sometimes she would give me some of the dough to play with like playdough.
What’s the first recipe you properly learned to make?
Pancakes. We ate a lot of pancakes for a while. My mum said I used to bribe my sister with pancakes so that she would do my chores.
What do you like to do to relax?
Aimlessly wander through the streets of Soho, drinking coffee at Bar Italia and watch the world go by.
What’s the one dish you can’t live without?
What ingredient would you take to a desert island with you?
Basmati rice. I could eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
You can have a one-off dinner party on your island… who would you invite?
I’d get Ainsley Harriot to come do the cooking on the BBQ (the entertainment value alone would be through the roof). Elon Musk to talk about how we will all be living on Mars soon, Neil Young will be there with his acoustic guitar for the music. I’m also going to take creative licence here and say Anthony Bourdain will be showing us how to eat and drink with gusto. And dogs, lots and lots of dogs, namely Otto, Betty, Edith, Ziggy and Rascal – all good boys and girls welcome.
What has been the most formative experience of your career?
Probably my first 3 years starting off in the industry. I was fortunate enough to wrangle a job with Angela Hartnett where I had a crash course in cheffing. It was equal parts inspiring, gruelling, exhausting and fulfilling. In that first job I was lucky enough to have Gary Usher as my Sous Chef who taught me all the kitchen/life skills needed to make it in the industry. Fast forward 6 years and now Fergus and Trevor are teaching me what it takes to operate and run a restaurant with integrity and passion.
It’s 8pm, you’ve just got home. What are you rustling up for tea?
I’m home by 8? Lucky me! On a lazy day, I’ll buy a pizza from the shops, add my own toppings, red onion, anchovies, capers, some cheese from Neals Yard Dairy, loads of olive oil and thinly sliced garlic. On a more productive night I’d make a Parsi style curry with basmati rice.
Is there anything about the food industry that bugs you? We’d like to hear your thoughts…
Well there is much that I love about the industry, but there certainly are aspects that I struggle to get on with. Guests can put more value in the quality of the food, the provenance of the ingredients and the hype of the restaurant but not the well-being and treatment of the staff creating that food and service. It’s heart-breaking to see restaurants lauded in the press, all the while knowing what friends are going through behind the scenes in those kitchens. I think if you need to bully or abuse your staff to put food on a plate you may want to take a look at your business model and yourself.
Can you tell us a bit more about what it’s like working for such a historic restaurant in the British food scene?
I try not to indulge in those thoughts too much. There is much going on in the day-to-day of running a kitchen and focus must stay sharp. I can however say that working for Trevor and Fergus at St. JOHN Bread and Wine feels like I have arrived home after a long and, at times, fraught journey through the industry. Things just make sense in our kitchens. Much of chef’s folly which I have seen in my time is thrown out the window. Food is cooked with care and thought and nothing is wasted, from the leaves and stems of the beetroot to the nose to tail of the pig.
What is the current menu item you are most excited about?
My Sous Chef, Paris, put up a lovely dish of shaved raw summer squash with mint, spring onions and shaved Berkswell this week. I could eat that all day.
How is the restaurant coping with the cost of living crisis? How do you think it will affect you and your customers?
We are coping as well as we know how. St. JOHN has powered through a few recessions and a pandemic and will power through this period too. The price increases are being reflected on the menu and it has been interesting to see how our guests react to that, the majority are clued up and are very understanding. With wage increases, prices of ingredients going up week by week and the increase in energy costs, it’s a challenging time in the industry (and many others too I imagine).
Do you have any aspirations and dreams you’ve yet to fulfil?
Yes, to open London’s first Parsi restaurant. I am a Parsi (a community of Zoroastrians that fled Persia in the 8th century to India). The food culture is amazing and the mix of Persian and Indian cooking is very unique. Parsi food uses much meat and offal with spices, saffron, dried fruits, coconuts and rice just to name a few typical ingredients. I can’t wait to bring Parsi food to the minds and mouths of the masses.
What advice would you give a young person trying to start out a career in food?
Say yes to every positive opportunity, even if it means working for free, or on your day off – if you don’t, you might have to work harder that week. Opportunities lead on to the next thing, be it a connection in the industry, learning a new skill or a new job.
Come to work with an open and flexible mind and always with a pen and notebook in your back pocket. Recipes, techniques and advice are invaluable, and will allow you to progress to the next level. Know that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and it’s great to learn them all and find the one that works best for you. With the fast-paced learning that goes on in kitchens, it’s far too easy to forget things. Write everything down and refer to your notes at least once a week. I have note books spanning back 15 years, and I still keep one to this day because you never know what you might learn today.
To book a table at St. JOHN Bread and Wine, head here.
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