Saturday, 23 January 2010

Under the skin of St John Bread & Wine

Regular readers will already know I'm a huge fan of St John and it's sister restaurant Bread & Wine. Having recently met Bread & Wine head chef, James Lowe, I felt compelled to find out more... Their excellent bacon sandwiches had whet my appetite, but in reality they don't even scratch the surface of this modern British institution. 

Having just completed a week-long stage working at Bread & Wine, I've certainly had chance to experience their nose to tail philosophy first hand. Even speaking as a certified carnivore, however, some of the tasks I undertook were definitely not for the faint hearted.

Much of my time was spent downstairs in the prep kitchen, a clinical, windowless, fluoro-lit basement – all white tiles and stainless steel – where the only sound is the humming of the fridges, the the whirring of thermo-mixers, and the regular grating rasp of hack saw blade on animal bone.

Whilst dishes are finished upstairs in the open kitchen, in full view of the restaurant, it's downstairs where the bulk of the work takes place. I was lucky enough to get my hands dirty with plenty of meaty tasks; prepping chicken gizzards, pheasant hearts and mallard legs for confit; breaking down a whole side of mutton into roasting and braising joints; boning out pork shoulders; making 'blood cake', the St John take on black pudding, served with duck eggs or bacon; braising and slicing pigs ears, which are then deep fried and tossed with dandelion and rocket leaves; and playing my part in the making of a bona fide St John classic, ox heart (above) with watercress and pickled walnuts. The huge hearts first have to be trimmed of the fat, sinew, fibres and capillaries, before being sliced so finely, that on a few occasions I came extremely close to making sashimi out of my fingers. The slices are then marinated over night in garlic, thyme, olive oil and pickled walnut vinegar, before being grilled for a matter of seconds over white-hot coals. Finally, they're tossed with watercress leaves and finely chopped pickled walnut pieces and served up to the hoards of salivating offalite diners. The preparation is long and quite laborious, but the end result is utterly delightful.

This method of using cheap or irregular cuts and ingredients, which are subsequently transformed over long periods of relatively labour intensive preparation, seems to be almost universally replicated throughout the menu. Many dishes take 48 hours or more to prepare. First jointing, filleting, boning and trimming. Then salting overnight or brining for days. Then braising or confit-ing for anything up to eight hours. Finally dishes are assembled and finished over the grill, in a gravy, or by pan frying. Almost every single dish on the menu contains at least some components that are cooked in the low oven, permanently set to 110 degrees, for many hours at a time. “Slow and low, man,” as the other stage chef said to me on day one, in his West Coast American drawl, “it's the St John way”.

Faggots, made from rare-breed Middlewhite pork. The key to the flavour is in the ratio of offal to meat to back fat, balanced with a subtle blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

Mallard: Crown for roasting, hearts & lungs for pan frying, legs for confit... One bird, three methods.

Oven ready squirrels, which will be braised, picked, and served in a broth with white beans. Guess what... They taste a bit like chicken.

It wasn't an entirely carnivorous week, however. I made piccalilli, swede cake, pickled cucumber, fennel soup, turnip puree, horseradish sauce and their incredible tomato ketchup, the recipe for which I may or may not divulge on these pages sometime soon. Aside from that, there was always veg to prepare, and I lost count of the number of bucket loads of onions I chopped over the week – a task that is obviously de rigour for the new boy in any kitchen.

But it wouldn't have been St John if I'd not come face to face with a decapitated pig or three. At Bread & Wine pigs heads are skinned, braised in pig stock (always pig stock, never ham or pork stock), then rolled, sliced into discs, bread crumbed (or painĂ©ed) then deep fried. Alternatively, the cheeks are removed after braising, along with the adjoining cushion of fat, before being pan fried and served with a salad of chicory, roast red onion and capers dressed in a lip-smacking, mustardy vinaigrette. Very rich, but again, delicious.

I'd be lying if said I didn't get a kick out of the preparation... There's just nothing quite like slicing a dead animal's face of before breakfast. As we set about our task on the morning of day three, the softly-spoken soux chef turned to me, pig's head in one hand, butchers knife in the other, and said “the ears I don't mind, the snout I don't mind, the tongue I don't mind... It's those blue eyes I can't handle. They get me every time.” I look across as he makes the first incision, a macabre grin spreading across his face.

If you're squeamish, you should probably look away now.



So the nose to tail philosophy is no myth - almost nothing on any animal goes to waste. If the offal and off cuts aren't brined or confit-ed they're used in salads, stocks or soups. Butchery is a very important part of life in the kitchen at St John Bread & Wine. Not only is a whole carcass more cost efficient than buying in four legs or shoulders, it also means the chefs can keep a closer eye on the quality and provenance of the meat, and forces them to be more inventive in their menu creation, ensuring every last shred is put to good use.

I'm standing at the butcher's bench with the second chef, a half-butchered shoulder of pork in front of us. “It's good for chefs to be dealing with meat like this,” he says, “we're lucky to be able to do so on such a regular basis”. I feel like there's a subtext to what he's saying; that the butchery means the chefs retain a closer connection with, and a greater responsibility for the animals they're cooking. With a final twist, he pops the pig's joint out of it's ball socket, stabs a meat hook through the flesh and hangs the shank on the rack in front of us. I can't quite put my finger on why, but I can certainly see the appeal... And I think I might just be hooked too.


  1. Just found your blog (via St John Twitter). It's fantastic!

  2. Good stuff - what a fantastic opportunity!

  3. Great post! I was lucky enough to spend a day in there during a recent vacation to London. I too broke down some ox hearts and helped with a huge batch of piccalilli. The biggest difference in what you experienced and what I did was the drum-and-bass blaring out of the little stereo, a welcome sound not often heard here in the US! Thanks!

  4. Great article, but the proof is eventually in the eating. I am pleased to say I have proven James Lowe and his crew are a hard act to follow! Seriously yum! But try and keep the secret. It's tough enough to get a seat!

  5. Glad you all enjoyed the article! I enjoyed writing it nearly as much as I did slicing that pig's face off...

    Stay in touch!


  6. Charlie Byrne here first time but not the last time on your blog.
    Great blog mate very informative keep up the good work...and your very lucky as i had asked for a stage there but got no reply.well done and thanks for sharing.