A sous chef in London: Life, lockdown and sustainable British food

Sean Russell
·16-min read
<p>Will Murray and Jack Croft enthuse over the finishing touches</p> (Fallow)

Will Murray and Jack Croft enthuse over the finishing touches

(Fallow)

Fallow: (of farmland) ploughed and harrowed but left for a period without being sown in order to restore its fertility or to avoid surplus production.

Four wild deer had arrived the day before and were butchered into multiple cuts and frozen, ready to be used when Fallow opens once again after months of forced closure. Every part of the animal is used. The meat for tartare, hazelnut and pickled onion, the bones and fat for stock. That’s why the whole deer is delivered, not just the meat.

“Nothing is ever wasted,” says Will Murray, chef director and co-founder of Fallow. “These estates which are used to producing all the deer meat for the Harwood Arms and other restaurants, they’ve had deer on their land for an entire year, which are actually considered a pest, so it’s important that they can keep giving to chefs to use it.”

Venison is a particularly gamey meat. Although it’s perhaps one of the few that could be considered “traditionally” British, many Britons have lost the taste for its strong flavour. Dan Miller, Fallow’s new sous chef, however, believes venison still has a future if it can be handled sustainably.

Miller – a blonde, bearded, smiling man with rough, kitchen-worn hands – wasn’t interested in food as a child. Growing up in Hampshire, he was far more interested in food he could eat as quickly as possible and be back out on his mountain bike in the countryside. It wasn’t until his father remarried that he began to realise the possibilities of food as an experience, not just sustenance.

His stepmother would cook dishes that were completely new to him, what he calls “proper cooking, the real deal”. Far flung from the pot-noodles of the past, he began to see another side to food.

“I enjoyed the food she gave me,” says Miller in the back alley behind the restaurant Ham before the end of his shift. “But I wasn’t very adventurous, so she would lie and tell me something was something else. I remember we were on holiday in Italy and she served her pot roast pheasant, but if she had told me it was pheasant I would have said ‘gross’ so she told me it was Italian chicken and I was dumb enough to believe her. She really opened my eyes to food being a big thing, an important thing.”

Straight from the estate: Deer tartare, hazelnut, pickled onionFallow
Straight from the estate: Deer tartare, hazelnut, pickled onionFallow

He and his brother ventured into the countryside around his house and began foraging, looking at all the things growing around them and wondering if that mushroom by the base of a large tree was edible, or what their stepmother might do with these herbs, or those berries. He realised there was a wealth of ingredients around him and that would only make food even more fascinating. While the foraging started as a simple teenage pleasure, it was something that would stick with him and lead to him taking on the role of sous chef at Fallow.

What makes a sous chef? Cooking prowess, of course, but also the ability to run a kitchen, to keep on top of supplies and your fellow chefs. It’s being able to jump in on any station at any time, keeping up the impeccable standards of therestaurant and of the head chefs, who must feel comfortable leaving you alone to manage the kitchen. In many ways they must be an extension of the head chef themselves. It’s a lot of pressure and only the very best survive in this industry. Few can put up with the long, irregular hours, the birthdays and Christmases with family missed. A sous chef must operate as an underboss, getting their hands dirty, often without the plaudits. Above all things, perhaps, a sous chef needs patience; one day it will be their turn at the helm of the kitchen, but until then they must give everything to someone else and learn all they can.

“Dan’s got a lot of experience around town and he knows a lot of chefs so we hope he can bring that experience to the team,” says Murray.

Fallow opened as a residency in Mayfair in 2020, and while it has only been open for a collective 21 weeks in-between lockdowns, it has already made a name for itself, holding a Michelin Bib Gourmand, a Squaremeal Gold Award and a Hot Dinners Best New Restaurant award. It’s all about sustainable food, what can be foraged, what can be used which would otherwise be thrown away. It is a concept co-founders and head chefs Jack Croft and Will Murray call “conscious creativity” – not quite zero-waste, but using everything they can to make delicious, exciting meals. Even the lemon waste from behind the bar is taken, boiled, blanched, cooked overnight in sugar syrup and made into a lemon peel curd which is mixed with salted caramel and put inside their suet pudding and served with a milk ice cream.

Croft and Murray met at the Michelin-starred Dinner by Heston – where the menu is based on historical British dishes – and they quickly developed a friendship. They speak with great energy and enthusiasm, as if they feel like they can achieve anything they put their minds to. Each chef takes over from the other to add, to change, to develop what the other has said, much like the way they create new dishes.

“We spent a lot of time together and as chefs, food is always on the top of your mind,” says Croft. “We just talked about food. And not to say anything bad about Dinner, but they are very perfection-oriented, and we got very interested about trying to come up with ideas and dishes that used the stuff that we cut up and threw away, the stems, the trimmings, we thought ‘we can make a menu out of this immense waste’.”

Dan Miller: ‘A lot of places are trying to do this sustainable, seasonal thing but these guys are really pushing’Sean Russell
Dan Miller: ‘A lot of places are trying to do this sustainable, seasonal thing but these guys are really pushing’Sean Russell

“Fallow came from the idea of not rushing things but taking the time for the land to regenerate,” says Murray. “Seasonality is really inspiring to us and that is how we build the menu now. The meat that is always on the menu, has usually had another purpose in life which always contributes to the quality of the flavour of meat.”

The meat for the burger, for example, comes from dairy cows. Older animals bred for other purposes can create far more complex, tasty meat and while the pair never wanted a burger on their menu, it has adopted somewhat of a “cult” status, with people coming from around the country to try it. Their signature dish, perhaps, is the cod’s head with sriracha butter. They once asked their fish supplier what was going to waste and were sent 10 cod’s heads. By seasoning the heads, putting them over charcoal until they are smoky and crispy and serving with a buttery, rich, slightly spicy sriracha sauce, they found a way to transform something that is usually destined for the bin into a highly desired dish. Foraged wild garlic, asparagus, herbs and anything they can get their hands on is incorporated into the menu, and when the seasons change they find something else. Fallow’s “style” is moulded by their suppliers, the seasons, by what is wasted, and what they can find.

While Miller discovered foraging around his home when he was 16, it wouldn’t be until he was 18 that he would enter the kitchen. He had a job at a local pub, serving pints and taking orders, until one day the chef didn’t turn up for work. Miller volunteered. He never worked behind the bar again. It wasn’t what you’d call cooking, as such – it mostly involved heating up pre-made meals – but there was something about the heat of the small, busy kitchen that stuck with him. Out front with the customers he had to watch his tongue; in the kitchen he could say whatever he wanted. There was something free about it, and while he took some pride in presenting the food on a plate, it was the atmosphere of the kitchen that he was really drawn to.

Breaking the mould: Lemon peel pudding with milk ice creamFallow
Breaking the mould: Lemon peel pudding with milk ice creamFallow

He soon moved on to a harder kitchen in the nearby Hampshire Arms, a pub which aspired to white table cloth dining, a place where they “did food properly” and where he wasn’t opening packets but instead mussels. He worked under Eddy Willen, a Belgian chef who was tough but fair, with a fierce temper, but one Miller happily never got on the wrong side of.

“He was a hardcore chef,” says Miller. “He only spoke about food, thought about food, dreamt about food, as far as I know. But he taught me everything I know about classic French cooking.”

It was all very Eighties: food served in rings with an odd number of garnishes, perfectly placed, and even at the time, in the mid-2000s, Miller felt it was dated, but it was proper food, cooked with the proper techniques. It was here that he also learned one of the most important lessons of his career. Willen spotted Miller’s potential as a chef and asked him what he disliked the most in the kitchen. Pastry, Miller said. Well, that was exactly what he must go and do then, go and work in pastry.

“He was basically kicking me out,” says Miller.

Miller (right) speaks fluidly and with humour about his past kitchens and colleaguesDan Miller
Miller (right) speaks fluidly and with humour about his past kitchens and colleaguesDan Miller

And so off he went and took a job on the pastry counter at the nearby Four Seasons. Then his career truly began.

After stints at multiple restaurants, Miller met a sous chef who had worked at the famous Ivy in London. Miller was still young and a glutton for the punishment that kitchen’s dolled out. But he was also becoming interested in British food. He had cooked French and Italian but what was there to learn about Britain? The sous chef from the Ivy led Miller down another path in search of British cooking in London.

“I went to work for Tristan Welch at Launceston Place, and that’s where I learned so much about British ingredients,” says Miller. “Tristan would even go to the beach to get driftwood to serve things on. The food was incredible, the intensity, the heat, at the time he was a celebrity in the cooking world. He was doing Great British Menu which added to the glamour, there were cameras in the kitchen, everything.”

Inspiration: Tristan Welch, who served food on driftwoodBloomberg News
Inspiration: Tristan Welch, who served food on driftwoodBloomberg News

It was at Launceton Place that Miller learnt one of the tougher lessons: never bring your personal life into the kitchen. Especially the garnish counter, notoriously the busiest section. He had been having relationship problems with his then girlfriend, when during one shift he messed up the plates, was slow, disorganised and worst of all refused to accept that he was making mistakes. He was kicked off the counter and made to watch dishes for the rest of the service. He recalls crying into the sink, never feeling more alone while being surrounded by bustling chefs.As he talks about it now he speaks with almost a hint of nostalgia, as if it were “the good old times”. Yes, he confesses, he misses those kitchens, even if he now sees that they don’t have to be like that to produce excellent food.

Miller speaks fluidly and with humour about his past kitchens and colleagues, and there are many of both, each with their own stories. He relishes the bravado and camaraderie. He has as many war wounds as any other hardened chef and can tell a story for every one of them. But it is refreshing how he speaks of those moments of weakness, with not a trace of insecurity. It speaks to his strong character, the sort that can hack it as a sous chef in London. He speaks of other chefs coming in for trial shifts at Launceton Place, perhaps the most difficult kitchen he ever worked in: some of them didn’t see through the entire shift. Miller is proud that he lasted as long as he did.

Burnt up, exhausted and ready to move on from the intense and relentless Launceton Place, Miller left Welch after almost a year to go back to the countryside, to a pub-restaurant called The Pot Kiln, in Thatcham, which was perhaps the restaurant that defined his career the most. A chef’s dream, the small team in the middle of nowhere spent the days foraging and would wake up at 4am to go deer stalking with the owner, Mike Robinson. Whatever they caught or found would go on the menu the next day. It was exactly the sort of British cooking Miller aspired to. Sitting under starry skies with the rest of the team, talking about dishes and ideas, released Miller’s own creativity. It was then he realised what he had to do next.

Miller was drawn to the tough environment of the kitchenDan Miller
Miller was drawn to the tough environment of the kitchenDan Miller

Back to London, back to the fast pace, back to lugging potatoes and onions up steep basement staircases. Miller joined the Harwood Arms pub, the only one in London with a Michelin star, making exactly the sort of British food he wanted to under sous chef and Great British Menu star James Cochran.

“His flair for pastry is incredible,” says Miller. “He just comes up with dishes on the spot and they’re delicious and I thought one day I want to be like him.”

Then onto another restaurant. Then another. Constantly moving around in search of British cooking, foraged, sourced sustainably, bringing back something forgotten. He helped open a restaurant above The Other Palace, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatre, (The Other Naughty Piglet); and then moved on to help James Cochran open the now famous 1251 as sous chef. It wasn’t much longer, when Miller moved to Ham in West Hampstead, that lockdown struck.

Staff at Ham prepare meals for hospital workers during lockdownDan Miller
Staff at Ham prepare meals for hospital workers during lockdownDan Miller

Miller had not been there long before having to batten down the hatches and wait it out on furlough. For him, the first lockdown was a much-needed time of reflection, a moment to figure out exactly what he wanted and how to get there. Ham briefly opened again in the summer before being forced to close once more in winter.

“It was really annoying from the government,” says Miller. “They could have given us more warning. They could have done a lot more to help us. So, it was frustrating because we were always the last ones to know, and it seemed like we were the last industry they cared about really.”

I’d like to help bring the taste for real British food back and I think that’s what these guys are doing at Fallow and it’s why I wanted to get involved

The owners of Ham then changed their plans. A local school raised money for the NHS and decided that using that money to pay for lunches for the workers of the local hospitals. Ham and Miller stepped in and began providing lunches every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to over 100 staff for six weeks.

“I was thinking that these guys are on their feet all day running around,” says Miller. “You need to make them something that tastes good and is going to give them energy and not be too heavy. We made salt beef bagels, Spanish-style chicken and chickpeas, chicken and pepper stew ... whatever we could to make the money last as long as possible.”

Past the Burberry mega store on Regent Street and down a quiet, uneven brick-paved road are a cluster of unique restaurants. Workers are coming and going carrying boxes in full, and out empty. It’s only a few weeks until they can open again and already the first rumbling of anticipation is present in these slumbering eateries. Fallow sits in grey stone, one of the most popular and longest running restaurant residencies in London. While Croft and Murray look for a permanent site, their stretch at Heddon Street has shown that there is a great appetite for sustainable, British cuisine; conscious creativity.

Inside smells of red wine infuse the small space. Pairing the right drink with the right food is important here, too; it’s not just about the quality of food.

Signature dish: Cod’s head and sriracha butter. Fallow use what is usually thrown away and turn it into a dish of desireFallow
Signature dish: Cod’s head and sriracha butter. Fallow use what is usually thrown away and turn it into a dish of desireFallow

“I’d like to help bring the taste for real British food back and I think that’s what these guys are doing at Fallow and it’s why I wanted to get involved,” says Miller. “I think the thing about British cooking is people always say, ‘I thought British food was just pies and fish and chips,’ but I don’t think we’ve had the lightness of touch that the French have. All any restaurant does nowadays is try to use British produce and tweak it with the French techniques, so we like to focus on, especially here, as local as you can get cooked in a more traditionally British way.”

The future of Fallow and Miller is definitely exciting. A feeling of youth pulses through the restaurant and its chefs, young people excited about what they are doing, unpretentiously. If suppliers are able to look at their waste as a commodity, well... that can only be good for everyone.

“We’re not the finished article and we don’t claim to be,” says Croft. “We’re not claiming Fallow is the perfect restaurant, it’s constantly evolving for us. Ultimately we’re just two young guys who want to create a restaurant which is constantly evolving to be sustainable and just make amazing food with a great atmosphere and work with like-minded individuals. I don’t think we know what our full style is yet.”

As Fallow prepares to open its doors again on 12 April, the team are ready to go. Miller will settle in as sous chef to the two young head chefs and can’t wait to get out of lockdown and back into a busy kitchen once more. Sat here, on a Wednesday afternoon in lockdown, Miller is clearly out of place. He should be, and wants to be, doing a lunch service or preparing for a dinner shift. He simply wants to be in the kitchen of Fallow, not sat out the front in the empty street.

“Coming out of the lockdown I’m chomping at the bit to get back into a kitchen,” he says. “It is something to sink my teeth into and it is going to be hard work and I want to be working hard for the right people. A lot of places are trying to do this sustainable, seasonal thing but these guys are really pushing, really focusing on it with the level of experience and the palate that these two have is absolutely amazing.”

Fallow, 10 Heddon Street, Mayfair, will be open for outside dining from 12 April

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