It is officially the hottest day of the year, actually not just year - full-on since records began - even the shade is making most people sweat. So let's take a brief second to imagine the sweltering heat of the average kitchen on this day.
Out pops Anthony Raffo, looking remarkably unflustered for a man that has spent most of the day in a kitchen so hot he could be cooked. "Oh yeah, we've just looked, and it was 45C in the kitchen. Did you enjoy it? I enjoyed cooking for you".
The answer: absolutely yes.
My foodie partner in crime and I had just had the luxury of sitting in an air-conditioned restaurant, drinking anything with ice in it, and working our way through Anthony's sample menu for his new restaurant Toasted Hay. This was Anthony's first full run-through of a sample tasting menu for Toasted Hay, and it did not disappoint - but more on the food later.
If you follow Anthony on Instagram or have tried his food, you'll know that foraging runs through his veins. His passion is evident on every plate of food.
THE FUTURE OF FORAGING
To an average diner, the art of foraging can seem quite mysterious, almost "magic circle" level style knowledge. Where individual flowers, herbs and ingredients are passed down from generation to generation. For anyone outside of this "circle" may end up picking THAT mushroom, meaning THAT night in A&E.
When asked whether his knowledge was brought about from some mystical magic circle, Anthony laughs. "No, not at all. Mainly books for me, I do buy a lot of books. I also follow a lot of people on Instagram, it is a great source of inspiration, and you do gather a lot of knowledge from there. I have learnt, just through talking to different people and sharing ideas and knowledge".
When asked if he had any mishaps with picking the wrong ingredient, Anthony replied with the best bit of advice for all novice foragers. "I never pick anything unless I 100% know the ingredient, if I have any doubts, I don't pick it. You get into trouble that way".
It is not only foraging that defines Anthony's style of cooking but his ability to preserve and pickle a wide range of seasonal ingredients to use later in the year. But pickling, preserving, and dehydrating takes time, and the process can be hit and miss. So how do you plan so far ahead, to ensure that the fruit in season now, can be used as an ingredient in 6 months?
He replied, "You have to work with the season; for example, the blackberries used in today's sorbet I picked when they were ripe. I made all sorts of stuff with them, but with the surplus, I pickled them to ensure there was no wastage. Now that jar is always on the shelf for me to use. I could make anything with it including granitas or sorbets".
Anthony is also not afraid to use ingredients to push your tastebuds. One of the dishes contained a rather refreshing gherkin granita, and another using wood ants as a seasoning. But unlike others who want to just push diners out of their comfort zone, Anthony's comes originally from a desire to limit the amount of food wasted in kitchens. An ethos he wants to continue at Toasted Hay.
"There is a restaurant opening in London soon called Silo; they previously had one in Brighton; they don't have a bin. Douglas McMaster came up with the concept, and he is a visionary, and he is a big inspiration for how I want to work with Toasted Hay. This might come across as I am just following a trend, and if it is a trend, then I don't mind, because this trend will benefit everyone. It is a necessity." he said.
A complete dish on the tasting menu was made up of just by-products that would usually end up in the bin. This included the gherkin granita and the underbelly of sea bream.
Anthony explained, "The granita came from something I saw on Facebook a few months ago where someone was making gherkin ice cream. They were using the entire gherkin, and because I wanted this dish to champion by-products, I thought about the pickling juice. There is a lot of liquid - so I thought why not make a granita with it."
It is this sense of experimentation and almost "play" that has led him to create some of his best ideas, including burnt cucumber.
"Because cucumber is 80% water, I just wanted to see if I barbequed it if it would just shrivel up and go to nothing. It didn't. It can take a hell of a lot of use. At the beginning, I was just blowtorching it, and then I thought let's just stick it straight on the stove, and it worked out just fine. It is the same with foraging; I just try to head out and gather as much as I can and then just play around with it."
He also explained "Another example is when we went to Roganic, and we had sunflower seed sauce with lamb, and it was breathtaking, so I came back to the kitchen to try it out. I did a lot of research and found a lot of information on YouTube. So I made it into a sunflower seed butter and added it to a beef dish. When creating the butter, it takes a lot of time to come together, so I think people lose patience making it". One tip Anthony added, "Don't add water it will split."
Foraging has become a way of life for Anthony and his girlfriend Marie, who spend their available time walking locally and sourcing ingredients on their days off. The pair who currently live in Welwyn, have an abundance of ingredients straight on their doorstep, and many an open field to walk through.
The hope for Toasted Hay though is to open a restaurant straight in the heart of London - a City not known for its plentitude of open, untouched farmland. So how will Toasted Hay bring foraging to the heart of London?
"We were supposed to open early in 2019, but we have been let down trying to find an actual site. We want to open Toasted Hay in the centre of London. We want to open as soon as we can, so being unable to secure a site has been frustrating for both myself and Marie."
Toasted Hay will be a joint venture for the couple with Anthony looking after the kitchen and Marie, a seasoned Front of House Manager, managing the guest experience in the restaurant.
"We want to open in London for exposure, being in the capital city will get you on the map quicker than being rural. It is challenging to get business in rural areas for a concept people may be unsure of. The dream obviously would be to open initially in the countryside, have my smallholding, get up and forage every morning. But I want to get my food in front of diners, and busy London offers that opportunity."
When pushed about whether the idea of foraging and urban London indeed mix as a concept for a diner to understand, Anthony argues that it does. There are opportunities to forage even in a busy city, even more than most of us imagine.
"I have bought quite a few books from foragers who forage exclusively in London. They map out all the parks in London and what you can find there. The possibilities are endless; there are loads. You need to know what you are looking for and where to look for it. I recently went to Hackney and walked through London Fields Park and noticed there were three pine cone trees - the same as used for dessert - so there are ingredients out there, even in built-up areas. I am currently only twenty minutes outside of London; we are not that far away from greener environments".
He added "There is also a company called Mountain Foods, who now specialise in foraged foods. Obviously, every chef wants to forage themselves, but if there is ever a need for a specific ingredient, there are companies out there to help."
When it comes to the eating and dining experience at Toasted Hay, Anthony is keen for it to be as relaxed as possible. He also wants to hand the reins back to the diners to create their tasting menu, encouraging sharing dishes.
He explains, "I'd like to create a menu where people can almost create their tasting menu, and have the freedom to swap dishes out if they wish. I also want to look at the idea of creating more sharing dishes; I think it will make it more communal. I hate when you go to a restaurant, and you have to have what is put in front of you. I want people to have the confidence to mould their own menus and not feel out of place asking, and that also needs to be visible in the dining environment too."
Citing inspiration for both menu style and dining experience, Anthony is a fan on Cornerstone by Tom Brown and Simon Rogan's Roganic.
"We ate at Cornerstone recently, and the environment is relaxed, and so is the menu. He also allows people to pick and choose from his set tasting menu. Marie wanted a specific oyster that was not on the menu, and they happily swapped it without fuss. One of my all-time favourite restaurants is Roganic, the food they are creating there is out of this world".
When it comes to his own dining room, Anthony is adamant; it should be informal.
He says "Relaxed, fine dining is where I want to be. Where the customer feels comfortable and relaxed in the setting, but the food is at the highest standard possible, I basically want to remove any snobbery. It should be about the food, and it shouldn't matter if the maître d′ is wearing trainers or not. If you come out for a meal at Toasted Hay, I ultimately want to give you an experience. I want to introduce you to new ingredients and a way of eating, and I want you to come back again. Word of mouth is so important in this industry, and I don't want diners to be distracted or put off by a formal dining experience".
When it comes to space, Anthony also wants to keep things more personal.
"I want Toasted Hay to be twenty or thirty covers with a core team of four chefs; I feel it keeps things more personal then. I don't want it to be a conveyor belt of food going out. We have been to restaurants that have had a maximum of 15 covers, and they have been the best meals we've ever had."
The menu at Toasted Hay will be inclusive as Anthony and Marie want the restaurant to become a place where nobody is excluded from an eating experience with friends because of a dietary need or preference.
He explains further;
"Toasted Hay will be mainly plant-based, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free. This will be catered for first. For example, the bread served will be buckwheat loaves. Buckwheat is gluten-free, so everyone will be getting the same experience. Someone who is not gluten-free will be able to eat the same as someone who is. It really is about thinking about being as inclusive as possible, and it ties in with our philosophy of being relaxed as well. We don't want people feeling alienated because of a lifestyle choice or dietary requirements. We are also adamant about using only British produce."
Anthony also has a smarter way of using protein in his menus, which will set his menu apart from the competition, as he explains;
"We want to use protein as an extra. If you see a dish on the menu and you'd like to add beef to it, then you will pay a small supplementary charge for it. If you don't, then the dish is a whole already. I feel that some dishes for vegetarians is just the protein-based dish, with the meat taken off. Well this isn't a finished dish then, it is just a dish without meat. It is just a plate of garnish. I want to use protein as the garnish."
There continues to be a respect for seasonal ingredients, even with meat and fish as he clarifies "there are certain seasons for animals as well as fruit and vegetables, and I would only use meat when it was at its best, or to look at underused cuts."
The name Toasted Hay came about from Anthony's favourite ingredients and marked a milestone in his career.
When asked, he said: "I remember it was one of the first ingredients that showed me that food is more than meat and two vegetables. It doesn't have to be a fruit or vegetable or even a protein, to make a meal different. I worked in a pub for a very long time ago, and the Head Chef mentioned that people were doing toasted hay ice cream, so I tried it and I was blown away. It tasted of biscuit and caramel and was beautiful. I remember it to this day, and it has become quite a milestone in my career, so what better way to honour that moment than to call my restaurant after it."
Anthony is under no illusion that owning and opening a restaurant from scratch is not going to be easy, and has spent the last few years learning from mentors across the industry on all aspects of running a business and not just cooking.
"Of course I don't know it all, I know I will make mistakes, but I feel I am at the point in my career where I will be able to handle a small business that is mine. It is not just food. Of course, I can come up with menus, but you still need to think of everything else, from stock takes to managing staff, to accounts. I have been working on this slowly at the previous restaurants I have worked at. I have been picking the brains of all the head chefs asking them how they manage the stocktake, what programme do you use for staff rota and trying to understand the business as a whole. I have kept it all in a folder which I keep at home. It has turned into a bit of a bible for me".
Armed with his trusty bible, and with everything crossed for a site agreement sooner or later, I am in no doubt that Toasted Hay will become a destination venue in London. For those diners who want a relaxed eating environment, to be educated on the origins of their ingredients and to be the place where inclusivity in dining comes first.
Toasted Hay is not about setting trends but about opening up a dining experience that accepts the necessity to look after the planet and also addressing how dietary needs have changed.
Anthony and Marie's passion alone should make Toasted Hay a success. But it is Anthony's gift for cooking and respecting rare and unknown ingredients to create stunning dishes that will bring customers coming back for more.
Pickled Blackberry / Beetroot
British Peas / Bacon / Lamb / Foraged Herbs and Flowers
Fermented Lettuce / Curd /Cauliflower / Dill
Sea Bream / Gherkin / Elderflower / Cucumber
Beef Fillet / Sunflower / Black Garlic / Onion / Pickled Mushrooms
Meadowsweet / Fermented Apple / Blackwood Ants
British Strawberry / British Woodruff / Horseradish / White Chocolate
Pine Cone / Toasted Hay / Burnt Apple
Toasted Buckwheat Tea
Toasted Hay Fudge / Pine / Wood Sorrel