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Interview with Brad Carter

Deputy Editor (London) Amanda David (AD) chats food with Michelin-starred chef Brad Carter (BC) ahead of the Proof Supper Club in partnership with Gozney and the opening of his first London restaurant, Undercroft.

AD: You spent some time early in your career cooking in Menorca; how did that shape the cook you are now and how would you describe your cooking style?

BC: I worked for a couple of years in a local pub before I started college. I was planning on working in London and then a friend at college said he knew this couple who had this amazing restaurant in Menorca and did I want to work there? I ended up staying for two years and I still go back every year.

What it embedded in me was the importance of quality ingredients. We used to go to the markets every morning, buy the produce, go to work and cook it; at the age of 18 I didn't realise that I was learning but I was definitely taking it all in. The way I apply myself to my ingredients definitely stemmed from that; eating the most perfect tomato at the market - that's the benchmark now, that's what I'm always chasing. Cooking in the Mediterranean, ingredients are so important to them and that's what I look for here. I only buy ingredients from our island and I look for that kind of quality and those kind of producers: the allotments, market gardens and day boat fishermen.

AD: You're also famously a fan of both live-fire cooking and woodfired pizza; how did your connection with Gozney come about?

BC: Gozney is amazing. I've always enjoyed eating pizza and, being a chef, I'm excited by all cooking methods. Seven or eight years ago when the Roccbox first came out, I remember thinking I'd never seen something of that quality for the price; I basically bought one and started cooking all sorts of things on it, not just pizza. I put a couple of posts on my social media and the owner Tom messaged me out of the blue and said, 'How have you got one of my ovens?' and I said, 'I just bought one, it's unbelievable!' So he invited me to his HQ in Christchurch, I went and did some videos, and then a couple of years ago they expanded what they were doing and made me an official ambassador.

AD: So you were on board very early!

BC: Yes, very early, and just through my love of the product really. I wasn't actively seeking anything, I was just cooking on it and really impressed; it was kind of organic.

AD: And how did you get involved with Proof?

BC: I was really pleased when they asked me to do it, really honoured. I was a guest last year at Lee and Danny's one (Lee Tiernan and Danny Bowien - the event was then called The Secret Supper Club); Lee's a good mate of mine and those two together were an ideal combination. I really enjoyed it as a guest, then I did Gozney Feasts last year at Glastonbury and that went really well, and then they asked me to do Proof.

They told me about the site, which is still a secret at the moment, and they said we've fallen in love with this venue but there's one big catch - it has to be vegetarian food. I was like, that's absolutely fine - I think they were quite relieved because they thought I was going to say no! Actually I'm excited by the challenge and it makes perfect sense for the site.

AD: I was wondering why it was a vegetarian menu because it's interesting - it's not the first thing you think of when you talk about outdoor cooking over fire.

BC: No, so we were handed that by the venue but it's meant we've actually ended up with a menu that's more creative. There will be crossovers with menus from some of the other Proof events around the world; you'll see a similarity but I think our menu is unique.

AD: Didn't you basically move your restaurant to a glasshouse last year? That's about as hyper local as you can get!

BC: Exactly! Obviously my style is to use only British produce as well and had it all growing right there. I went to view the site that we're doing Proof in and I thought, yeah I've done this before. It felt like some of the work that we've done at Westlands. Half the menu ended up being vegetarian there anyway and I've used some of the same ideas and techniques.

AD: How is your intense focus on local ingredients going to work in your London restaurant?

BC: That was a big thing for me. I think there are a few restaurants in London that have a similar focus and we use the same producers. We just won't have such a rigid set menu, which allows me to be even more flexible with the suppliers; rather than having a dish that's worked around one particular species of fish, we're going to buy the catch of the day and just apply our techniques to it, be a bit more responsive. With the fruit and veg we're going to use two suppliers in conjunction with each other. They go to between 24 and 48 farms around the UK depending on the season, send us a list of what will be available over the next few days and we buy from that list. They're basically doing what I used to do in Spain at the market, looking at everything and choosing what's best.

It's so important to me that we do this in London, because I was walking around the other day and you're just surrounded by all this concrete. I want a sense of nature and life to come from the menu; you should feel it when you eat the food. But we also respect that we are in the middle of the city, so there are some urban touches that need to be there.

AD: We are very excited to have you in London. How are you going to split your time when you reopen Carters - is that still the plan, to re-locate it?

BC: Exactly; the plan was to open in London first so I can put 110% into this restaurant. There will be a point that Carter's is back, maybe the start of next year, but by that time Undercroft should be up and running. I appointed my head chef yesterday and she ticks all the boxes for everything I was looking for; I'll be announcing that officially soon.

AD: If you could cook one dish that you felt really summed you up as a chef, what would it be and why?

BC: That’s a hard one because, at Carter's, all the dishes speak together to create one story. It's the story of my work and development over the years, like stopping using things like lemons and limes and finding replacements, and ending up creating a unique set of dishes. There are a few signature dishes that showcase my love for cooking meat over fire, which is something I really enjoy.

We have a duck main course that other chefs and customers have said is the best they've ever had anywhere in the world, which is such a compliment. I'm quite obsessive; I spend a lot of time on something to try to make it as perfect as I can, and the whole centrepiece of that dish is the result of a very long journey. I started with the techniques of Texas barbecue and Peking duck because those were my two favourite things to eat.

I normally think about what it is that I like about eating certain foods and how to make the best version of that. With duck I love the fat and skin, so how could I make that perfect? There was too much moisture in the fat so we tried dry-ageing the duck for a week, then two; then we got this lovely glass-like skin. The meat was getting concentrated from the dry aging as well, which changed the flavour, so then we added a neutral rub. Next we experimented with the wood and the charcoal for the finishing flavour; you can get cherrywood from all over the UK but there are a couple of places where the wood has slightly more oil in it and that makes a difference. So in the end the dish looks quite simple - a lot of my food looks simple - but there's such a long, long journey to get there and it's very prep-heavy.

AD: So the dish is like the tip of an iceberg?

BC: Yeah, but that's the joy of it for me. As a guest, you don't need to know all of that - you just need to have that pure pleasure when you sit down and eat it.

AD: But I love knowing those kind of back stories, I find them so fascinating!

BC: You get certain restaurants where they stand there and tell you all that for 10 minutes before you get to eat it; I think you should eat it and then if you want to know all the details then we'll tell you. So that is the centre of the dish, and then we serve some kind of vegetable from the allotment or one of our producers on the plate; in the story, that's highlighting the importance of vegetables and how we put the same level of detail into preparing that as the meat.

I love eating duck with rice, so then we started looking into rice replacements. Hodmedods had sent us some naked oats where the husk had been removed, kind of like in between long grain rice and barley, so we tried cooking it a load of different ways. We ended up using a rice cooker and then cooking it in duck stock in the oven in a flat, cast-iron pan almost like a paella pan. In effect it's like one of my favourite Chinatown dishes, not in taste but in the inspiration behind it, and it highlights every producer that we work with, the concept behind Carter's, its DNA and what we believe about the ingredients. It's very complex and not something you would cook at home every night but I think it best sums up what we did over the last 15 years to get to where we are now,

AD: Do you have any plans to bring that dish to London? Please say yes!

BC: Yeah, we know a lot of chefs do amazing duck dishes and have amazing techniques but when something feels so right and it's yours, you believe in it. It's really cooked from the heart, so for me that will feature on the menu and it will stay around. Hopefully a lot of people will enjoy it for the first time, people who haven't been able to get to Carter's.

AD: I genuinely believe that food somehow tastes better when it comes from the heart and it's cooked with passion.

BC: Exactly; for me a lot of high end restaurants, what I would consider some of the best restaurants in the world, they've sacrificed some of the heart and soul for the technique. That's not what I'm about at all. You need to learn how to balance them, so that the technique supports the heart and the belief.

Carter's was at its peak when we closed it. I looked at it and I just knew it was the best it was ever going to be. It's done all the things that we wanted it to do and more; we've got an exclusive set of dishes, there were people coming from all over the world to eat there - it was perfect. We can take some of the best of those dishes and bring them to London where they'll get reinvented, but when we recreate Carters I doubt I'll go back to a lot of them.

AD: What made you choose London for your next restaurant?

BC: I always wanted to have a presence in London. I feel like if you want to put your food to the world, you have to be there - it's really as simple as that. We've done really well in our hometown, and I'll never turn my back on it, but at the same time I am ambitious and I do want the opportunity for more people to experience my food and what I'm creating.

AD: So Undercroft isn't going to have a tasting menu like Carters; what's the menu going to look like?

BC: I don't know if this term even exists but I keep calling it a 'luxury brasserie'. We want to take the DNA and the food style of Carter's and transport them to London, but make it more accessible. Carter's menus were 12 to 14 servings, rigidly organised; Undercroft is more of a social place, there's a lounge area and a bar as well as the main restaurant and the terrace outside. We've looked at the amazing things about Carter's menu and how to make it more accessible and straight away realised we could break it up into little pieces and make it available to buy individually, so you can build your own menu with our guidance. We may do a set menu further down the line but at the moment we're looking at starting with a number of small plates, including some amazing veg dishes.

AD: I’m very much looking forward to those.

BC: Exactly, and they'll be ever-changing. I was talking with the chef yesterday and I want to be able to pivot, even between services, so if something runs out we just switch to something else. I think that's really important. I've also always had the belief that the meat and fish should come off the fire and so I've had a bespoke charcoal oven built. We can hot smoke, we have indirect smoke, direct cook - I designed it with a guy called Ben who is actually my knife maker but has started making bespoke grills. The airflow is way more efficient the way we've done it.

For me it'll be about working up towards that flavour, so wherever you are in the menu when you get the main you'll know that you're eating a main. Sometimes in these à la carte menus you don't really know which is which, but we really want the mains to be a bit celebratory. They'll have a load of things with them, like the duck dish, so your meal will sort of build to a crescendo.

For pastry we're going to have five or six things; we'll just keep them really fresh, especially during the summer. We will have to do a lot of preserving fruits and vegetables because when we get into the depths of winter we don't have a lot growing in the UK, so we have to be a bit clever and think ahead. But the dishes will always be changing because we want to create a place that you crave to go back to, where you want to order the whole menu.

AD: That’s one of my key tests for a restaurant - if you're planning your next meal there while you're still eating your first one.

BC: That’s exactly what I mean. I want there to be a couple of cravable items when you wake up in the morning and say, I have to go to Undercroft I really need to eat that today!


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