Leading Lights – Tristan Downes

After starting his career in his first professional kitchen aged 16 years old, Tristan Downes already has the CV of a veteran in the hospitality industry. He has held several head chef roles in Young’s pubs around London, has worked for Hawksmoor, Mayfair 34, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey Restaurants and even made it to the quarter finals of Master Chef – The Professionals, all before he was 30. Tristan is now back in South East London in Greenwich at Craft London, which currently holds two AA Rosettes.

What’s the ethos behind the food at Craft and what was the pull for you as a chef? Created by the incredible Steve Parle and designer Tom Dixon, Craft London is all about pushing boundaries, creativity, seasonality and sustainability. In addition to having the chance to work back where it all began and close to where I live in South East London, the opportunity to work with Steve and continue to develop was too good an offer to turn down. Our menu is constantly changing, we smoke our own fish, roast our own coffee, pickle and preserve, bake fresh breads and pastries and even cure our own meats so every day is different and full of excitement.

We’ve heard some great things about The Test Kitchen, what happens there? The Test Kitchen enables our guests to be part of the creative process at Craft. Customers get to try six dishes that are in development part of a tasting menu. In line with our ethos, the dishes celebrate seasonality, minimal wastage, new techniques and some seriously exquisite ingredients so it’s a fantastic experience for consumers and incredible for our own development too.

How’s COVID affected you, your business and team? We made the decision to close after Boris’s announcement in March and the team has been on furlough since. I have been keeping busy with some charity initiatives, menu development and training but it’s heartwrenching to see hospitality businesses closing and so many talented people facing difficult times. We are currently carrying out some refurbishments and plan to reopen in October but in the meantime, we have been running a pop-up concept called Joy at Portobello Dock, which has been fantastic fun. There will undoubtedly be some hard times ahead but we’re confident we will not only survive but thrive once again.

You started in the kitchen when you were very young. How did your food odyssey begin? My early teens were tough years. I felt misunderstood at school and I was pretty angry at the world. After being expelled, I was sent to a Skill Centre where I took part in a cooking class. I loved it and soon started knocking on the kitchen doors of pubs offering my services for work. My first job was as a pot washer at the local pub but within three months I was on salads and then a month later on desserts. After that, I have never really looked back.

How have you developed your skills on the job? You’re learning everyday in the kitchen but for my character, the best development is on the job. I was never great in the classroom so for me it’s always been about getting out of my comfort zone. I have always looked for jobs and roles where I knew I would be challenged to improve and learn,
even if it meant less money, long hours and extra pressure. I wanted to improve my skills on the grill so I moved to The Hawksmoor. My pasta making skills weren’t up to scratch so I spent a time at Jamie Oliver’s. I felt my fine dining knowledge and precision could be better so I spent a period at Mayfair 34. To really develop, I think it’s vital that you’re honest with yourself, admit to your own weaknesses and then go out and improve so they become strengths.

There can’t be that many who double up as professional chef and tattoo artist? How did that come about and are there any similarities between the two jobs? Drawing was always an outlet for me to vent and express myself and somewhere I could always find peace. When I was 16 years old, I took some of my drawings into the local tattoo parlour called Tattoo Zoo. The proprietor called Vinnie was so impressed that he asked to use a couple of the designs and in return I got a free tattoo. I soon started working there to study and learn the skill. In some ways, there are a lot of similarities between the two professions as they are both forms of art in my eyes and precision is everything. Sometimes when creating a dish, you can try too much and over complicate it with too many ingredients. It’s the same with tattoos – less is often so much more. It’s about striking simplicity.

Who has been your biggest influence?
I have worked for and with some amazing chefs, learning things from each and every one of them but no one gets close to my Nanna when it comes to influencing and inspiring the food artist in me. My earliest memories were of baking with her, and by the time I was eight, I was confidently baking bread, making cakes and sweets. I didn’t really know it at the time but what I learnt from my Nanna would put me in good stead in my future career.

You were a quarter finalist in Master Chef – The Professionals in 2018? How was the experience and do you have any more TV plans? While it didn’t go exactly to plan, it was a very rewarding experience and I found out a lot about myself. I was slightly disappointed with my performance at times as I hold myself to high standards but in all honesty, I have never been so nervous in my life. When I have 500 covers in the restaurant, I get excited but with the cameras and lights on, at times my brain was blank and I made silly mistakes. It’s all part of my personal development though and the Great British Menu would be a show I’d definitely like to have a go at in the future. What has been your proudest professional moment and why? Without doubt getting the Head Chef role at Gordon Ramsey Restaurants. I received a call out of the blue and was asked to come in, not really knowing what they had in mind. After a typical tough test by the legendary Jocky Petrie, I was then thrown in the deep end to help in the middle of service at The York & Albany. I remember Gordon just happened to turn up to oversee the service, which was a bit of a nightmare, but they must have seen enough as Gordon personally congratulated me and I was soon offered the Head Chef role.

What has been your darkness moment in the kitchen? I had a bad accident at work where I broke my tibia, fibia and smashed my ankle. It was a long road to recovery and at times I did doubt if my leg would ever be up to the challenge of being a chef again. After all, we spend a lot of time on our feet! This was a very tough time physically and mentally but with the support of my incredible wife and kids, I battled on and didn’t give up on my dreams.

And now for two questions that we ask all of our Leading Lights…

  1. What are your three kitchen secrets? a. When baking, always add a pinch of salt. It’s vital when it comes to balance. b. Mince your garlic by simply using a good pinch of salt and mashing it with a fork. The salt helps with the breaking down process. c. When resting meat, remember to turn it over halfway through. This will ensure the middle is perfect.
  2. What is your favourite ingredient and why? It has got to be eggs as they are just so versatile. Great in sweets, savoury dishes, baking, binding, glazes and can do a job across breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner.

For the full recipe, visit www.stiritupmagazine.co.uk/recipes