The London restaurant that changes chef every week
Soaring prices mean some diners are eating out less frequently, putting pressure on restaurants to stand out. The FT's Daniel Garrahan and food writer Tim Hayward visit Carousel, a London multi-use 'dining hub' with a guest chef residency that changes every week, giving diners a different experience each time they visit
Filmed by Richard Topping and Tom Griggs. Edited by Richard Topping. Produced by Tim Hayward and Daniel Garrahan
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So it's him, back again, in central London this time, the West End of London, on Charlotte Street. And we're standing in front of what looks like a restaurant called Carousel. But it's not just a restaurant, is it?
It's a bit more complicated than that. Carousel is a sort of umbrella brand over a space that's effectively about other chefs coming in and collaborating. There's a wine bar in there that has their own menu that's consistent. But there's also a bunch of other stuff going on.
I think it's a really clever response to the toughness of the industry around us at the moment. Let's have a look.
Yeah. Let's go check it out.
So this is Carousel. What is Carousel?
Very good question.
So we're standing in the guest chef dining room here where, basically, every week, two weeks, we host a different chef from around the world to come and join our team in the kitchen. And together, we execute a tasting menu for 50 guests at a time, five nights a week.
Did you say a different guest chef every week?
Pretty much every single week. Some stay for a fortnight. But generally, yeah, it's literally every week, back to back, and has been that way for the last eight years or so.
So this is effectively a dry-hire restaurant, like a dry-hire studio. You walk in, and it's ready to roll.
Well, not quite because it's very collaborative. So more often than not the chef will come on their own. And they'll be plugged into our team in the kitchen. So it's our suppliers. It's our ingredients, the network of suppliers that we're working with.
And so you might have ideas from, I don't know, south-east Asia or wherever it might be, and we're saying, well, no, let's use this fish from Cornwall. And there's Mangalica pigs grown in Herefordshire and that sort of thing. It's very much a two-way thing. And then, obviously, we look after the front of house side of things as well.
And there's some big names here as well. I mean, there's been some quite serious people through the door that you'd want on your CV as a young chef.
Yeah, absolutely. I think, over the years, it's nice. We had a really good balance between chefs who are up and coming and just about to make a big leap in their careers. It's been always a balance of those people who you might not have heard of and then some really, really brilliant restaurants from cities around the world.
I guess the idea is that, by having a team here taking care, hopefully, of all of the annoying bits, it just gives them... they can come and think about what they want to cook, and then fly over and come and do that.
So you're chasing them down? These poor, innocent people are wandering around their own country, and you're phoning them up and saying, come to London? Seriously?
Yeah. I mean, that's how it started. Yeah.
That's how it started. We just get in touch with people and say, look, would you like to come and cook in London?
This is absolutely the opposite of rent a restaurant box.
I mean, you're talking about effectively curating, right?
I hate the word too. It's OK.
Nobody has to love that word.
The idea was born out of saying, well, look, there's these brilliant people doing brilliant things elsewhere. What if we can bring them to London and give people the chance here to try their food without having to get on a plane was essentially the idea.
I didn't know too much about Carousel. And then when Ollie reached out, I obviously had a Google search. And then I saw a couple of my friends have done residencies here, so I spoke to them. And they were like, look, it's a multifaceted hospitality hub. It's got all these different cool operations happening.
And one of their programmes is to invite guest chefs over to do set menus or whatever, residencies. I think the option was to do two weeks, but I can only do one.
You've bought in to effectively do a multiuse space.
And you're doing some stuff that's very, very specifically Asian.
Yeah. I feel like it's... for us it's operating Chinese food in Melbourne, it's not just wok burners, and duck ovens, and steamers. The ethos of our restaurant is cooking Chinese food through almost an Australian lens. My approach here is to showcase some ingredients that's local around here while still using a lot of flavours and techniques that are referencing Lee Ho Fook and a lot of Chinese cuisines.
But it's not an ambition to be in London right now?
No, no. Absolutely not. No.
So you're doing this because it's... fundamentally, you're doing this because it's fun, right?
Absolutely. And that's exactly it.
Tonight's your first night, isn't it?
It is, yeah.
And cooking exposed like this in front of this many people, is that OK with you?
Yeah, I think so. The restaurant's been around for 10 years now, so it's just trying to sell... not sell them the idea, but just tell them the story of how we formed and the style of food we do. And we're going to pair it with a lot of British produce.
There's a bunch of quite impressive people coming tonight. I've had a look at the guest list. Are you going to work the room? Are you going to come out and shake hands and talk?
Absolutely. I think it's a missed opportunity if I don't do this, you know?
So yeah. And also just to see what their reaction is like, you know?
So, Will, you did a guest spot here. How long ago was that, and how did it come about?
It was about tao and a half years ago now. Me and Jack, my business partner, we came from a very different world of two-Michelin-star, five-star hotel. And at the old site on Carousel, it was all just... it was just such a melting pot. You've got all these new residents coming in who bring all these different ideas.
I'd say I learned more about how to run a kitchen in two weeks...
Than you did working alongside...
...has to move there.
Has to move, or fight fires. Something goes wrong, you've got a maintenance department on the phone. Here, we had the head chef with a screwdriver at the back of the fridge changing the decompressors and stuff like that.
It's more like a real restaurant, then.
So, for us, it was just a real education.
What they do here is they take a lot of the operational strain away, and they just let you focus on the food and the concept. So you've got a team. You've got a front of house team who do a briefing and are so knowledgeable. They'll curate a drinks list with you, a wine list, cocktail pairings.
It not only teaches you how to do it, but it also lets you do what you're good at. They've had some massive chefs in here. So when we did it, we were humbled to have been invited.
Is having this on your CV a really big thing now?
It's very well respected among the chef community. They all know exactly what these guys are doing here. They've got a great amount of integrity. It really was one of those pivotal points in our journey.
My name is Santiago Lastra, the chef co-owner of Kol restaurant. I used to work at Noma in Copenhagen. So I worked there for about a year and a half. After that, I started travelling the world, making different pop-ups and events.
And my friend was doing Swedish food, and I was doing some Mexican dishes. So then I thought, what about we do... we use the Nordic ingredients but in a Mexican way? And it was a success. A week after, Ollie from Carousel sent a message to us to come to his new project.
I arrived, and Ollie and Ed, they treat me so well. They treat me as I knew what I was doing. They believe in me. After the pop-up that I did in the two weeks in Carousel, someone saw that in Instagram, and they invited me to cook in Italy.
And I stayed there for three weeks. And then someone saw that and invited me to go to Hong Kong. With this little push from Ed and Ollie, I could literally travel the whole world. Now we are here in Kol eight years after that first residency. We've been open for over two years. We got a Michelin star.
To open your own restaurant with a new concept in a city like London is very hard. A restaurant on this level and on this size needs to have big support, you know? I'm really thankful with the guys from Carousel to give me that opportunity and bet your own business, to compromise your own reputation to someone that is not there yet.
So, Ollie, what's your background? Have you always been into food?
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got into food from probably the age of 14. One of the things that got me into cooking was gardening. That led me into cooking because I found myself making a lot of salads, and I just liked cooking veggies that I'd grown.
So how did the idea for Carousel come about? Was this just something that you wanted to do?
So, before Carousel, we were doing these pop-ups. One of them was called Rumble in the Deli, and it was basically me and our old chef. And me and Michael Max Versetti were the house cooks, and we would invite people to cook against us in some sort of Fight Club things.
When we then got offered the site of Carousel I was 22 and not really ready to go and open my own restaurant. But we wanted to do something. So we started talking about how we could essentially shape a concept that was built around collaboration, where we could operate a restaurant, but I didn't necessarily have to be the chef.
There's a new chef coming through most weeks?
Yeah. yeah, exactly.
That's logistically sounds like a huge challenge, getting that many people to come in. It must take a lot of planning.
Does that ever cause any headaches?
Yeah, no, of course. Of course it does. My phone rings, and there's a chef who is meant to be coming to cook, but they've had some sort of family issues, and they had to cancel three weeks out.
So what happens then?
Well, then, we...
You've got some reserves?
Yeah. We had to, yeah, dig, dig deep into...
You've got, like, a bench.
Yeah. We've got lots of friends and people, and there's always... and we're always in conversation with a lot of people. And we want to have our calendar six, seven months ahead of time. So that gives us enough time.
Sometimes you can bump people forwards, if you need to.
Exactly. Exactly. And that's it. After, we just need a bit of a reshuffle. We don't really tend to invite really, really serious two, three, one-Michelin-star cooks who are really uptight. You need to be up for a challenge.
It's not always going to be perfect. You're going to be outside of your comfort zone. So you just really need to be up for collaboration. And when it comes to egos, it's... if I feel like there's going to be an issue - not an issue there, but - because it's not a problem.
But it's just about planning for that. They're here for a week, but we're here forever. So if it's not good or it's not well planned or not well executed, then we don't really have a business.
We're in quite a challenging time for the restaurant business. I mean, London, obviously, is in a little bit of a bubble. But increasingly, people maybe aren't dining out quite as much as they might have done. Everything's getting more expensive, right?
Do you think that this business model sets you guys apart a little bit?
I think it definitely gives people a reason to come back. What I mean is that it's the same environment. It's the same staff on the floor. It's the same core kitchen team. But yeah, the food experience totally, totally changes.
And look, we also do sometimes change the actual decor and the room. We had came from New York, and they're white tablecloths and loads of beautiful, colourful flowers. Punk Royale, who came from Stockholm, we put bin bags on the windows. We had lasers and UV lights and graffiti everywhere and turned it into a nightclub.
So we're really open to bringing whoever the chef is or the person, bringing their experience to life.
This is more than just a collab. This is more than just a residency. This is kind of...
Yeah. We've worked hard at it to make, I mean, fundamentally, the experience for the chefs as good as possible. Because if the guest chefs we're bringing in don't have a great time and don't get a lot from it, then it's a small world.
Oh, they'll tell their friends. Yeah, no question. It's a business plan where resilience is built in from the very beginning. I mean, if you want to take risks, you could have just opened a regular old restaurant and either succeeded or failed.
You got half a dozen different strands of revenue going through this, and they've got to buffer each other against each other.
Definitely. One thing might be firing, and something might be... if that's spluttering, something else will come in and pick up the slack. And I definitely found that during Covid. And I think having quite a flexible, multifaceted business was a real strength.
Something I've noticed is that with the strikes, and heatwaves, and state funerals and stuff, the wine bar, which is a la carte and get a lot of walk-ins, and it's lunch, dinner, six days a week, that has been very susceptible to the ups and downs of the conditions that we're trading in, whereas with the guest chefs and the events, which are of pre-booked and prepaid, that's been a bit more robust through it.
From behind the scenes, it's the same people operating different things. And I think that's where it gets interesting from a business perspective.