Interview with an Innovator

Alchemilla’s Alex Bond: 'I love to see a carnivore get visibly blown away by a cabbage!'

The meat-loving chef talks about experimenting with plant-based dishes, why shapes are important to his process and how he managed to survive his 70-hour opening night.

26 April 2019
chefsplant-basedrestaurantsvegetables

Bond on Paper

  • Worked at several noted restaurants, including Auberge du Lac, Restaurant Sat Bains and The Wild Rabbit in Kingham.
  • Ran weekend pop-up restaurants around the country from 2015 to gather support for his first solo venture.
  • After securing investment and completely renovating a 150-year-old former Victorian coach house, Bond opened his own restaurant, Alchemilla, in Nottingham in the summer of 2017.

Almost two years ago, around the time plant-based foods really started to enter the mainstream, Alex Bond was opening his first restaurant. Today, despite still being in its infancy, Alchemilla in Nottingham already has a reputation for being a vegetable-leaning fine-dining heavyweight, but if you talk to the former Sat Bains chef about his concept and, indeed, the meat-free boom, he’s surprisingly ambivalent.

“People tell me that veganism and the whole plant-based thing is trendy, but I don’t really know to be honest,” says Bond.

“We didn’t set out to be a plant-based restaurant. It just sort of happened. When we were building the restaurant – and I mean from scratch, as the building was unbelievably run-down – my family and I started to eat more vegetable-based dishes as money was low.”

While his home life influenced the development of the original menu, Bond’s delight in surprising customers is what has kept the menu experimenting with greens, as he tells Tom Gatehouse.

 

It’s people’s perceptions of vegetables that really interests me as I love to see a carnivore get visibly blown away by a cabbage.

People have a basic perception of things like cauliflower, cabbage and carrots. Most people’s mums have butchered a vegetable at home and people associate with that. Bland and mushy – you know what that tastes like!

Our celeriac dish is one of the most popular on the menu. We cook it in goat’s butter and glaze it with black garlic and a seaweed stock which really transforms it. We serve it with goat’s curd finished with a mixed herb oil, black garlic caramel, beurre noisette, balsamic vinegar and black garlic gravy. I love the look on people’s faces.

I’m very much a meat eater and we have plenty of meat on the menu. Human beings have naturally evolved to be meat eaters, from our teeth to chew it to our brains, with the creation of fire to cook it. I do think that the purchase and consumption of meat is out of control, though – it’s all too easy and a bit unnatural.

I’d class myself as an ethical carnivore. An animal’s well-being matters to me. Our pork and lamb, for example, come from animals that are let out to roam after the first seven days. Pigs are generally slaughtered after the 20-week mark, but those that come from our local supplier get 35 weeks.

My passion for cooking didn’t really come from my parents. My mum cooked us food for fuel and my dad, well, he was kind of like Keith Floyd! Lots of booze, a big song and dance and lots of enthusiasm. I don’t really have a clear moment where I knew that I was going to be a chef.

To be honest, I joined domestic science at school as there were a lot of girls in that class. But I did two weeks’ work experience as a 14-year-old and it was around that time that I realised that it was the only thing I really wanted to do.

I’ve worked with a lot of good chefs, but the chef that inspired me the most was Anthony Flinn. I think he was the only British chef to have worked at El Bulli who was actually paid. He had an incredible way of looking at food and I really connected with him.

I take inspiration from a lot of places – I love L’Astrance in Paris, for example. They had a foie gras dish on the menu with mushrooms that was almost a tart. It was the shape that really stuck with me. It was like a savoury cake. I’ve a similar shaped dish on our menu and it’s a little like potato dauphinoise but layered with smoked eel. We bake it in a horseradish, thyme and garlic cream and serve it with a salted lemon puree and a sauce made from buttermilk and horseradish split with burnt chive oil.

I’m terrible at sitting down and writing down my ideas. I much prefer them to grow naturally with my chefs and through experimentation. I’ve got a great team here and I’m very happy with the menu right now. We all sit down regularly and discuss ideas and I think we’ve got a great balance.

I believe the worst thing a chef can do in terms of his menu is be stubborn. You might like a dish – and I firmly believe a chef should cook what makes him happy – but if the reception doesn’t match it, a chef must rein it in.

Sometimes, the chef’s taste and diners’ tastes don’t sync up. It happens. We once had a dessert on that we worked at for ages and it didn’t go down very well. It was an anise hyssop custard with a poached cherry gel. One customer said it tasted like cherry sambuca! We also had an ice cream at Sat Bains made with white truffle and brown butter. Us chefs loved it, but it bombed.

I think the three most important factors for a dish are flavour, flavour and, last but not least, flavour. Sure, texture and temperature and the like are important, but if you don’t have flavour you don’t have anything.

There’s a good saying for chefs who take shortcuts and don’t take the care necessary to achieve what they set out to do in terms of a dish: “If you don’t have time to do it properly, when are you going to have time to do it twice?” Make sure you find the time and do it right.

Opening night at Alchemilla was a Tuesday, but for my sous chef, Liam Sweeney, and I, it was a 70-hour experience with just a few hours' kip on the bar floor. The amount of work needed to fashion a restaurant out of the original building was crazy. And, two days before, things still weren’t finished. Liam and I were letting builders, joiners and electricians in and prepping all through the night as we couldn’t cook with them there due to health and safety.

Our cooking shifts were 9pm to 6am in the lead-up and we did that two nights in a row. I remember sitting down before first service and I could feel my brain banging around in my head. The day of the soft launch, our waitstaff were shepherding builders out the door as guests started to arrive. We started at 4pm and finished everything at 4am. It was mental.

Some people said I should have opened in the most affluent part of Nottingham rather than on the edge of the city centre, but I want diners to come to me. We’re still working on our roof terrace, which should be open around June. Wolfgang Buttress, the artist who did The Hive at Kew Gardens, designed the space, and we’re also looking at the flats above the restaurant for rooms. We might also try to have something like a wine bar in the space next door to the restaurant if it becomes available.

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