With long days in the kitchen at Tredwells in Covent Garden, as well as overseeing all aspects of the restaurant, you wouldn't think chef Chantelle Nicholson would have much spare time. But this New Zealander, who arrived in London 14 years ago, crams a lot into her days.
In April, she released a new cookbook called Planted: A Chef’s Show-stopping Vegan Recipes, where one of her favourite ingredients, aquafaba – the watery substance found in cans of chickpeas – features in 24 dishes. Last month, it was announced that Nicholson is developing a plant-based food-to-go concept in partnership with contract caterer Graysons.
Nicholson hasn’t taken the typical chef route. She studied law and commerce and spent a year and a half in Wellington working as a lawyer. Her career trajectory changed after she entered a cooking competition held by Gordon Ramsay and made it to the finals, where she met fellow New Zealand cook Josh Emett. He was the head chef at the Savoy Grill in London at the time and offered her a job. Nicholson jumped on a plane to London for what she thought would be a two-year stint.
Instead, she stayed on in Britain, rising to the position of group operations director at Marcus Wareing Restaurants and chef patron at Tredwells. She chats to Food Spark about the challenges of plant-based puddings, the psychology of selling dishes on a menu and how TV cooking programs have portrayed kitchens in the wrong way.
Food is a big deal in our family. We had really good cooks on both sides – my aunts and my grandparents – and my dad was a horticulture teacher, so we always had fresh fruit and vegetables. I had an aunt and uncle who had a stone fruit orchard, so food was everywhere, and it was just something I always loved from a very young age.
I prefer the term ‘plant-based,’ as that refers to the food rather than the lifestyle. When we opened Tredwells I was really conscious about making it a really inclusive restaurant. So anyone could come in that had dietary requirements or intolerances and would feel comfortable and confident with ordering off the menu and not having to ask any questions of what’s in the food.
When I started doing more with plant-based food, I found it really challenging and interesting. But when I started looking for resources that were there for chefs, I couldn’t find a whole book of recipes that as a chef I would get excited about making. So I thought there was definitely a need for something like that.
I still cook meat and fish and enjoy it, but I think it’s definitely about lessening that side of things and increasing more of the plant-based ingredients.
Plant-based has got to be delicious first and foremost. I think what people sometimes tend to do is not treat a dish that doesn’t have meat or fish in the same way. They don’t put as much effort and don’t use the same cooking techniques, and for me that’s wrong.
You wouldn’t steam a piece of steak, but people feel it’s quite okay to put a plain, steamed vegetable on the plate. Yes, you could do it, but you’re not going to get the best out of it. So what are the cooking techniques we use with meat? Caramelisation, high heat, grilling and barbecuing – and you can apply them to vegetables, so that the dish becomes a whole dish in itself and really well rounded and balanced, which I think is what people forget about sometimes.
I think if I look back to even 14 years ago when I first came to London, there wasn’t as much British produce being used as there is today. I will go out of my way to source British produce, and there is amazing meat, vegetables, fruit and English sparkling wine. They are all things that, if we can encourage the industry to use, it’s going to be much better in the longer term.
I don’t think there are necessarily new ingredients, but certainly ones being rediscovered. I think things like miso paste, which people used to make miso soup, but now you can use it in food. I love to use it with vegetables or in a stock or a sauce – it really gives an amazing amount of depth of flavour and savoury elements. Now you can buy fresh ones in the supermarket as well, so it’s becoming much more accessible.
There is amazing British chocolate as well. Like Pump Street chocolate, which is based in Suffolk and is doing really interesting things.
The media has created these TV cooking programs portraying kitchens, and I think they don’t look like particularly great places to be for females. I’m going in and talking to younger generations to get them excited about becoming a chef. There are very few jobs in the world where you get to see the fruits of your labour on such a daily basis. We see twice a day all the work we have put into everything going onto the plate and going out to our guests to enjoy, so that’s hugely rewarding.
The other thing I love about food is we are always going to need people to cook. So you look at all the technology that is coming about now, in terms of being a chef it’s not going to be something that is easily replaced by robots or a system, so there is a longevity in it. It’s also great for travelling and life skills.
One of my favourite dishes is the peanut butter pudding with a dark chocolate sorbet. The biggest challenge is the pastry in a dessert when it came to plant-based foods, as you obviously don’t have eggs, which are very useful in most pastry items, and you don’t have butter or cream – three major components of puddings and sweet things.
It was hard to find a way around that to create something that was satisfying and rich and delicious. Obviously, nuts are great for that and texture was a big part of that, as I wanted to put something on the menu that could stand on its own. The peanut butter pudding is not on there because it’s plant-based, it’s there because it’s delicious. That’s been one that stood the test of time and surprised people when you said there’s no eggs, butter or cream and it’s all plant-based ingredients, which shows it can be done.
There are a lot of natural things you can use. Some people think you need to put in unnatural things, but aquafaba was probably my biggest discovery two years ago, which opened up the door hugely to all sorts of things.
There was one dish I did which was a buttermilk-fried chicken, which was delicious. I thought the dish was great – it had a bit of spice, it was crispy, it had a bergamot dressing to add a bit of sweetness. I just really liked the dish. We put it on the menu and it didn’t really sell. So I just changed the wording on the menu and took off ‘fried’ and put ‘crispy’ instead, and from then it really flew out the door. It was a really interesting lesson in human psychology and perception and expectation. If it’s there in black and white, you won’t order it, but if it’s a bit more loose, you will.
My inspiration starts with the produce. I have loads of books that I love to read. I don’t really use exact recipes, I just get inspiration from them. And now Instagram is a great inspiration as well – just the visual aspect of it.
I have heard of places where they do dishes just for Instagram. But I don’t want someone just coming in to get a photo of a dish and not actually enjoying it, and if they just want that photo on their feed I think that is a bit sad.
Sometimes I’ll get surprised and delighted that I’ll post a photo on Instagram of something really simple like a tomato that will get an amazing reach and pick-up – it’s a positive thing to see.
At the end of the day, you have to create the food for your guests and for your team to learn, develop and grow from. You need to bear that in mind, as opposed to an Instagram following. Also, from that following, how many are actually your guests? It’s probably not a huge amount, so it’s just remembering who you are doing it for and why.
Graysons is about a relationship and partnership, and that is a part of the business I don’t know much about – contract catering. It’s a new challenge. Plant-based is in huge demand from their clients.
The first part is creating a food-to-go range. I came up with the idea myself about a year ago of doing my own plant-based food-to-go concept, but time didn’t allow it.
I don’t feel there are any high street chains – or the Prets, Pods or Itsus – that are doing purely plant-based food-to-go. For me, I like the challenge of being able to create something where you don’t get the feeling of missing out – anyone could pick up something from that range and enjoy it, and feel satiated and satisfied from it, and the secondary part is it’s plant-based. It’s all being worked on now – and there needs to be the nutritional value in it as well.
I’m interested in the whole chat about plant protein. It’s important that there are things in that range that give you as much protein as if you were having an egg sandwich or an egg in your salad. I think that’s quite an interesting concept, and with the pudding side of things I’m making sure that box is ticked as well.
The big trend I would like to see take off this year is sustainable packaging in supermarkets, getting rid of the excessive amount of packaging that’s not required for single use and packaging that we can’t recycle or reuse.
I think people are being more conscious about what they’re buying and where it’s coming from and what it’s doing to the planet, as well as their health.
I’m seeing more unrefined sugars and unbleached flour. I think those things are going to become more and more prominent.
When I’m developing a dish, it has to have the textures, so it’s not too mushy and not too hard and crunchy. You have to have the balance and the sweetness, saltiness and acidity, the savoury element – it’s about the whole experience.
Barbecues are my favourite. I’m from New Zealand – it’s in my blood. I love vegetables on the barbecue.