If you can’t find Michael Thompson in the main restaurant at Cub, he’s probably down in the basement, playing in the fermentation lab. Dubbed the Cub Cave, it’s here that the team work on turning food waste into new ingredients for the menu, letting their imaginations run wild.
It’s been less than a month since Thompson was announced as the new head chef of Cub, the Hoxton project from cocktail maestro Mr Lyan (aka Ryan Chetiyawardana) and zero-waste chef Doug McMaster. No stranger to the sustainable philosophy, he previously ran his own waste-conscious pop-up back in 2017. Called Fodder, the aim was to break free from the fusty frills, frigid menus and starched tablecloths of fine dining without compromising on high standards of cooking.
Prior to that, he did spells in several Michelin-starred restaurants, and the combination of his chef experiences has given him a “flair for sustainable luxury,” as McMaster puts it.
Here, he reveals the happy findings and failures so far from his fermentation experimentation, as well as how is he incorporating alcohol into his food.
Cub is all based on sustainability – 80 to 90% of the menu is plant-based – and it’s all about looking at local, seasonal produce.
We try and keep things super seasonal. We have the preservation side of things, which allows seasons to extend. An ingredient is always something that has a story to tell and a reason for why it’s on the plate.
We are giving ideas of what people can explore themselves. We don’t try and make things too difficult and too alienating with processing – we always want to make sure there are things that people can’t do at home – but at the same time ideas, like you can easily ferment at home and can explore using different ingredients.
We have a big emphasis on waste. We will get an ingredient in and use it in its entirety, and then we will think about changing the menu on to something else or changing a dish.
At the moment, we have a turnip dish on. We have been using the bulb and the leaves and we were just trying to work out how we could use the stems as well. We tried various things like actually cooking the stems and eating them, trying to brine them, ferment them, but they have always been that little bit fibrous to eat, which is never enjoyable with that texture. We ended up juicing the stems and fermenting the juice, and from that we have found an incredible flavour… We are using it as a sauce and very simply– we just foam it up and aerate it with some organic rapeseed oil from Duchess Farms and you get almost like a vinaigrette.
Johnny Drain, who works at the Nordic Food Lab, he is a mad scientist, he’s around once a week [to work on the Cub Cave].
The focus on fermentation is to combat the waste side of things and also to channel and look at different flavours. It’s an extra dimension to cooking.
A lot of the fermentation is a waiting game. We are really only just getting started with that. If you’re making a miso or making a black fruit or vegetable from its own sugars, it’s going to take up to three months before you see the full effect. We are constantly playing around with things; if we have a bit of waste or there is some trim, we will try out all of these methods.
We’ve had little bits of trimmings of broccoli recently that fermentation doesn’t agree with, so we will try and do other things. It’s definitely a journey or trial and error situation, when we get something good we will make it into a larger batch.
Looking at nostalgic things, little plays off things that I enjoyed as a child, gives me inspiration. As well as the amazing people I’ve worked with in the past and things they have taught me and techniques I have learned and just playing around in my head a lot.
Our abalone mushroom has definitely been a big talking point. We get these lovely cultivated giant mushrooms, sort of between an elm and a king oyster. We think the name is derived from the shellfish because it has a similar meaty, fishy texture like a scallop or a piece of chicken and to find that within a mushroom is quite incredible. That has definitely had a sense of stage within the meal at Cub.
Our fermented parsnips taste a lot like banana, which is quite incredible to think some time and heat has transformed the flavour into this sweet, banana flavour. It’s great to be able to use it when you work with such seasonal produce and you try and look at British farming, rather than looking abroad for mangoes, oranges, lemons and bananas. It’s quite nice to have those flavours and to be able to use those flavours in food without reaching for one of those.
The banoffee pie is my proudest dish. I love the fact we are able to give those flavours of a banoffee pie [from the parsnips] and know we haven’t used any form of imported ingredients or carbon footprint to achieve it.
With the pop up, I created the Fodder feast: it was an ice lolly which was made of meadowsweet, which is a wild herb, and artichoke ice cream, because we were using the skins of the artichoke but wanted to use the pulp. So we made an ice cream dipped it into some chocolate, rolled it in hazelnuts and popping candy, and that was a real delicious one.
The main goal at the moment, especially for me, is to incite the conversation about what sustainability is. I think it’s a word that is bandied around quite a lot and it’s about actually just discussing really key issues with people.
If everyone has half a cabbage for their Sunday roast, instead of just throwing it away, can we teach people that you can pop it in a 3% brine of salt and water and leave it for five days? And when you come around to have your next Sunday roast it will be a different flavour and it wouldn’t have rotted or deteriorated.
We are just about to put a goat dish on from Cabrito Goat, who are taking kid goats from the dairy industry that would otherwise have just gone straight to slaughter. If we are consuming goat’s cheese, should we also be eating these kid goats that are being born for that necessity? It’s definitely something to open up the discussion.
We are looking at working with green crabs, which are a small invasive crab that are actually interfering with fisheries. I’ve only just started to speak with the supplier about these, but they are catching hundreds of these – they are almost like a single crayfish with the way they repopulate – and as much as you would use them or eat them, they are going to multiply back 10-fold before you can even use that amount.
I really like to look at using alcohol in food in some form, like using whisky in a caramel. We are steeping cherries in sake at the moment.
We have made miso out of barley from Islay out of Bruichladdich [Distillery]. And we are trying to use the kasu, which is the leaves on the pulp from making sake, so I’m trying to get in touch with Kanpai down in Peckham to use some of that in food.
I think the fermentation thing is a massive thing at the moment. I think a lot more people are interested, especially with the release of The Noma Guide to Fermentation, which is an amazing encyclopaedia for people to understand better. I think they formulated that really well. I think people will be playing around with that a lot more.
More and more people are becoming fascinated with the flavours of Japan and China and incorporating those ideals and practices… Maybe more fine dining Mexican or South American restaurants could come along.
Open-fire cooking is huge at the moment; that definitely has a big centre stage right now, which I love in the flavours you can get from using different woods.
Simplicity and clean flavours are what people are more interested in, rather than manipulating something into what it’s not.
At the moment, social media has a huge impact, but I wonder if that’s peaking and what’s the next one going to be? I think because there are more and more people who are becoming influencers or have big followers on Instagram, I wonder if at some point people are going to turn and look for real quality know-how on that side of things. Are we going to start to look at people like an amazing sommelier rather than someone who sees it as hobby? I think we are going to be looking for more expert opinions through those platforms rather than someone who takes the best pictures – more of the story behind it, rather than the face value.