Elizabeth Haigh’s mother cooked a new dish for her father every day for two years. “I thought changing the menu once a week at Pidgin was impressive,” Haigh laughs, speaking to Food Spark in a primly hip space in east London, near her local gym and one of her favourite restaurants, Lyle’s.
The chef shocked the culinary world when – still in her 20s – she won Pidgin a Michelin star, then promptly left her head chef job. “If I’d stayed it would have been harder for me to detach myself and work on my own ideas,” she explains.
Haigh’s young success is thanks to a unique duality she possesses. The chef learned about cooking from her mother, but her degree in architecture at Central St Martins (yes, architecture) gave her a logistical edge.
“Ironically, I know a lot of chefs who used to study architecture,” she says. “Cheffing and architecture share a lot of the same principles, in terms of people management, time management, budget management, constructing and building as well as testing and resolving something.”
Haigh has adopted the Japanese term ‘kaizen,’ a word meaning continual improvement, as her restaurant mantra, and will open a new restaurant called Shibui in 2019 dedicated to this practice of refinement and self-betterment, serving fire-cooked food with Asian and European inspiration.
I never thought I’d be a chef... But when I was at university, I spent more time in my kitchen that I did in my studio – so I wasn’t a great architect. I was interested in creative arts, but cooking has always been my passion. I would spend all my money on really expensive pieces of my meat, while my friends were out clubbing and buying clothes.
As a joke, my friends entered me into MasterChef. I did it and did quite well, so I thought, this is something I enjoy despite the tough competition. That’s why I went into this profession: cooking felt natural.
I started my professional career at gastro pubs in Windsor and Maidenhead. I felt like I needed to catch up after university, so I learnt from scratch. On days off, I’d travel into culinary school in Westminster. It was difficult: for three or four years, cooking was full time, seven days a week, and ridiculous hour weeks.
Working at Michelin-star gastro pubs gave me an interest in refined cuisine. I thought it was fascinating to learn how to treat a range of ingredients with respect. I was presenting classical French food and Michelin-style dishes.
I didn’t have much time to myself when I landed the job at Pidgin. But that is not a bad thing. I love working as hard as I can.
When I was told about the Michelin star, I was shocked. It was a nice round off for what I had achieved at Pidgin, but it pushed me harder to work on Shibui – if I’d stayed it would have been harder for me to detach myself and work on my own ideas.
After changing the menu weekly for 16 months, I had given Pidgin everything I could. I wanted to work more on dishes in my own style, rather than constantly changing.
I want to keep Shibui under wraps until the time is right. Last year I got excited about one site which fell through and I was devastated. But I had Riley [Haigh’s son], which was nice timing to have a break and re-evaluate what I wanted.
Having Riley delayed my Shibui plans – but it was a pleasant delay. Riley made me be more honest with myself and what I wanted to do. It was great timing, because now I have a lot of time at three in the morning when he’s feeding to think about what I want to achieve.
When I was pregnant, I was staggered by how few low-alcohol or no-alcohol options there were. In Estonia, I had a meal of foraged ingredients which were turned into juices – it was more enjoyable than getting absolutely hammered on 12 glasses of wine. It was eye opening to see how enjoyable a juice tasting menu was.
Shibui would have lost a bit of its direction if it opened last year. But now it’s coming into its own identity. We could have rushed into it, but we thought about the principles of kaizen – let’s step back and see what we’re missing, find out who are we going to be.
Shibui will focus on seasonal ingredients when it opens in 2019. There’s going to be a wood fire, then European and Asian ingredients with all the flavour, heat and spice from South-East Asia. I can’t wait to start sharing a bit more news about it. And location’s everything here, you’re committing such a long period of time and money into one place, so you’ve got to make sure it’s right.
Shibui will also be a middle ground. We won’t do tasting menus because I want it to be accessible, I want people to try it and enjoy it however they want. The thesis is ‘refining the unrefined,’ so you could get a bucket of buttermilk chicken and caviar – why not?
When I was at Smokehouse, I was costing dishes with my eyes closed. It is tough these days as the cost of dishes has gone up so much, especially with Brexit. So it is tougher to get that margin over that certain point, especially with rents in London, which are extortionate. With every person that comes in, you need to get a certain amount of money from them.
But there is always a way – you’ve got to be more inventive and creative to save money. When it comes to costing of dishes, you’ve got to minimise waste – that’s a massive thing. There is still a lot of waste in the restaurant industry at the moment. That’s where your money goes, so if you’ve got a broccoli, instead of cutting the stem off, think, ‘What can I do with that stem?’
The customer experience is most important and outweighs the food. If you don’t enjoy being in the restaurant, you’re never gonna come back. My husband isn’t in the industry, but he understands restaurants, he goes to a lot of restaurants as part of entertaining clients, so he understands what good customer service is. I send him to new restaurants and he gives me his honest feedback.
I was baffled that Michelin have only just introduced the service award. It’s about time… You can cook food at home, but you go out because you want to be spoiled or looked after, or just want to have a really good time.
In terms of new ingredients, I’m pushing pandan at the moment. I stuff it in chicken – it has this coconut and vanilla sweet-savoury flavour. It’s hard to pinpoint. I use it everywhere in desserts. I think it’s really interesting and will be cropping up a bit more. Natural wine is also coming a bit more into its own on menus and is more predominant.
I’m not necessarily an advocate for just plant-based cuisine or green everything. But it’s great that people are becoming more conscious of what they’re eating. It’s really important to be selective with what you eat by sourcing ingredients; there’s no point in us spending so much buying cheap trawled fish – if you have fish, make sure it is from a sustainable source.
I’ve learned that business owners need more support from the government in terms of maternity care. With Shibui, we’re bearing in mind how we can be flexible to people with families. More part time, more flexible hours – it’d be impossible for me to work seven days a week now without just entirely missing all of Riley’s growing up. I think split shifts make a huge difference, being supported when staff go on maternity leave.