Interview with an Innovator

Freak Scene’s Scott Hallsworth: ‘There could be opportunities for fun, zesty mix-ups of different Asian food cultures in 2020’

The executive chef discusses his love for the acidic, his initial hesitations with the sashimi pizza concept and his belief that the centuries-old shojin ryori food movement could align with the vegan trends of today.

10 January 2020
asianchefsfermentedfusionjapaneserestaurantsInterview with an Innovator

Hallsworth on paper

  • After arriving in London in 2001, the Aussie spent six years at Nobu in Park Lane, rising through the ranks to become head chef
  • Launched his Japanese izakaya concept, Kurobuta, in 2013, adding two more venues across London over the next three years
  • Sold his Kurobuta group in 2017, opening Freak Scene in Soho a year later.

For most chefs, catering for an end-of-season hunting event for the son of the founder of Nando’s in a sprawling estate in the countryside might be a bit of an unusual start to the year. But Scott Hallsworth, who had the audacity to serve them chicken, is quite used to ‘out of the ordinary’ scenarios.

Born in the small town of Collie in Western Australia, Hallsworth swapped his early rock star aspirations for a globetrotting chef career, cooking his way around Canada, Singapore, Switzerland, France, Bahrain and the UK.

London was where he first found fame, with the maverick Aussie rising to the level of head chef at the critically acclaimed Nobu Park Lane, mastering the intricacies of high-end Japanese cuisine along the way.

Hallsworth continued his jet-setting ways after leaving London, helping to open restaurants in Melbourne, Dubai and West Sussex, before returning to the capital to launch his Kurobuta concept in 2013.

Based on the izakaya (a type of informal Japanese restaurant/bar concept serving a wide variety of small plates), Kurobuta was a huge success, with the initial popup turning permanent and spawning two bricks-and-mortar siblings over the next three years.

But ‘out of the ordinary’ isn’t always a positive thing, as Scott discovered, with his latest restaurant concept, Freak Scene, initially created as “a need to survive” following the trauma of losing his beloved Kurobuta empire after falling into administration.

“I’d spent years creating Kurobuta,” Hallsworth tells Food Spark. “I devised it, built it up, raised the investment – I even wrote a book!

“I lost everything overnight and I was flat on my arse. And then, with a very small amount of money, me and my partner decided to do a pop-up as a decent space opened up in Farringdon.

“I had a yearning to do something with Southeast Asian flavours, which I did when I was much younger in Australia and when I worked in Singapore briefly when I was a teenager.

“I wanted to do something much louder and more fun than with Kurobuta while still keeping it in the style of an izakaya.”

Freak Scene – a no-holds-barred, Southeast Asian small plates venture with a theatrical open kitchen, is very much at home in the heart of Soho, with a name to match its nature.

“There’s too many four-letter, two-syllable Japanese concept restaurant names out there and I find it contrived and boring,” Hallsworth says. “Itsu, Zuma, Roka – it’s ridiculous!

“I love my Dinosaur Jr. and I got the name Freak Scene from their third album. Everyone hated the idea at first but that made me want to do it more! Do you think anyone thought ‘Pink Floyd’ was a great name to start with? To innovate, you’ve got to break some boundaries.”

Here, Hallsworth takes Tom Gatehouse through some of Freak Scene’s most popular dishes, taps pan-Asian to do well in 2020 and explains his three-step process with new dish creation.

After the [Freak Scene] pop-up in Farringdon, we found a temporary space in Soho, but the building was intended to be heavily renovated and even partially demolished. But partway through our first year here they told us that, because of the uncertainty of Brexit and the property market as it is, they couldn’t renovate, so they gave us a long-term lease, making us one of the few people to benefit from Brexit straight away!

There's always a huge back catalogue of ideas, and I never have enough platforms to do them from. We always keep a pretty tight menu here, just because of the space. We do small plates and a small menu, keeping it simple but exciting.

We’ve recently brought back our honey-hoisin grilled pork belly lettuce wrap with pineapple sambal and mussels. I had it on before, but I got a little bored of it, but it’s back and doing really well.

Some of our most popular dishes at the moment are the beef tataki – which I created at Nobu – our chilli crab bomb with avocado and our roasted hispi cabbage, which is probably the most popular. It’s roasted with dried miso, ponzu and truffle oil. We call it our magical cabbage!

Ponzu’s an interesting one because base ponzu can be pretty plain. But then there's so many derivatives you can make from it, like barrel ageing it, smoking it and so on – the list is endless. It's a great basis for many other things.

Ingredients themselves are probably my main source of inspiration, and then just having that wacky, lightbulb moment. It can happen anytime – while watching a movie, seeing other food, anything! I find myself thinking of combinations sometimes and a feeling just comes over me, and suddenly I’m in the corner scribbling away like a mad idiot!

Quite a few years ago I was consulting for a chap in Bahrain who had a Japanese restaurant and he asked me to make this sashimi pizza. He thought everyone would love it out there. I told him it sounded like an awful idea, but that I’d give it a shot.

I reluctantly tinkered around with it and realised that he might be on to something. I came up with a pizza that I was quite pleased with. I gave him the recipe, taught his chefs and then brought it back to London. I did a tuna version at Kurobuta for some time and now we have a salmon version at Freak Scene.

It’s all about having a crispy base with salmon sashimi on top. There’s no cheese, instead we have a ponzu, and we add truffle mayonnaise so it grabs on to the base (ponzu is not very viscous on its own).

I’m a non-meat eater these days and if you look back at the history of Japanese cuisine, Japan was strictly vegetarian, by law, in one of the old eras.

There was a Buddhist food movement called the shojin ryori which was basically veganism. Meat and seafood were both banned in the diet, so they have a rich back catalogue of vegan cuisine thousands of years before it became trendy.

There’s no one that I know of doing that in the UK. But a few years ago, a shojin ryori chef from Japan did a small, short-term pop-up in London and I went to see him in action. It was pretty avant-garde as it was so unbelievably simple and relied on incredible ingredients. But it was interesting to see, and I think it could be done in a way to suit the current UK market.

We actually have a couple of dishes on our menu, like our miso-based aubergine, that comes directly from the shojin ryori era.

I think that our pan-Asian style, which is really trendy in Australia, hasn’t really been done in a big way in the UK yet. For example, a blend of Thai and Singaporean, that sort of thing hasn’t yet taken off here, and I think there could be opportunities for places who do fun, zesty mix-ups of different Asian food cultures under one roof, so we might see more of that in 2020 and beyond.

When coming up with a new dish, my starting point is always umami – the mouthfeel and the savouriness. Then I look at balance. I’m a big fan of acid, in whatever form – citrus or certain vinegars, certain fermenting that makes things acidic like with kimchi. Then texture – having textures that work against each other like a soft and a crunchy or a smooth and silky against a crumbly.

Not tasting things in the right context is a mistake some chefs can make. In the kitchen, you're busy and you're running around all day and you might not eat a whole portion of something. When you taste something, you might get a few other chefs around you to have a bite and you might all have just one or two bites. But when you serve it to a customer, it might total 12 bites, which might be too much. So, eating a proper portion, putting the dish into context, sitting down and eating it properly is actually pretty important.

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