Raz Helalat was onto the idea of cooking with fire long before it became a staple of the UK food scene. When he was looking to open his first restaurant a decade ago, there was no doubt in his mind that cooking with charcoal would be the thing to drive it, harking back to the way his grandmother would cook in the backyard. “Obviously now you’d almost be silly not to open a restaurant cooking with fire,” he quips.
Yet he had a bit of an unexpected route into the restaurant world. Helalat originally studied financial economics at City University in London but dropped out after a year to pursue his passion in music. He spent some years on the nightclub scene, just as electronic music was kicking off, but realised it was a lifestyle he couldn’t keep up as he got older, particularly after he met his future wife.
Now he runs The Coal Shed both in Brighton and at London’s One Tower bridge development, as well as The Salt Room. Back in July, his London site revived the 60s retro classic surf ’n’ turf, putting it on as brunch for Saturdays with an offering that spanned everything from a 500g Himalayan salt sirloin to nduja with mussels.
Just this month, he introduced an express lunch to The Coal Shed in Brighton and London consisting of smoky buns and smoky bowls with options like short ribs, aubergine and dorito hake, served up with shoestring fries and house pickles – a nod to people who are time poor.
He talks to Food Spark about the differences operating in Brighton and London, serving up fish fresh off the boat and how sustainability will influence the future of food.
The Coal Shed is born out of the love of cooking over fire and smoke, so it’s lots of grilled meat and fish. Steak was a huge part when we first started – when we first started, steak was really the centrepiece – but I think that menu has expanded to bring in other cuts of meat and fish as well. It’s big, bold flavours. There is the whole fish we cook, or sometimes we like to smoke whole birds as well – everything we can fit onto a grill or smoker really.
We love to use lots of herbs and spices and we don’t like anything subtle at The Coal Shed. Everything needs to pack a punch.
The Salt Room is a lot more refined. It’s almost the opposite of what The Coal Shed is; it’s definitely one’s the male and one’s the female. It’s a lot gentler, it’s a lot more subtle, but they both complement each other very well.
I think the sharing dishes are always the most popular. In The Salt Room, the sharing fish or the sharing shellfish platters, which we call The Surfboard, they are definitely a highlight. And certainly the sharing dessert that has been on from day one, which is called a Taste of the Pier. It’s an ode to all the seaside sweets that you could get, so things like candy floss, doughnuts, little ice cream cones. We have taken little bits out of it and refined them a little bit, and there’s little chocolate truffles that look like pebbles.
When we opened The Coal Shed in London, we did this smoked goat shoulder. We wanted to use a different cut of meat and that has been absolutely flying out the door. It’s slow cooked, we put lots of Moroccan spices on it, and it comes with lots of different salads and breads, lots of different sauces and yoghurts, and this amazing Yemeni chilli paste called zhoug. People have raved about it. Even [The Times restaurant critic] Giles Coren came in and had it twice and loved it as well.
We tried to do what we did with the goat dish up in London, using the same philosophy, but with a whole smoked duck [in Brighton]. We grilled it and quartered it and had it with lots of different accompaniments and a beautiful, rich gravy and different vegetables. I thought it was an amazing dish but it just didn’t work for some reason.
I don’t know why, whenever we put on duck on The Coal Shed it just doesn’t seem to sell that well. Who knows, maybe we will come up with that one recipe that we can get it right? But we have tried quite a few different variations. You have to try these things. Sometimes you get it bang on and sometimes they just nose dive and you just have to learn and adapt it.
At The Coal Shed, when we first opened nine years ago, we had this smoked beef short rib on, which has been on our menu since day one. It’s never gone off and it’s pretty much the same thing. Now you see smoked short rib on a lot of menus, but it was very much an underused cut back 10 years ago and it’s a lovely dish that just win praises every time – simple but very effective.
We are getting asked for more and more vegetarian and vegan-friendly dishes, which is obviously a sign of the times as people are trying to be a lot healthier. Before we would only have one vegetarian starter and one vegetarian main on the menu, and now I think there will be at least three starters and possibly a couple of mains.
For lunches we are moving away from this two-course set lunch thing. I just think people don’t have time for two courses and I think it’s quite old hat now. People want something quick and easy, so we have just started a new one-course express lunch at The Coal Shed [offering] smoky buns, smoky bowls. People… just want something tasty, cheap; something that is going to keep them going.
I’m a sucker for Korean tastes and chillies so I am definitely tending to use a bit of that in our smoky buns and smoky bowls to make some of the marinades and sauces, which packs a punch.
Where we are [in London] there is a hell of a lot more corporate lunches and dinners. In Brighton, we don’t tend to see that unless you are one of the big chains – lunch just isn’t a big thing here. But in London if you get it right you can have a great lunch trade and that massively helps any business and people will spend a bit more in London. That’s the one big difference between the two places.
I sit with each of the head chefs and we go through ideas and we try and put half a day every two weeks aside to go through development of dishes.
We change our menus quite a lot. I think we are in constant development all the time really, so it can be quite all consuming as well as running everything else in the business. It’s very much a joint effort that will bring ideas to the table.
Sometimes I just know there are things that aren’t going to sell as it’s either too intricate or not going to be practical to serve it. So we spend this time to get it right, so that it tastes right, looks right and it’s easy to get out. Both restaurants, especially The Salt Room, can do big, big numbers. As great as a dish can be, if it’s not practical for a lunch service when you are doing 150 covers, we just won’t put it on.
The seasons are the most important thing. It’s always about what’s coming up in season, what’s going out of season, what fish is around, especially at The Salt Room. We try and use fish that is local to the area, that is caught that day and delivered that day. So it’s literally from boat to the plate that same day and you don’t get much fresher than that.
There’s an amazing company that we work with called Natoora up in London that have some of the best vegetables around and provide inspiration.
Everything in climate change, what’s better for the environment – I think all of that will relate to the type of food that we are going to eat. I think you are finding more and more intelligent eaters now, rather than stuffing your face with a dirty chicken burger or a kebab. I think people are a lot more conscious of where it’s come from and what it does to the planet and rightly so really. I think it’s about time we wised up to what it’s doing to the body and the planet and I think if you are not looking after both we are going to hit problems. I think that’s going to be the big thing for the future.
I think Korean food is definitely growing and becoming more and more popular and I’m certainly seeing a lot more of it. There are only a few in the UK but they are doing really well. I think we are going to see more of them popping up with lots of big flavours.