Having just opened his first restaurant under the name of Piquet, chef Allan Pickett opens up to Produce Business UK about “living the dream” of nurturing, leading and facilitating his own dining room, offering his own creations and following personal sourcing ethics, everyday
Hailing from the Kent, Pickett is all about fresh produce and fresh is his ethos. He tells me the goal for his restaurant is to create a kitchen garden, but space – let alone green space – is scarce around the prime London location of Fitzrovia, where his 200-plus cover a day premises resides. Even so, he’s aiming to bring a bit of the country to the capital.
When I appeared to interview Pickett an hour or two before the lunch rush, his team of chefs was neatly making fresh herb gnocchi under Pickett’s watch in the restaurant’s kitchen, which lies beneath the establishment’s moody street-level bar ‘The Fir Room’.
A collaboration between Pickett and restaurateur André Blais, the restaurant Piquet is a delicate balancing act between good-quality seasonal ingredients, training chefs and staff, and managing cost sheets and publicity.
“Cooking is the easy part,” says Pickett. “We have to work on how to get busier, and to maintain the regular customers as well as the quality of our fresh ingredients, which is crucial to people returning for more.”
Pickett’s attitude towards fresh produce is summed up in Piquet’s seasonal salad, which aptly changes with the season.
My visit was in April, so a spring salad was on the menu. Available as both a starter or a main portion, the salad comprises the best of the season at that point. My salad featured old-season Jerusalem artichokes (shaved and fried until crispy) and lightly pickled winter Pied de Mouton mushrooms, with a mix of pickled and raw radish, asparagus spears and baby lettuce leaves.
“It’s a journey within a salad; it balances earthiness, freshness and acidity,” explains Pickett, who studied general catering for two years at Thanet College, now known as East Kent College, before embarking on jobs at various restaurants in London.
“The radish and lettuce leaves bring crunchy freshness and the early asparagus spears and mushrooms bring an earthy quality and some umami. Then you have a touch of frisee lettuce to lighten up the darkness and a deeper flavour from the Jerusalem artichokes.”
As exemplified by the changing salad’s starring role, seasonality is key for Pickett. Using the best of what’s available from Europe – and England, where possible – the chef isn’t scared of putting forward the true availability of fresh produce on his menu.
“We have just had wild asparagus from Italy for a week and a half, and that’s it; it’s finished,” he says. “We include it in the menu and then it changes. But, as a rule, I’ll always get Wye Valley Asparagus from Cobrey Farms in Hereford, because it’s the best you can get.”
With the help of his foraging and green-fingered mother, Pickett also transfers the Kent countryside to his inner city restaurant. For the first few months of the restaurant’s opening, it was the chef’s mum who provided the foraged hedgerow blackberries.
“She finds elderberries, damsons, rosehips and apples – as well as grows herbs and other bits in her garden and two allotments,” explains Pickett, who clearly enjoys his mother’s role within the restaurant. “For her it’s something a bit different and it gets her involved. For me it’s like having eyes and ears in the countryside.”
Making it happen
Pickett’s time at Roux empire Le Gavroche provided his biggest sourcing inspiration, however.
“The seven months of experience I got there, I couldn’t have amassed over seven years at some restaurants,” he shares. “The different produce I saw coming through the back door of the kitchen was amazing. It couldn’t be anything but 100% perfect.
“Chef Michel [Roux Jnr] sources the produce himself and if it’s second class, it goes back straight away. It’s that upper level of dedication; it’s quality, quality, quality all the way through. It’s a restaurant that can afford to stock 7kg black truffle on a rolling basis – and there are not many out there that can do that!”
Although Pickett says chefs learn from other chefs in terms of how to source the right ingredients, he sees social media, in particular Twitter, as a game-changer going forward.
“It’s an open forum for produce, with accessible and public suppliers,” he explains. “When I set up a restaurant in Hampshire a couple of years ago, I was trying to find suppliers in the area on the internet and it was a useless task. Slowly people would come in and offer their products and then the relationships built up. But it happens less now because social media makes everything so accessible.”
Now he knows exactly what he wants, Pickett says he prefers to deal with people he has known work-wise for years, and he likes to understand the people behind the supplier companies.
“I look for signs of quality,” says Pickett. “We have the first wild strawberries from France at the moment and they are perfect quality, but very expensive – nearly £130 a kilo. They are listed on the menu and hopefully diners understand – or are told, if they ask – why they only get a few [on their plate]. Price is important, but consistency of product coming through is more important.”
Eat at Piquet
Where: Piquet, 92 Newman St, London W1T 3EZ
When: Monday to Saturday 12pm-11pm, Sunday 12pm-10.30pm,
Why: As Pickett puts it, if you’ve had a stressed day, you can come to Piquet and walk out a different person. And that’s the atmosphere they have achieved. Relaxed and with a touch of Parisian moodiness in the dark décor, the bar and restaurant pipes out 1930s swing and jazz, while you sit back on padded benches and curved 70s chairs.
The distinction between the rooms, The Restaurant and The Fir Room really works too. For a more formal three-course occasion, the former is perfect, with an open kitchen, considered lighting and ambience. Whereas, for drinks and bites to eat after work or a leisurely lunch at the weekend, The Fir Room is relaxed with all the same standards of food and service.
What to eat: There’s a set three-course lunch (£16.50) and a dinner menu. I went off-piste as I couldn’t resist the spring salad (£8.50/£15), which was as crisp and complex as Pickett’s description.
The food is fresh in its ideas and ingredients, and the dishes deliver flavour combinations that have obviously been long thought over. The pork belly with parsnip mash (£10.50) is worth ordering if you fancy something a little more traditional. But, remember, the menu changes very regularly, albeit apart from some staple offers, like the Littlebourne snail pithivier (£12), for which the restaurant is becoming recognised.
There’s also a Sunday lunch menu with three courses for £19.50 from 12 noon until 3pm. And, you can get a bottomless glass of exceptional Franck Massard Mas Sardana Cava for £9.50 (bottomless for two hours – naturally).