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Interview with Kurobuta’s Scott Hallsworth
August 19, 2014
Japanese food with an unassuming, rock n’ roll vibe: that’s what top chef Scott Hallsworth is going for with Kurobuta. Possibly best known for his stint as Head Chef at Nobu and his organisation of high-profile events for notable clientele including music royalty Michael Jackson and Dave Grohl, Scott sits down for a chat with Candid in his Western izakaya in Marble Arch.
You started your career in Australia. How did you get interested in Japanese and Pan-Asian cuisine?
When I was a little kid there was no such thing as sushi in the house – it was never heard of, never talked about, it would probably have been shunned as “foreign food”. Now Australia is very different; my nieces and nephews will make sushi at the weekend, every weekend. It’s pretty normal stuff now aand that shift started when I was an apprentice.
I was sent on food promotions to Singapore and Taipei and started really falling in love with the Asian aspect. I made my way around the world a bit and ended up in London. I had to find a job quickly and wound up in the Nobu kitchen.
That’s quite a good quick job to find!
It was. I thought they were going to tell me to get lost actually. I turned up there and they were like “Okay, you’re on the sauté section. Four hundred and fifty covers…” and I just thought “What?! Four hundred and fifty covers? Just tonight?!” I had never worked In a place like that before. It was an arse-kicking. It was the first time that I’d felt defeated and happy to be defeated so I thought that it was cool and I’d walk away as I admired those guys. Then they pulled me aside as said “Can you start on Monday”.
So I started, and then rose up the ranks really fast, became Head Chef, ran that kitchen, then moved to Australia and ran that one. I’ve been in love with Japanese food ever since.
So what made you come to the UK in the first place?
I’ve always wanted to work in London and come here to have my ‘schooling’ as it were. With my dad being British as well, I’ve always wanted to be in England. I did go back to Australia once but it wasn’t quite right.
You started the Nobu Melbourne, didn’t you? How was that?
Yeah, it was a huge shock. Even though it was the same company, it was a totally different beast. When you’re the Head Chef at Nobu London, you have access to great staff, great suppliers, people bend over backwards for you, you’ve got everything at your feet. When you go over to Australia, things are different: chefs have bigger attitudes, suppliers don’t care who you are – “International Nobu? Don’t care, mate, I’ve made my money, I don’t need any more. I can supply if you want but two deliveries? Yeah right.” That’s the mentality. I kind of hated it. Melbourne’s a great city but the action is in London and that’s where I wanted to be.
You have a book called The Japanese Foie Gras Project. In it you say that foie gras is the perfect marriage of Japanese and European cuisine. Why is that? That seems quite unusual.
Yeah it is. Well, it is to us. The Japanese have been embracing foie gras since the mid-60s. In Japan they borrow ideas from all over: tempura for instance comes from Portugal.
The sweetness in some of the Japanese dishes and the caramalisation that can happen when you apply teriyaki and miso, naturally work with the foie gras. Foie gras is one of the most umami-rich meats there is; I was actually the first person to have it tested. Miso adds even more umami to foie gras.
Tell us about Kurobuta and the concept behind it
Kurobuta came about when I was completely frustrated with trying to emulate the high-end Japanese restaurants, like Nobu. Every investor who knocked on the door wanted to do a version of Nobu but said that it would be better. I thought that, yeah I could do food that was up there but you can’t capture the vibe by painting the walls like Nobu. Nobu is Nobu. Same with Zuma and all the rest: they’ve got their look, their feel and their loyal fans.
I started thinking “What is me?” I loved Nobu and felt like part of the family but it was not really ‘me’. I’m rock n’ roll. I love going to the grungy places in Tokyo and getting surprised by a great plate of sashimi and going “Holy shit this place is a shithole but the food is awesome!” That’s what I like – the under-promise, over-deliver scenario – and that’s what we’ve tried to set up here.
Kurobuta is unassuming when you walk through the door but we deliver on the food and the staff. Our staff are all the happy-go-lucky types who’ll say “Hi, how’s it going? Do you want a shot? Yeah come on, you’re having a shot” and that sums up our approach. We don’t want any crumbs off the table bullshit, or the old-fashioned stiffness, it’s just about having fun. The directive is ‘Restaurant/Party’.
You have two branches (Chelsea and Marble Arch). What made you choose these locations and what are the differences between the two?
Well, this one (Marble Arch) came first. We always thought that we could look at all the usual spots – like Mayfair – but it would be very expensive, all the big boys would go there and we may not get a return. We knew that we needed a neighbourhood restaurant. We started to understand that people in this area were the types to go out for meals and that is what we were confident about.
Chelsea was a pure mistake. I had this thought to do a pop-up: go there, open for 5 days, kick some arse and work like
absolute animals. Mark, my right-hand man, found this place and made an appointment to see it. I was like, “Come on, man, that’s not going to work” but he’d already made the appointment so we went. We walk from Sloane Square all the way up to Kings Road thinking that this was a joke and that it was
miles away. Then we walk into the space and I go “Holy shit, this place fucking rocks! How much? Can we take it now?”
We took it for a three months lease and opened it for four days while I was in Saudi Arabia. We opened for four days and had it rocking and full on the first day because we were part of the London Restaurant Festival’s Japanese Journey – which we’ll be taking part in again this year. All the locals wandered what the hell we were. They asked, came in to try it, and then booked for next week. This machine started going an
d it kept on.
So what’s on the cards for the future?
We are doing a project where we turn the Brompton Club into a late-night Japanese hangout. That’s opening at the beginning of September. It’s been remodelled and it’s looking pretty sexy.
We’re currently also looking at setting up a little pop-up in Manhattan, doing that for five nights and seeing how it goes down and we’re going to continue doing those fun things. That’s the name of the game because I think when you’re having fun, you do a better job and people notice.
Vicky Ilankovan – Lifestyle Editor