FIRED UP, READY TO GO

Jack­son Boxer is the dy­namic young sen­sa­tion of Lon­don’s restau­rant scene. So what’s next? Cook­ing like a grandma from south­west France

Esquire (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words by Tim Lewis Por­trait by Philip Sin­den

Dy­namic young chef Jack­son Boxer is about to wow Lon­don (again) with his new ven­ture, St Leonard’s in Shored­itch

the in­spi­ra­tion for jack­son boxer’s new restau­rant, St Leonard’s in Shored­itch, east Lon­don, came from “a very, very drunken lunch” on a Sun­day a cou­ple of sum­mers ago. He hadn’t had a day off for weeks, clock­ing up back-to-back dou­ble shifts, and on his knees he de­camped to his mother’s farm­house in West Sus­sex. It’s a rus­tic shack re­ally, lit­tle up-specced since the 13th cen­tury; there’s no in­ter­net and scarcely any phone sig­nal. If you want to boil a ket­tle, you have to light a fire first.

Boxer had his fam­ily with him — wife Melissa, daugh­ter Roma — but he’s a so­cia­ble guy so he in­vited some friends: his brother Frank, whose rooftop bar and restau­rant Frank’s Café, on the tenth floor of a multi-storey car park in Peck­ham, is a south Lon­don land­mark; plus the chefs An­drew Clarke, the chef di­rec­tor at Boxer’s main restau­rant Brunswick House in Vaux­hall, and Jeremy Lee, the pro­pri­etor of the iconic Quo Vadis in Soho and an un­quench­able bon vi­vant.

To eat, Boxer thought they would pick some salad and veg­eta­bles from the fields that sur­round the farm and serve them raw. Then he, Clarke and Lee scrounged what­ever they had ly­ing around their restau­rant kitchens: ribs of beef, crabs, shrimps and an enor­mous line-caught tur­bot from Corn­wall. Ev­ery­thing was cooked in ei­ther the wood-burn­ing oven or over a big fire in the hearth. The shell­fish were shoved in a casse­role and the head juices from prawns were squeezed over the tur­bot for ex­tra flavour. The sun shone; the booze flowed, and flowed.

“It was such sim­ple food,” re­calls the 33-year-old Boxer, who has fine fea­tures and spiky, ink-black hair. “Just pick­ing the most beau­ti­ful pro­duce from the gar­den at the height of sea­son, eat­ing that raw, hav­ing some raw shell­fish, hav­ing some oven-roasted and hearth-roasted meat and fish. And it was just the most de­li­cious meal of my life prob­a­bly. That was the nascent idea of, ‘God, if we could just cook like this ev­ery day, wouldn’t it be so much fun!’ And so easy. Why are we wast­ing our time over­com­pli­cat­ing it when there’s so much plea­sure to be had?”

“To be fair, I was hun­gover most of the day,” in­ter­jects Clarke, who is 40, has a beard so long it can be plaited and who seems to have “Kohlrabi” tat­tooed in gothic script below his knuck­les. “Lay­ing on the floor with ei­ther the dog lick­ing my face or your daugh­ter prod­ding me in the eye with a stick.”

Boxer laughs, “I think it lasted sev­eral days, I can’t re­ally re­mem­ber. Jeremy was cer­tainly still there a few days later and go­ing strong. But it was one of those great Bac­chic cel­e­bra­tions of food and drink that of­ten lead to the best ideas even if they seem like to­tal car­nage at the time.”

St Leonard’s will open in April and at­tempt to recre­ate that high-sum­mer af­ter­noon in Sus­sex in a more ur­ban set­ting. The restau­rant is named af­ter its ad­dress — on Leonard Street — but Boxer is pleased of a lin­eage that goes back to the ac­tual Saint Leonard: “the an­cient her­mit of Li­mousin for­est, pa­tron saint of all those in bondage,” he notes. Upon en­ter­ing the large ground-floor site, with 90 cov­ers for din­ing and 60 at the bar, there will be an open kitchen with an ice bar and a hearth. A meal will typ­i­cally start with raw fish and crus­tacea, fol­lowed by wood-roasted meat and veg­eta­bles, with an em­pha­sis on the veg­eta­bles, some of which will come from the Boxer fam­ily farm.

“Yeah, with­out sound­ing tacky, there’s a fire and ice thing go­ing on,” says Clarke, a part­ner in the ven­ture with the Boxer broth­ers, Jack­son and Frank.

“We’re try­ing to avoid ac­knowl­edg­ing that,” sighs Boxer, look­ing pained. “It’s a bit Game of Thrones.” For the record, he prefers the de­scrip­tion: food that takes its cues from the grandma cuisines of south­west France and north­ern Italy, though “with cos­mopoli­tan flair”.

The ven­ture will be a sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture from what Boxer has done be­fore. This morn­ing we are sit­ting pre-ser­vice in Brunswick House, the restau­rant he set up in 2010. The build­ing be­longs to Lassco, Lon­don’s best-known ar­chi­tec­tural an­tiques com­pany, and back then, aged 24, he was ef­fec­tively run­ning an in-house café. From be­hind a 10-seat bar, he served sand­wiches and sal­ads at lunch, small plates in the evening, cof­fee dur­ing the day and cheap ne­gro­nis and Cam­pari so­das at night. Grad­u­ally, though, word spread of his thought­ful mod­ern cook­ing and, as de­mand grew, he be­gan to colonise more and more of Lassco’s ground floor.

Eight years on, Boxer and Clarke will of­ten cook for 200 guests a day. The part­ner­ship with Lassco has not al­ways been straight­for­ward: be­cause it was first and fore­most a shop, ev­ery­thing could be sold, in­clud­ing ta­bles that had been re­served, 15 min­utes be­fore cus­tomers were due to ar­rive. But the up­side is that there is no din­ing room in Lon­don (or any­where else re­ally) quite like it. Above us, there are maybe a dozen wa­ter­fall chan­de­liers, the walls are cov­ered in ex­otic ro­coco mir­rors and there is a mar­ble statue of Venus dry­ing her­self af­ter a bath.

It is all the more in­con­gru­ous for be­ing si­t­u­ated on a round­about in Vaux­hall, an area that Don­ald Trump de­scribed as an “off lo­ca­tion” in Jan­uary, when he fumed about the new US em­bassy be­ing opened round the cor­ner. “I grew up down the road in Stock­well,” says Boxer, smil­ing, “so if you think this is an ‘off’ neigh­bour­hood now…”

Brunswick House, mean­while, which was built in 1758, has been ev­ery­thing from a plea­sure re­treat for the Duke of Brunswick, a cousin of King Ge­orge III, to a work­ing men’s club to a squat famed for its raves thrown by Span­ish an­ar­cho-punks. “His­tor­i­cally, ev­ery­one used to leave Lon­don and come down to Vaux­hall by boat to party,” says Boxer. “It was this amaz­ing, in­cred­i­bly naughty place where class dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion slightly went out the win­dow and ev­ery­one would min­gle and get drunk to­gether and cop­u­late in bushes — ap­par­ently.

“Of course, not much has changed,” he con­tin­ues, “which is great. We feel like we are keep­ing the tra­di­tion alive.”

Boxer would like St Leonard’s, which was for­merly the premises of Eyre Broth­ers restau­rant, to be “quite monas­tic and min­i­mal”: there will be stone floors, white­washed walls, nat­u­ral light flood­ing in from the large win­dows. It’s a dis­tant re­move from the “the­atri­cal, dis­cor­dant” sen­sory over­load of Brunswick House, but while the two restau­rants might look and feel very dif­fer­ent, both aim to pro­vide an ex­pe­ri­ence that’s dif­fi­cult to repli­cate any­where else.

“What I love about cook­ing over fire is that most peo­ple can’t do it at home,” he says. “In an age where ev­ery­thing is Uber-able or

De­liv­eroo-able or what have you, the feel­ing of walk­ing in to a beau­ti­ful room with a beau­ti­ful fire lit, know­ing you’re go­ing to have some de­li­cious food is one that can’t be repli­cated in your own home. And that’s a very good rea­son to leave the house.”

many chefs are smart, few are highly ed­u­cated; Boxer is both, and he has a florid vo­cab­u­lary and an easy charm that makes it near-im­pos­si­ble not to use the word “racon­teur”. He stud­ied English at Cam­bridge for two years, be­fore trans­fer­ring to phi­los­o­phy at Queen Mary’s Lon­don. He worked in kitchens be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter univer­sity, but he was also help­ing to run an art gallery, free­lanc­ing for mag­a­zines on cinema and books, putting on club nights and, nat­u­rally, writ­ing a novel. “I had a broad range of in­ter­ests, put it that way, and it wasn’t clear at all what I’d end up do­ing,” he says. “What sealed it for me was that cook­ing was the thing that, ev­ery day, I came in and I felt like I was learn­ing.”

There was an el­e­ment of des­tiny, too. His pa­ter­nal grand­mother, Ara­bella Boxer, de­fined food writ­ing in the Six­ties and Seven­ties with her rad­i­cal cook­books and col­umns for Vogue; his ma­ter­nal grand­mother, Diana, was also an ex­cel­lent cook and in­tro­duced Boxer to gar­den­ing and how min­d­ex­pand­ing veg­eta­bles can taste when they are picked five min­utes be­fore they are put in the pan. Ac­cord­ing to fam­ily lore, Jack­son com­piled his first col­lec­tion of recipes aged five; by six, he had a veg­etable plot and was liv­ing a Boy’s Own take on The Good Life.

To­day — per­haps rightly — Boxer seems a lit­tle ashamed of this pre­coc­ity, mum­bling, “Well, mums al­ways ex­ag­ger­ate, don’t they?” But the sto­ries are clearly not with­out sub­stance. Do any of those child­hood recipes hold up? “I mean, yeah, wild straw­ber­ries with lemon balm and chives feels very con­tem­po­rary some­how,” he snick­ers.

A for­ma­tive mo­ment came when Boxer was 11 or 12 and his par­ents took him to Fer­gus Hen­der­son’s nose-to-tail restau­rant, St John. “It was prob­a­bly the most im­pact­ful thing that I ever did as a child, in terms of what I do now,” he says. “I was in this beau­ti­ful room, full of the most amaz­ing-look­ing peo­ple hav­ing the best fuck­ing time: smok­ing, drink­ing, spilling wine, eat­ing trot­ters and birds and brains.” He ate that? “Yeah, man, I wanted to eat all of that!” Boxer be­gan babysit­ting for the Hen­der­sons, Fer­gus and Mar­got, and then, when he turned 16, help­ing out with Mar­got’s food projects, which in­clude events and ca­ter­ing as well as the restau­rant Rochelle Can­teen in east Lon­don. He later moved to Great Queen Street, an off­shoot of the famed, un­prissy An­chor & Hope gas­tropub in Water­loo.

It was when he was at Great Queen Street that Boxer first met Clarke, who was then at the An­chor & Hope. Like Boxer, Clarke had grown up in south Lon­don and he had also been ex­posed to all sorts of foods as a child, mainly by his father, who de­signed restau­rants for Ter­ence Con­ran among oth­ers, and by his grand­fa­ther, who was an afi­cionado of jel­lied eels and of­fal. “I was that freaky kid with black pud­ding sand­wiches,” he says. “I didn’t know you could fuck­ing cook it till I was 18!”

Clarke worked with Fer­gus Hen­der­son and Philip Howard, then at the two Miche­lin-starred The Square, but out­side the kitchen, cracks were start­ing to ap­pear. For much of his twen­ties and thir­ties, he had drink and drug prob­lems; then, when his girl­friend left him around Christ­mas 2015, he went into an ex­treme de­pres­sive spi­ral. He’s lev­elled off now, thank­fully, but has re­cently started a cam­paign called Pi­lot Light aimed at ad­dress­ing is­sues of men­tal health, de­pres­sion and ad­dic­tion that he be­lieves are rife in pro­fes­sional kitchens.

Clarke, though, also wants to make clear that cook­ing can be a sal­va­tion. “Fun­nily enough, it was work that saved me from be­ing some­what sui­ci­dal,” he says. “Get­ting back in the kitchen and en­joy­ing my work again, work­ing 100-odd hours a week and not let­ting my mind wan­der.”

For his part, Boxer never re­grets his de­ci­sion to choose the long, drain­ing hours of the kitchen. “It’s the only job I can imag­ine com­ing in ev­ery sin­gle day and not get­ting bored and I get bored very, very eas­ily,” he says. “And the only thing that makes me un­happy re­ally is bore­dom. Bore­dom and high pres­sure and ex­haus­tion.” He smiles wryly; he now has two chil­dren un­der the age of five: “But one of those I can’t avoid.”

Boxer and Clarke, who be­gan work­ing to­gether at Brunswick House in 2016, both seem nat­u­ral fits for tele­vi­sion or cook­books. That might come, but re­fresh­ingly both men pre­fer rarely to stray too far from their kitchens. “I’ve been film­ing for the last cou­ple of days and I’d sooner be in the kitchen on a fuck­ing dou­ble shift, on the stoves!” says Clarke. “That’s the com­fort zone for me.”

“Ca­reers change and evolve, but I don’t ever see my­self not want­ing to be in a kitchen,” adds Boxer. “In our con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, there’s this idea of the chef as ge­nius cre­ator, rather than chef as cook. And I think An­drew and I have al­ways bris­tled at the term ‘chef’: which es­sen­tially means boss, re­ally. Be­ing a boss is not the en­joy­able part of this job; be­ing a cook is the en­joy­able part of this job. That’s what we re­ally en­joy. In fact, if I could pay some­one else to run places for me and just turn up and peel veg­eta­bles, I’d be in­cred­i­bly happy.”

And that, at St Leonard’s, will be a ma­jor part of what he’ll be do­ing. The plan is that Boxer and Clarke will take turns on the ice pit and over the hearth, with some ju­nior chefs help­ing out with prep­ping. It will be sim­ple, un­var­nished, no gim­micks, and this alone should pro­vide a point of dif­fer­ence in a crowded restau­rant scene. “Lon­don is amaz­ing at the mo­ment,” says Boxer, “but I go to new open­ings all the time and I’m like, ‘It’s re­ally ex­pen­sive, all th­ese dishes look good on In­sta­gram but they are not en­joy­able to eat. They don’t taste of any­thing, the pro­duce is shit and there’s 100 el­e­ments too many on this plate. Where’s the love?’”

Boxer hopes St Leonard’s will feel ex­cit­ing and fresh, but at the same time be a clear trib­ute to the women in his fam­ily who in­stilled his pas­sion for cook­ing. “Me and An­drew,” he says, “we’re both grand­moth­ers at heart, aren’t we?”

Clarke, a Guns N’Roses-lov­ing met­al­head who is prob­a­bly not of­ten con­fused with a lit­tle old lady, doesn’t look to­tally con­vinced. But he nods dili­gently, “I’ve al­ways said it: if it’s good pro­duce, just leave it the fuck alone.”

Above: the or­nately dec­o­rated ground floor din­ing room at Brunswick House, Vaux­hall. Op­po­site: sea snails with smoked chilli and black vine­gar are on the menu at Boxer’s new ven­ture, St Leonard’s

Above: Boxer and busi­ness part­ner An­drew Clarke. Op­po­site: from St Leonard’s menu, 60-day aged rib of belted Gal­loway beef with an­chovy but­ter and smoked bone mar­row bor­de­laise

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