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
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