James Cochran N1: Review
Words & Photography: Chris Pople
Sometimes, top chefs do make successful restaurateurs. Whatever your thoughts on Gordon Ramsay’s ancillary activities, there’s no doubt that he’s held together a collection of high-achieving multi Michelin-starred joints in the UK and abroad, and even at the more half-hearted end of his empire, you’re far more likely to have a decent dinner at Bread St Kitchen than, say — picking an example completely at random — Jamie’s Italian. Ramsay may no longer spend much time in his kitchens but you still get the feeling he knows how to put together a coherent customer experience.
But more often, the enthusiasm and creativity of the talent in the kitchen needs another head to frame and focus it — to put together an attractive and comprehensible menu, to tame some of their more experimental (or eccentric) tendencies, and, more generally (and even more crucially), to build an environment that meets the ambitions of the chef without alienating any potential customers.
It’s a delicate balancing act, one that requires careful diplomacy, and it’s no surprise that so many of the big restaurant successes of recent years have been a partnership (often a marital one) between a creative chef and a customer-focused front of house/restaurant manager: James Knappett and Sandia Chang of Kitchen Table; Harneet and Devina Baweja of Gunpowder. Clearly, the actual distribution of duties is far more nuanced than we’re making out, but there’s a core of truth to it.
We have no doubt that James Cochran is a good chef. He spent five years in the kitchens at the peerless Ledbury in Notting Hill, eventually working his way up to sous under Brett Graham, and by all accounts his city bistro is an imaginative — and remarkably affordable, considering — journey through his various culinary influences; buttermilk jerk chicken here, mackerel and ‘nduja there, but all tied to the Modern British, seasonal aesthetic. But what happens when, flushed with this success, he decides to go a bit left field?
Well, James Cochran N1 is what happens: a bizarre confusion of a concept somewhere between a bistro and a pizza parlour, which badly needs someone with a business head on their shoulders to come in and work out what he’s trying to achieve in this strange, soulless space above a shopping mall in Angel.
A restaurateur may have said that ‘Jamaican’ jerk buttermilk chicken, nice though it is in and of itself, makes little sense next to (almost inedibly dry) glazed rabbit leg with dried shrimps and fennel kimchi on a menu. No doubt, in their professional opinion, they would have also recommended that blue cheese doughnuts, bland and greasy with thick cloying dough, sit uneasily next to BBQ pigeon and liquorice stick, conflicting flavour profiles from wildly different geographical heritages that fight with rather than complement each other.
Furthermore, anyone taking a professional interest in the London restaurant scene over the last few years would have noticed that the ‘English’ pizza — sorry, flatbread — concept has been tried before, by none other than serial restaurant offender Jamie Oliver, and that his Union Jacks proto-chain fell flat (bread) on its face before the paint dried.
There’s just no demand for, or sense in, piling a completely random selection of British ingredients (in the case of the below, sickly-sweet treacle-glazed shin of beef burning with far too many cloves, smoked sour cream, pickled chilli, turnip marmalade and watercress) on a saucer-sized piece of pita and charging £15 for it. Nobody was waiting for someone to do this. And now that they have done this, the only possible response from anyone trying it — and that includes us, dear reader — was simply to wish they hadn’t.
Maybe there’s a germ of an idea somewhere buried under the macho minimalist interior design and directionless menu that, given a bit of nudging, could work. As he proved in EC1, Cochran clearly can cook, and his buttermilk chicken is, in fact, available as takeaway during lunch times from a hatch on the ground floor. Maybe he should concentrate on this, leave the weird hospital corridor upstairs for the Bella Pasta and Zizzi’s (or Jamie’s Italian) that would feel much more at home there, and grow a kind of proto – CHIK’N concept serving the offices of Angel.
I’m sure we don’t know — after all, we’re not restaurateurs. All we can advise is to steer clear of James Cochran N1 until it’s figured out what it’s good at and what it wants to be. There may yet be, in the not-so-distant future, a British pizza concept worth the time and money spent on it. But, sad to say, James Cochran N1 ain’t it.
JOL was invited to review James Cochran N1 on a complimentary basis. We retain full editorial control.