The Butterfly Effect: Adam Handling interview

The Butterfly Effect: Adam Handling interview

At just 31 years of age, Adam Handling is one of the most successful young chef restaurateurs in the UK. His eclectic estate of London-based restaurants is admired by all (except Michelin, perhaps – more on that later). With the recent addition of Ugly Butterfly, his new zero-waste restaurant and Champagne bar, Handling has reinforced the casual tone of his work via a small set-up in Chelsea. We caught up with the chef at the end of last year to speak about zero waste, TripAdvisor and, of course, that elusive Michelin star…

CDM: Ugly Butterfly is a zero-waste, casual restaurant and Champagne bar, serving a menu designed using offcuts and surplus ingredients from Adam Handling Chelsea, located just down the road. While this concept is new to you, zero waste certainly is not, is it?

AH: I actually have two more restaurants like this in London, but this seems to have caused more excitement because I have done it in Chelsea.

When I had The Frog E1 in Shoreditch, before it moved to Hoxton, we had Bean & Wheat around the corner – it’s where we started this idea of reducing waste. We had no money and would struggle every single day to pay suppliers. I only work with small suppliers – small fishing boats, things like that. So, one day I may get 20 mackerels, enough for a service, perfect, but then there are five left over. Next day, there are no more mackerels available, but they have skate wings instead. Great, but what do I do with the five mackerels left over? We couldn’t freeze them, because we had no space for a freezer.

We thought there must be something we can do to stay alive – it was nothing about saving the world, it was about trying to stay open. So, we created Bean & Wheat, a café where we put everything in jars: soused mackerel with tomato compote – put it on some toast and eat it that way with your coffee. If you didn’t finish it, you take the jar with you and have it at work the next day. Bring the jar back to me the next time you’re in and I’ll give you a free coffee and reuse the glass. That was the idea.

CDM: Does Ugly Butterfly take the same approach then? What sort of food can diners expect to try after it has been discarded at Adam Handling Chelsea?

AH: Adam Handling Chelsea is super luxurious, so it demands flexibility for guests from all around the world who want certain things. We do a luxury Sunday brunch featuring lobster, oysters, caviar, wellington. As soon as you launch a concept like that, you’ve immediately got waste – the concept delivers the waste. With all you can eat lobsters, we’re serving around 200 a week just on Sundays. The shells are kept and turned into lobster shell soup, priced at £7 at Ugly Butterfly. We make a lobster salad from the knuckles – that’s £9. A waste product means you don’t need to charge the arse out of it – where else can you eat lobster for that sort of price? That’s one example. Another would be the leftover scones and duck livers from Adam Handling Chelsea – we take the leftovers and we cut them in half, butter them, grill them and serve with duck parfait. Simple.

CDM: Does the zero-waste stance apply to the fittings and furnishings too?

AH: Absolutely. We created the concept in six months, but we don’t have a design team – we do it all in-house. It’s a small space and everything is recycled – tables, chairs, walls – everything is from a company that sources items from landfills and skips before remaking them into beautiful stuff. It costs more, but if you’re going to do a sustainable restaurant, bloody well do it properly. You don’t need £400 Italian leather chairs.

CDM: Most people would associate you with high-end dining. Do you think Ugly Butterfly is a casual concept?

AH: Nothing about my food is casual in terms of what people think casual is. Casual for me is informal – the term ‘casual’ doesn’t need to compromise the food that you’re eating. I personally think my Frog Hoxton site is as casual as it comes, but it’s down to people’s interpretation. Does it mean informal, noisy and cheap? I don’t think so. It should mean relaxed, comfortable and affordable.

CDM: Recent spending data would suggest that more diners are going out less, but spending more. Any truth to that from your perspective?

AH: My Covent Garden site proves that. I took away the cheap menus and meal deals on OpenTable, and upped the tasting menu price. We didn’t get a [Michelin] star last year, so I simplified everything, dropped the deals and upped the price, and it went boom.

My more affordable sites are slightly dropping in revenue year-on-year. My assumption is that people want to be seen somewhere, which they prioritise over whether they can afford it or not. They want to post on Instagram from a place where they spent £100 per head – their means will be less than that, so they’re only going out once a month, just to be seen.

CDM: You mention Michelin, so we’ve got to talk about them. The rest of the industry seems stunned that Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden hasn’t been awarded a Michelin star. Does it frustrate you?

AH: I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me, but more so for my team. Frog Hoxton losing its Bib Gourmand in October broke our hearts. However, you can’t get a Bib and a star in the same property, so people were then messaging us about how we were probably getting a star. We didn’t. Then I had to think about why we lost its Bib. My only understanding is that perhaps the three dishes that the inspector had added up to more than is allowed in order to get a Bib, i.e. being under a certain price bracket. It was a kick in the teeth.

Covent Garden not getting one was harder, because everyone was talking about it. Ladbrokes even had people betting on me getting one. We constantly get good reviews; the heart and soul of the team there is unbelievable; and everyone talks about us getting it – so your mind prepares you for that achievement. Cleverson [Cordeiro], our head chef since it opened, is the most stern-faced person in the world, the guy is a military machine. But when we didn’t get a star, he gave me a cuddle, apologised and told me he’d get it next year – that broke my heart. It’s not for business purposes or my ego, it’s about the team who bust their ass every single day.

CDM: Michelin recently partnered with TripAdvisor. A few operators were sceptical about what this meant for the prestigious guide. What do you make of the partnership?

AH: Hopefully Michelin can put more precautions in place, because there are so many fake reviews on TripAdvisor. I laughed about fake reviews on TripAdvisor once and hashtagged ‘#shitadvisor’ – that same day, I got three one-star reviews, all because someone saw me taking the piss out of them. One of reviews said they had a steak that wasn’t cooked properly – we don’t serve steak in that restaurant! Haven’t done since the day it opened! I reported it, and did it get taken down? No. I hope Michelin protect its integrity and the reason why they’re doing it. They need to cut out that bullshit, because it’s hurtful as hell.

CDM: We have a review of Douglas McMaster’s Silo in this issue, the Brighton-born, zero-waste site that is now thriving in Hackney, east London. Do you know it? Are you a fan?

AH: Dougie McMaster is a legend in this field – he’s a great example of what someone can do if they have a passion and run with it all guns blazing. There’s no other chef in the country that does it better than he does – grinds his own flour, makes his own coffee – who does that? I applaud him ridiculously for what he does. We’re doing our bit and waste is the thing we’re looking at most, rather than sustainability. Sustainability is a given in our group.

CDM: The butterfly effect is when one small change results in a seismic shift further down the line. What one small change could Ugly Butterfly showcase to influence the green credentials of restaurants of the future?

AH: If you overfocus on being ‘green’ just for PR purposes, you’ll get found out. When people say ‘green’, what do they mean? Often, meat consumption comes into it. To become more green, do you need to cut down on beef consumption because it produces 12-15% of greenhouse gases in the country? Maybe. But instead of cutting down on it, why don’t you eat more responsibly? Instead of eating the cows that last one or two years, which produce all that methane gas, why not eat dairy cows. The amount of people in this country that eat and drink dairy like it’s going out of bloody fashion to a point where it has put such a strain on the industry that they’re having to add steroids to the cows to make them assume they’re pregnant to produce more milk only to let them have a 10-year life of sheer misery in a fucking cage. Why don’t you, instead of eating the newly produced cattle, eat the other ones? Who eats dairy cows? They get made into dog food and shipped out of the country – it’s completely bonkers. Don’t cut down on eating meat; cut down on eating shit meat and start eating what would otherwise have been thrown away. To become green, think smarter – it’s about knowledge. Eating vegetables is a way forward, but this country cannot sustain an entire vegan diet – the land isn’t made for that; it’s made for grazed animals. Eat the ones that have grazed properly, not the ones sat in a cage or fast produced for McDonald’s. It’s completely bonkers. Eat properly and don’t eat things you know nothing about.

Adam Handling’s Ugly Butterfly – a sustainable, casual restaurant, Champagne bar and sustainability conversation hub – is now open on the King’s Road, Chelsea.