x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Jacob Kenedy: the big cheese

Feature Childhood holidays in Italy spurred Jacob Kenedy to embark on a career as a chef. Now, the world is beating a path to his London restaurant.

Photographs by Malou Burger
Photographs by Malou Burger

Childhood holidays in Italy spurred Jacob Kenedy to embark on a career as a chef. Now, the world is beating a path to his London restaurant. Lydia Slater is taken on a tour of the family home in Lazio and learns of his love of Italian food. 'A good mozzarella," declares the chef Jacob Kenedy, "is the essence of milkiness. It's comforting and refreshing and rich and sumptuous, with a soft acidity that keeps it refreshing. "It's a very simple food - just milk and salt - but the taste is incredibly subtle and complex. And the great thing about it is that the less you do to it, the better it is." Kenedy, for the uninitiated, is currently London's hottest young chef.

In November, aged just 28, he opened his own Italian restaurant, Bocca di Lupo, on an unpromising street in the seediest part of Soho, which had been a haunt of drug addicts and a favourite location for thieves to dump stolen handbags. Now, the click of Jimmy Choo heels echoes down Archer Street. Cate Blanchett, James McAvoy and Bryan Ferry are regulars; Naomi Campbell was turned away when she arrived without a reservation. The critics rave about Kenedy's menu, which roams across the whole of Italy, from Umbrian radish, celeriac and pecorino salad with pomegranate seeds to Sicilian spaghettini with lobster, mussels and ginger. Across town, the owners of London's myriad Italian restaurants are grinding their teeth as they gaze at the unsold spag bol and wonder where they got it wrong.

Kenedy has invited me to Sperlonga, to stay in his family's holiday apartment, a pre-medieval cliff-top apartment with a Maltese cross carved in the vaulted kitchen ceiling and a dizzying view down 60 metres to the blue bay beneath. Midway between Rome and Naples, Sperlonga is famed as the prettiest resort on the Lazio coast. It's a favourite haunt of Rome's jeunesse dorée, who come to flirt on the golden sand and gossip in the cafes. More importantly, for our purposes, it's also popular with water buffalo. (Indeed, the area used to be a vast malaria-ridden swamp before it was drained, at the cost of numerous lives, by Mussolini.) The regional mozzarella and ricotta are famed throughout Italy.

Kenedy learnt to cook here on the family's ancient enamel stove, so it's not surprising that for him, mozzarella forms the cornerstone of many of his favourite summer dishes. "To me, almost nothing beats a simple ball of mozzarella, with a handful of rocket and a splash of a good, grassy olive oil," he says lyrically. "Cut it open and the milk that oozes out mixed with the oil is the most delicious thing in the world."

Early in the blue and gold morning, we set off down the cobbled streets in search of a good mozzarella. This is no easy task. For the first four months, says Kenedy, he refused to put it on the menu at Bocca di Lupo because he couldn't find a mozzarella that lived up to his standards. "It's all too easy for a mozzarella to taste boring," he says. The shopkeepers in Sperlonga suffer from no self-doubt, however. "Now, this," says the first grocer reverentially, "is the best mozzarella in the whole of Italy." He ladles out a glistening white ball, the size of a small cantaloupe. We take four.

A little further up the street, Kenedy heads into another shop, lured in by a box of golden courgette flowers. "You must try the mozzarella," urges the man behind the counter. "Fresh in this morning, made by the family. It's the most delicious you'll find anywhere." It's the same story everywhere we go. When we finally make it back up the hill to Kenedy's ancient stone apartment, our arms are groaning under the weight of mozzarella, as well as a vast and oozing burrata, a speciality from Piedmont, a delectable concoction of mozzarella mixed with double cream, wrapped in leaves. I'm put to work podding broad beans and pulling the stamens out of the courgette flowers, which will be stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy for lunch, while Kenedy lines up the glistening globes and samples each in turn. One is rubbery, almost squeaky beneath the teeth - a sign, according to Kenedy, that it's very fresh indeed. "You used to be able to buy them still warm," he goes on. The melon-sized sized ones are a couple of days older and hence slightly softer, shredding to creamy rags between our teeth. With loving efficiency, Jacob starts tearing it up to scatter over a broad bean and lemon salad. "When I'm peckish in the restaurant, I just pick up a ball of mozzarella and eat it like an apple," he says. "Which is probably why I'm going a bit pear-shaped myself."

Kenedy's family is both foodie and creative. His American mother, Haidee Becker, is a well-known artist. Several of her vast canvases adorn her son's restaurant walls. His father, David Kenedy, is a cellist, and his sister Rachel has just embarked on a career as a singer. The apartment where we are staying was bought by his maternal grandmother, Ginny Campbell, a Southern belle of 95, who has come with us on the trip. A Broadway actress and a star in the very earliest days of television (she and Jessica Tandy used to share a single smart suit to cut down on costs), she later became an artist, and her canvases are dotted all over the sunny building. Her income is augmented, she tells me, by regular payments every time someone shoots an alligator on the family bayou in Baton Rouge.

Kenedy's grandfather, John Becker, was a writer, civil rights campaigner and art dealer, the first person to bring Picassos to the United States. The obsession with Italy also seems to be inherited: Ginny lived in Rome for years and bought the Sperlonga house in the 1950s, when the town had no running water or electricity, and the only person who ever ventured down to the beach was a nun in full regalia. Kenedy's earliest memories are mostly of his own culinary disasters. Once, he mixed up the contents of his grandfather's wine cellar in a bucket to make a potion. Another time, he was making toffee from a tin of condensed milk on the stove, then got distracted by a James Bond film on television, and didn't even notice the bang of the exploding tin amid the televised gunfire. But years of Italian holidays honed his tastebuds and his techniques and by the time he was old enough to bring his own friends to stay in Sperlonga, he was always the designated cook. Even so, the idea of becoming a professional chef never occurred to him. He attended Westminster School in London and won a place at Cambridge to study natural sciences, but had little idea about what he wanted to do as a career. Then he was taken to eat at Moro, the iconic Spanish restaurant run by Sam and Samantha Clark, which had just opened, and was so impressed by the food that he underwent what seems to have been a Damascene conversion. "I asked them if I could work for free for a couple of months," he says, "and I came back every two weeks to remind them." Eventually, he was taken on, enjoying himself so much that he stayed for six months, and demonstrating his innate flair for cooking. By the time he arrived at Cambridge, he was determined that his future was as a chef, rather to the bemusement of his tutors and fellow scientists. "I think having a scientific background does actually help," he says, "because I can be very analytical about my recipes and what works or doesn't." After he graduated, he worked at Moro, interspersed with periods of cheffing at the highly popular Boulevard in San Francisco. Four years ago, he decided to take a year off. With a friend, Victor Hugo (no relation to the famous French author), he set off to tour Italy for a year. "It was initially just an incredibly wonderful break," he says, "but I really got to know the regionality of Italian food. Now, I don't think there is such a thing as Italian cuisine at all. Italy is a very young country, made up of some very isolated principalities, which means that the food that you eat in one place is completely different from what you might get anywhere else. And everybody always thinks their way of making a dish is the only right one." By the time they came back, they were so enthused by the variety and deliciousness of everything they had sampled that they decided that Victor would give up his profession as an accountant and they would open a restaurant together. "It's sheer luck that he's turned out to be a genius at managing the floor," says Kenedy. The site on Archer Street that eventually became Bocca di Lupo was the first one they saw - they walked past it having taken a wrong turning. But the negotiations dragged on for months, and Kenedy was only able to afford the lease by mortgaging one of the de Koonings initially bought by his grandfather. When it opened, at the height of the downturn, it was an oasis of good cheer in a wilderness of deserted restaurants, and it's been packed to the rafters ever since. Frustrated diners desperate for a table have been begging Kenedy to open a second Bocca di Lupo, or at least expand the first one, but he is resistant. "I'd much rather be small and full," he says, "and I'm not sure if it is something I could ever do again. It probably takes a lot of naivety to get it right." Bocca di Lipo, 12 Archer St, London W1 (00 44 207 734 2223); www.boccadilupo.com

Directions: Bresaola is air-dried, salted beef which is sliced paper-thin. The combinations of bresaola and figs, and bresaola and mozzarella, are sharply contrasting in flavour yet similar in texture (both the mozzarella and the figs are, above all, squishy). Make this only when figs are in peak season. Lay out thin slices of bresaola on a plate or platter - about three per person - a couple of figs, and a ball of mozzarella each. Pour plenty of oil and lots of pepper - especially on the figs.

I love these Roman rice and mozzarella croquettes - not least for their name, which refers to the molten mozzarella's tendency to form unmanageable strands as you eat, not unlike telephone wires trailing from your mouth. The combination of tomato, basil and mozzarella is classic, and this dish is a staple appetiser at Roman pizzerias. Ingredients: 1 smallish onion (150-200g), diced 1/2 clove garlic, sliced 20g salt 50ml extra virgin olive oil 330g vialone nano rice (Arborio or Carnaroli will do) 200ml white wine 650g fresh tomato, blended (seeds and all) 125ml water (approximately) 30g grated Parmesan 10 leaves of basil Black pepper 1 whole egg 150g mozzarella, cut into 20 even pieces Fine breadcrumbs (around 200g) Oil for frying Sweat the onion and garlic with the salt in the olive oil until tender, around five minutes, then add the rice and gently fry for another couple. Add the wine and cook, stirring frequently, until absorbed - then add the tomato and continue until the mixture is again thick and dryish. Add the water and continue cooking (adding enough to make a fairly thick, and very al dente risotto). Remove from the heat and beat in the Parmesan, and finally the chopped basil, with pepper to taste. Spread the rice out on to a tray to cool. When you are ready to make the suppli, stir the egg into the rice. Take a portion of the rice mixture (a very heaped dessertspoon), shape into a ball and use your thumb to make a hole. Stuff a piece of mozzarella in, and close the rice around it. Press the ball together firmly, and form a fat, elongated croquette (this quantity will make 20 suppli). Coat in breadcrumbs, and refrigerate until you are ready to eat. To cook, heat at least 5cm depth of oil until hot, but not smoking (180°C). Fry the suppli in batches, then drain on absorbent paper for a minute or so and serve immediately. It is vital they are hot through, for the cheese to melt - about four minutes in the oil should do. The long strands of cheese that inevitably form as you eat encourage charming Lady And The Tramp moments? Servings: Makes 20 suppli (enough for five as a starter)

This dish is my mum's favourite, and one of mine too. It's a classic dish from Naples which is delicious eaten hot or cold the following day. Don't cut the aubergines too thick or you'll end up with a watery mess. Ingredients: 4 large aubergines, about 1.5kg 1kg tomatoes, fresh or tinned 1 small onion, peeled 5 cloves garlic, peeled 1/2 a dried chilli (optional) 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (for the sauce) 200g grated Parmesan A 200-250g ball of mozzarella, chopped and gently squeezed and blotted dry A small bunch (15-20 leaves) basil, coarsely shredded Plain flour (for dusting the aubergines) Sunflower oil, or non-virgin olive oil, for frying Directions: Slice the aubergines 1/2 cm thick. I cut them lengthways, which makes everything easier later on, but you can cut them across into rounds if you prefer a softer texture in the finished product. I have engaged in much pointless debate about salting aubergines to get rid of the bitterness - I don't think it's really necessary. For this dish, however, be sure to salt the sliced aubergines for an hour or two, then rinse and squeeze dry, and layer between dry cloths to blot before you cook. This is to get rid of as much water as possible, the nemesis of this dish. While the aubergines are salting, make the sauce. This is the simplest way I know, as I was shown a few years ago by the wonderful Leontina, who was my nanny in the weeks after I was born, and my mum's before that. She now lives in a nunnery, doing good for all around her. Just put the tomatoes (halved), onion (halved), garlic (whole) and chilli in a pan with salt and pepper and simmer for 45 minutes or until good and thick. Blend, then stir in the olive oil. Heat 1/2 cm oil in your widest frying pan until smoking hot. Dust the sliced aubergines in flour, and fry, turning once to colour both sides golden brown. Drain on absorbent paper. Take a baking dish, about 15x25cm, and spread a spoonful of the sauce on the bottom, then a single layer of aubergines. Spread a little more sauce over, then Parmesan, mozzarella and basil. If the sauce and aubergines were well seasoned, you won't need any more salt. Repeat until all is used up - 5 or 6 layers. On top of the final layer, spread both cheeses and the sauce, but no basil, which would burn. Bake at 220˚C (fan oven, 200˚C conventional) for about 20 minutes. The dish is done when golden brown on top, and starting to bubble in the middle - a sure indicator it's hot through. Leave to rest for at least 15 minutes before serving - this dish also keeps well once cooked. Servings: 6