January 19, 2016
There are few things in life that come close to sitting down to a steak dinner. The taste, the texture, the feeling of luxury. That experience is only made better by knowing that the meat you have chosen, and it is a choice, has come from ethical sources and has been cooked with clean, honesty. Food can so often be confusing, particularly at this time of year when you’re trying to figure out what you should and shouldn’t be having, but the answer should not be difficult. The answer, whether you’re out at a restaurant or following a recipe at home, should be good quality, British produce with a clear route from farm to plate.
Alice and I met Will Beckett, co-founder of Hawksmoor and Foxlow, to talk about transparency in business, the Hawskmoor story and why their steak is just that good.
“Foxlow is like our neighbourhood steak restaurant”, Will tells us as Alice and I sit down in the corner of Foxlow Clerkenwell. “We use exactly the same meat as at our other outposts, but you just get slightly smaller steaks and it’s a bit cheaper!”
It’s mid-morning on a Wednesday so the restaurant is empty, but somehow the atmosphere is still warm. The rich wood paneling, the right lighting and the right staff. Even without the bustle of diners it retains an inviting lure - the familiar lure of a Hawkmoor roast dinner with your best friends on a Sunday. There are homely memories in these four walls.
“It started with the Ginger Pig”, he says, beginning to tell us about their meat and the restaurant’s expansion. “There is this farmer called Tim Wilson from North Yorkshire who’s got three different farms where he breeds Longhorn cattle.”
“You may have a picture of Longhorn cattle in your head as being ‘those’ (Will raises his arms high above his head, creating a tall ‘Y’ shape), but they’re not. Those are Texan Longhorns. English Longhorn cattle are like ‘this’ (arms bent, Will brings them round in front of his face as if his elbows are resting on a very high table). They are our oldest native breed. In the 18th century a guy called Robert Bakewell, a pioneer of stockbreeding, decided to start creating breeds of cattle. Before that they were just cows. He started using modern breeding techniques and the Longhorns were the first ones.”
“We started by just using Longhorns from Tim, but obviously we got bigger and he got bigger as well. There was only so much that he could do on a certain number of farms so he started to buy cattle from his small, older friends. As a random example, he has a friend called Michael in the Lake District who breeds Belted Galloways. He’ll get them to maturity and then Tim will buy them and finish them. They live on grass all year round, but then in the last 6 weeks you want them to have steady weight gain so they finish them on a blend of barley, peas, molasses and a little bit of grain as well. They put down hard back fat and then Tim will hang and butcher them.” “So we have Tim who probably does about half of our meat and then he buys the rest from farmers, none of whom are big enough in themselves to do a restaurant like ours.”
I like knowing that my steak came from Tim or Michael’s farm. At Alice Made This, a transparent manufacturing chain is key. We celebrate our processes, our designs and our materials to deliver collections of refined, British accessories, all with a story to tell and their roots firmly in industry. In the same way that Will can tell me that my steak has come from Tim in Yorkshire, we can tell our customers that our Marine cufflinks were hand knotted by Des in Ipswich or that our Royal Household lapel pins were cast by George in Hatton Garden. Trust and authenticity is honoured by this openness.
“We’re always trying to be true to ourselves and keep things the same as we grow”, Will continues. “We’re always like: is it as amazing as 2006? 2006 has acquired a mythical state in our minds. Everything in our heads was 100% perfect - it wasn’t by the way, the restaurant is 8 times better now than it was then - particularly the steak. Maybe it’s just because we hadn’t eaten 8000 steaks at the point!”
“When we bought the first restaurant on Commercial Street in Spitalfields in 2006, it used to be a Turkish restaurant and we had this Turkish grill. God knows how long it had been there. It was a pretty shoddy metal thing with some bars. We did really well on it though and did these amazing steaks, but we were really conscious that, when we grew the company, some of the things that were great shouldn’t become less great just because we got bigger. And then you start thinking, OK what causes greatness? Steaks – OK – we’ll still buy from the Ginger Pig, that makes sense - but what if the grill itself and the way it’s weirdly triangular unlike most grills and how the smokiness is kept in and how the bars work are all causing the greatness. So that grill has been built bespoke in every restaurant since then.”
“We season the bars on the old restaurant too”, he continues. “If we’re starting a new restaurant then the bars will go into the old restaurant first so that the fat and the charcoal is all there, just incase that helps too.”
With their proven 2006 rituals and unique seasoning methods, Hawksmoor have managed to grow while still retaining what made them different and wonderful in the first place. They have been careful not to evolve and compromise their core values and I wonder how, with a winning formula that has given them so much success, they continue to stay excited and learn more.
“We’re always refueling our inner beef geek,” Will laughs. “I’ve been spending a lot of time recently reading about grass root farming or modern industrial farming and feeling quite food warrior-ish. A feminist of cows if you will. Although I’m not discriminating against bulls or steers! It’s one of those things you can know a lot about and then, when you know a lot about it, you have to try to bring it back and simplify it to people. I just broadly think that people should eat less meat, but more good meat. There’s a lot of really bad meat. Bad for you, bad for animals, bad for the planet, but cheap.”
“There’s a guy called Michael Pollan who wrote ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’, which is every bit as exciting as it sounds, and at one point he talks about eating being a political act. I like that idea. When someone comes into our restaurant and they say ‘it was more expensive than I thought it was going to be’, there’s a choice. You can choose the ethics behind the animals and how we treat staff, but you’re going to end up paying a bit more, or you can say that you just want cheap. But with cheap you’re going to get the kind of farming practices that are bad for people. There’s a cost, but it’s just being born somewhere else. The staff aren’t getting all the money or they’re doing things that are bad for the environment and bad for our collective health. Someone’s picking up the bill for the NHS or whatever. I like the idea that our cost is the cost, the cost of doing things properly. I haven’t worked out how to summarise that into a catchy 5 second thing yet!”
The idea of consumption being a political act is something that we also find interesting at Alice Made This. We are often asked why we don’t manufacture somewhere like China and whether we have ever been tempted to change our factories. In the same way that Will talks about their prices and their meat, we are proud to manufacture in Britain and want to celebrate the relationships we have with our factories. In a couple of hours we can be on a train and walking around the factory floor of our military armoury in Birmingham. In half an hour we can be in the embroidery studio of our Atelier in Oxford Circus. The processes, the products and the materials ensure that we continue to be a good business while forming the foundations of everything we do. Our customers can be sure about what they are receiving and can celebrate British industry with us.
Whereas Alice founded Alice Made This with her husband Ed, Will founded Hawksmoor with his childhood friend Huw Gott. If staying true to your core values is difficult, then keeping a strong working relationship must be just as hard. I ask about their different roles within Hawksmoor and Foxlow and how they work.
“Huw’s a completely different type of geek to me,” Will says. “He’s a food geek. He’s got a little boy and we always joke that he only eats smoked aubergine and bone marrow. He doesn’t, but my kids eat fish fingers and peas and he’s eating this really unusual Japanese stuff and going to a restaurant and eating the same thing as his dad – which is always the weirdest thing on the menu.
“We do very separate things. He mostly does food and design and then I do more of the people stuff or overseeing the company as a whole. I’ve got a little bit of an idea of what’s happening everywhere whereas he’s got a full on idea of what’s happening in a narrow bit of the company. He is more interested in whether these are the right salt and pepper pots. I am really not a details person. I like big picture stuff and how it all fits together. Huw is massively focused on one little thing.” “There was this time in 2011”, he remembers. “We had a board meeting and the whole thing was about opening a new restaurant and where the money was coming from and how things were going. Big future stuff. Huw didn’t say anything for the whole meeting and at the end I asked him, ‘was that boring for you?’ and he said ‘no, I’ve just spent so long recently thinking about what the best scotch egg recipe is for the book. It’s really been bothering me. It’s just nice to think about other things for a while.”
“There was a really nice moment when we opened Seven Dials in 2010,” Will says, as Alice and I finish our coffees. “It was a proper restaurant fit out and it was huge and it was in the West End and so that first day when we had friends and family come in, watching them come down the stairs was a really good moment. My friends always joke that they made a list of people who might be successful after we left university and my name was really close to the bottom. I like people being proud of me, but refusing to be particularly impressed.”
That closing story stuck with me as we said our goodbyes and headed for the tube, leaving just in time to miss the lunchtime buzz. It seemed to suit Will perfectly. Whereas so many people could find his job incredibly stressful and daunting, Will just seemed relaxed, confident and knowledgeable. Work is enjoyable for him and the decisions he and Huw have made seem logical. Why wouldn’t we buy our meat in Britain? Why wouldn’t we work with small farmers? Why wouldn’t we duplicate our original grill?
They have maintained the things that are great about Hawksmoor and have stuck at being good businessmen - that is why their steaks are still just that good.
Cook with Hawksmoor at Home