Bright-eyed. Determined and enthusiastic. Down-to-earth and affable. At the core, Joseph Lidgerwood has not changed all that much from his days as a youth who discovered what cooking did for him. These days the cooking skills are sharper. The sense of taste is more cultivated. But the hunger is indeed still present. At just 27, he’s one of the chefs of the millennial generation shaping the culinary landscape for the future.
It requires more than just a heaping of raw talent to make it this far in this industry. Lidgerwood has been able to channel his nonstop energy, that fire inside, into total devotion and commitment at the front lines of the kitchen. He also credits his invaluable mentors and teammates. Originally from Australia, the former Tom Aikens protégé is now with James Sharman’s (also of Tom Aikens and Noma) hot international pop-up restaurant venture, One Star House Party, also comprised of equally driven and talented friends. As One Star House Party’s week of sold-out dinner parties in San Francisco came to a close, I spoke with the chef about how he got into the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants and what life on the road entails.
How did you get into cooking?
I was hooked on cooking from the age of 15, after it soon became apparent that I was cursed with too much energy and would never be able to hold down a desk job. I naturally drifted towards cooking and soon secured an apprenticeship at a local restaurant in the south of Tasmania, Australia. I think it was the heat and the raw expression of passion that really resonated with me. I soon found myself at the end of my schooling and inspired by a chef named Stephen Lunn who had told me of war stories of chefs in England working 19-hour shifts, six days a week and every day battling against the odds, it seemed to stir something within. I needed to find out if this were all true so I bought a one-way ticket to London and hit the ground running.
Where have you worked and what were those places like?
I always think of my cooking career as starting in England in 2011 as it’s where it all began for me, as it followed my three-year apprenticeship in Australia. I had my start at Kitchen W8 (one Michelin star) in London’s West End. This was my first introduction to the intensity of London’s kitchens. Kitchen W8 is a place that focused heavily on the seasons. Like we would use tomatoes for only seven weeks of the year as that’s when they were in season. Its food style was French modern with a good sense of technique. It was a place where flavor and the heat of the food was paramount.
It was a small team consisting of six members and it left no room for dead weight. I soon progressed through the different sections starting on the garnish, then larder, then the pastry section, moving all the way to the sauce section (chef jargon meaning working with the meat and protein). After two years it felt like it was the right time to move on.
I was inspired by the lighter and fresher approach to food that chefs were taking, utilizing less of the traditional heavier and dark sauces. I naturally drifted towards Tom Aikens whose food I would describe had the perfect balance. It was new modern movement techniques but Tom, having trained with some of Europe’s best, was also deeply rooted in the classic way of cooking and bringing it forward. That gives that depth to a dish that many chefs seem to fumble on. Tom’s food plating style for me was and still is some of the most evocative and intricate food I’ve been involved in.
After a grueling and I mean grueling 18 months, my time at Tom’s came to an abrupt halt. The restaurant closed its doors in January of 2014. I was fortunate to be one of the four people selected to help open Tom’s new venture, The Pawn, in Hong Kong. This was a new challenge – working in a foreign country where everything seemed like a struggle. Being part of a restaurant opening gave me a new experience and it was good to see how it’s possible to build a restaurant from scratch.
After a year at The Pawn, I moved back to London as I felt like there was still more for me to learn, and quickly found myself working at England’s best restaurant, The Ledbury (two Michelin stars and 10th in world’s-best rating), situated in Nottinghill. This was and still is one of the hardest kitchens in London to work at.
Six months later, I was forced to make a tough decision to either stay or leave the safety of working at the best restaurant in England to start my own thing. I had to give it all up quite quickly and soon found myself in New York, this April, with one of my best mates, James Sharman, who I knew from back at Tom Aikens (at Chelsea and Hong Kong) and who was working at Noma when I staged there. That’s how I joined One Star House Party (which he leads), who were just starting to do their pop-up restaurants. I wanted to try out my own ideas. One Star gives me a platform and is also a way of developing as a chef, acquiring new experiences. Next month I get to go to Taipei, then Argentina, etc.
During these past five years I also amassed quite an immense amount of stages (a chef term meaning working for free on days off to gain experience).
Staging is a great way to see different aspects of cooking and it gave me a lot of perspective on how I want to run my kitchen. I was very fortunate to stage at some of the best restaurants around the globe:
Two weeks at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford, England, (Raymond Blanc), two Michelin stars.
One month at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark (René Redzepi), two Michelin stars, voted best restaurant in the world.
Two weeks at Sushi Sukon, Hong Kong, (Yoshiharu Kakinuma), three-star Japanese.
One week at Frantzen, Stockholm, Sweden (Bjorn Franzen), two Michelin stars, voted #31 in the world.
Other multiple stages in London a week at a time: Fera at Claridges, Restaurant Story, Hibiscus, The Greenhouse, Hedone, Dabbous, The Square, Pied a Terre, Alaine Ducasse (Paris), and Chez Bruce.
Tom Aikens is a legend. What was it like working for him? What did you learn from him?
Tom Aikens was revered like a god amongst the other chefs, yet wasn’t like other celebrity chefs doing interviews and book signings all day. He was cooking with everyone else, only better and faster. Every plate looked like a work of art, and all the chefs looked on in awe, day by day, growing steadily faster and more efficient. I learnt how to be the most efficient I could be.
As a chef, he also gave me the room to grow into the chef I needed to be. Being able to deal with certain situations and taking control of the younger chefs coming through the ranks is the most standout of all the experiences I learnt with Tom. One of the greatest pieces of advice Chef (yes I still call him Chef to this day) gave me is that you have to lead by example and you have to do what you say you are going to do.
A lot of chefs say one thing and then as soon as it becomes inconvenient or non-beneficial to them, they quit. Commitment is doing the task long after the mood you said it in has passed.
A top chef’s life not only means different restaurants, but different countries as well. How has this affected the way you cook?
I believe that the more experiences you have, the more it will definitely shape you for the better. Like trying different cuisines, flavors and techniques gives you the ability to blur the lines of what was possible and what can be. Knowledge is power and that couldn’t be any more correct with cooking. It gives you the power to mix cuisines and flavors in such a way that it doesn’t seem like a mismatch but something completely new and something that hopefully excites and nourishes.
What do you do to relax? Since a chef’s life is so demanding and revolves around a kitchen, I’m sure cooking is the last thing you want to do.
Good question! It’s such a hard one at the moment because actually, cooking is such a small part of my job with One Star House Party that I still find being behind the stove the most fulfilling part of my day. At the moment, traveling has consumed all my time for other hobbies like scuba diving and mushroom foraging. Music – I love catching a live event whenever I can, big fan of the Editors and Jezabels and the like.
What are your favorite dishes?
I love the simple one-pot wonders you can knock out with little fuss, the ones that nourish and bring everyone together.
And your favorite dessert?
I have a massive sweet tooth so I love all things sweet. If I’m dining out I will always order multiple deserts just for myself. Anything with chocolate is a real winner for me.
Your own personal recommendations for restaurants in America and Europe?
If I had to recommend restaurants in Europe and America it would be the ones I’ve already been to. Franzen in Stockholm, as it is one of the most memorable dining experiences I have ever had. Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas for the best barbecue I’ve ever had. Sushi Sukon – eight-seater Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong. Their one-on-one dining experience has you where you and the chef are so close that the connection between you and the food is immense.
What were some challenges that you faced on the road to where you are now in your career?
I have definitely had my moments of doubt and pain but a couple that definitely stand out are the first couple of weeks after arriving in the UK when I was living in a run-down flat in Tooting Broadway, waking up at 6 AM, and returning home well after midnight. The shock to the system was brutal. After the first month, I tossed off eight kilos and I felt like I was literally dying, but your body soon becomes accustomed to it and now it’s ingrained in me to work that hard.
The second hardest decision was to leave the security of working for someone else and going out on my own.
What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
I love the freedom that you have being a chef, there is no rule book or clear path that you have to take.
Being a part of One Star Party House is kind of like touring like a rock star, being in a band. What’s the average day like?
I guess it’s easy to be perceived this way as we are in a new city every two weeks, most of them unknown to all of us. To be truly honest, it’s the most grueling schedule I’ve ever had.
An average day, once we’ve settled into the city, consists of us waking up around 5 or 5:30 AM, normally checking on some braised meat item I’ve put in the night before. Normally I walk up to it in quiet desperation as these domestic ovens tend to have a mind of their own.
After dealing with that, I normally grab a pan and half-fill it with instant coffee (this is known as car crash coffee as it pretty much saved our lives on the long drives through the night.) Then it’s straight cooking till around 9 AM tying up a load of loose ends. Then it’s on the bike to the markets and shops to pick up the fresh daily produce. Then it’s back to the kitchen where everyone is in full stride by this time: setting the tables, folding the linen, organizing the cutlery, all the hidden day-to-day stuff that seems to get unnoticed by the guests who arrive around 7-7:30 PM, then it’s show time. Cooking, dressing the plates and taking them out to the guests is all what it’s about.
The energy in the room all comes from us so we need to be on top of our game. After all the cooking, we all aim to sit down with the guests and talk one-on-one about how they found this experience. Afterwards, normally the wine we have been drinking with the guests puts us straight to sleep (which is usually top and tail with one of the other chefs as living space is normally sacrificed for the benefit of the restaurant).
What are some fun memories from on the road in the U.S.?
Personal favourites of mine are eating Creole food in New Orleans, karaoke in Nashville and gunning a 43-foot RV around Big Sur.
Cooking at your level is so intense. How do you prevent burnout?
I’ve always had an abundance of energy so hopefully it continues, and it has seemed to! Once you start doing this stuff on your own terms and it’s your name on the line, there seems to be a bigger emphasis on pushing harder, and I’m going to keep pushing until someone says stop!!
Describe your approach to food.
If I had to describe my food style it would be seasonal, nourishing and something that makes the guest think about what they’re eating and why they’re eating it.