James Lowe can still remember it vividly. The two moments, two days apart, that shifted the course of his life, inside two of London’s most iconic restaurants. Up until then, the plan was to become a pilot after he returned from university in Canada.
The Englishman had his eyes set on the British Airways scholarship program and his future mapped out in front of him. But that all changed when the aviation world crashed following the horrific events on September 11, 2001.
Lowe found himself waiting tables in an east London restaurant, stuck at the crossroads without a plan. Food hadn’t been a big part of his life up until that point. He didn’t grow up surrounded by cooks who handed down recipes from one generation to the next like tattered family heirlooms. In fact, his memory of dinner as a kid was eating in the lounge room in front of the television with his parents.
One night he obnoxiously argued with the head chef that European cuisine was boring and unimaginative, cringing at the memory. The chef nodded along and calmly wrote down two recommendations, The Fat Duck and St. JOHN. Two restaurants that would force Lowe to scrap his future plans of flying around the world.
Now nearly two decades and nearly one pandemic on, the man behind one of the finest restaurants in London, Lyle’s, can pinpoint the moments that dramatically altered his life.
“I was working as a waiter at a restaurant in east London while I was applying to British Airways. It was just around 9/11 and all the airlines just crashed on a scale like COVID. You had a situation where an awful lot of airlines were about to go bust. People just weren’t traveling or flying, so they just made so many people redundant,” Lowe told Man of Style.
“They used to have this sponsorship program for pilots and they said they were going to restart again the next year. I was reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential at the time and I was like, holy shit, this is happening to me the way he saw the kitchen as this band of pirates. Cooking is hard; working in a restaurant is hard; long hours and the pay is rubbish, so there needs to be a lot more to it than that to keep people going. I could really relate to his early experiences that made him want to work in a kitchen.
“I felt a bit directionless because the pilot thing was my plan and I didn’t really know what to do. I loved how driven the people in the kitchen were. I wanted to learn more. I thought I had a year and I may as well learn something and work. I thought it would be brilliant for the future to learn how to cook properly.
“Then within a couple of months of doing that and forming a good friendship with the head chef and asking him to eat. He sent me to The Fat Duck and he sent me to St JOHN. I ate at The Fat Duck on a Thursday night. Two days later I ate at St JOHN and I knew there and then I wanted to open a restaurant. That was kind of it for me.”
There were only six other diners inside The Fat Duck on that night in 2002 – this was a couple of years before Heston Blumenthal was awarded a sacred third Michelin star and a few years before the restaurant was No. 1 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – but Lowe was mesmerised by what was on his plate. He felt the same way when he sat down at Fergus Henderson’s iconic nose to tail restaurant St. JOHN. It was mind-blowing stuff, as he demonstrates with his hands above his head inside Lyle’s with D.I.Y boxes stacked behind him during London’s latest lockdown.
When the opportunity to attain a commercial pilot’s license in Europe and the United States came around again later that year, that ship had already left the harbour. Much to the disappointment of his mum and dad who didn’t picture him working in crowded kitchens when they put him through a private school.
“By then I had decided I wanted to work at The Fat Duck, I wanted to work at St JOHN, I wanted to work at The River Café and I wanted to open a restaurant,” Lowe recalls.
“My parents were not that excited by the idea. I remember my dad saying, ‘Jesus Christ, James, why did I spend all that money on education? If you’re going to do it, you better be bloody good at it. I don’t want you ending up at some pub’.”
It is one thing to want to work inside celebrated restaurants – like wanting to play for Liverpool instead of Grimsby Town – and another thing to actually work inside those institutions. But that’s what transpired.
Lowe started at La Trompette in Chiswick before getting his shot at The Fat Duck, where he spent 18 months working alongside Blumenthal. From there, he was offered a sous chef position at Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray’s critically acclaimed Italian restaurant The River Café in Hammersmith. It wasn’t long before St. JOHN poached him. He spent the next four years running the kitchen, growing closer to his ambition of opening his own restaurant.
“I wanted to work for those people; I hoped something would rub off and I would make it. I ended up becoming a head chef quite young, which is both good and bad. It means that I had to work an awful lot out for myself,” he said.
“I stayed four years as head chef at St JOHN and treated it like it was my restaurant. Food was the focus of the business. After a few years there I wanted my own place because I thought I’d been running my own place. It was very naïve and I was wrong. I realised that before I even opened Lyle’s, thinking I basically knew everything about running a restaurant. But that’s what happens.”
The goal had always been to open his own restaurant by 30 after learning under the noses of some of the best in the business. He didn’t miss that mark by much, opening Lyle’s in 2014 on the ground floor of the Tea Building in Shoreditch, which was built in the 1940s to house Lipton Tea.
The modern British destination earned a Michelin star in 2016 and has gradually risen from 65 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants that year to 54 in 2017, to 38 in 2018 and up to 33 last year – the second-highest of any restaurant in the United Kingdom, behind The Clove Club.
This year has thrown up more challenges for the hospitality sector than almost any other industry. Restaurants were forced to close for months when the world shut down in March due to COVID-19. They have reopened and then closed again, pivoted to takeaway and D.I.Y at home boxes. It is all about survival mode in 2020. And some famous destinations haven’t survived.
Lowe is confident Lyle’s will still be standing in 2021 and beyond. Two of his other businesses, wine bar and bakery Flor and takeaway concept ASAP Pizza, have helped keep the accounts ticking over. But more on them later.
When the world eventually returns to normal – the normal we knew before March – Lowe wants Lyle’s to become an institution in its own right, held in a similar esteem to the places he cut his teeth in.
“One of the big goals for Lyle’s is we have a 20-year lease. Real restaurants that I love – River Café, St JOHN, The Fat Duck – they are 25 years old; the River Café is 35 years old. These are real restaurants. For me, to prove that we are a real restaurant, and we are worth it, we need to get to 10 years. That shows that we are not a fad or anything like that about it. If we get to 20 years, that’s how you become an institution,” he said.
“Lyle’s needs to become an institution in London in the same way that the River Café and St JOHN are. That was my goal for the place when we opened. I want Lyle’s to be an essential destination, rather than a destination restaurant. We’re not somewhere where you go for your birthday or your anniversary, but if you’re in London, regardless of what you’re hoping to spend or see, you should go to Lyle’s – no you must go to Lyle’s. That’s what I wanted and fingers crossed we’re on the path to becoming that in the next few years.”
Lowe and his business partner, John Ogier, will need to navigate through the rest of this year and the early part of 2021 first. It means in a time when a chef has never worn more hats – think promoter, business owner, salesman, forager – is now a quasi-psychologist for his team. Welcome to 2020.
“Everyone needs an unprecedented amount of support. I have never had more face to face, one on one conversations with my team ever. I have never been around so many people who are obviously struggling with what’s going on. It is another scenario that I don’t know how to handle necessarily. It is bonkers when you’re here to do food and that’s what you’re best at,” he said.
“You are desperate to keep everyone in your team informed during this toxic period of uncertainty. You want to speak to everyone face to face because everyone needs more human contact at the moment, but you can’t get around to everyone because there’s not enough time. You just feel like you’re not actually present because you’re constantly thinking about the plan for the next week or for the next week. It has been an extremely difficult time, but we are getting through it together.”
One thing that has helped Lowe and his team get through this tumultuous period is a concept that started as a flippant idea but has proven to be a masterstroke. And that’s ASAP Pizza and their New York-style sourdough pizzas that use heritage British wheat.
When Lowe brought Pam Young – who owned and ran Michelin-starred New York restaurant Semilla – across to head his new project Flor, the bakery and wine bar on the outskirts of the Borough Market, he already had one eye on the next project. They both did. Although they didn’t realise how well it would work amid the maelstrom of a global crisis.
“Our plan was that Flor would be followed by a woodfired pizza casual styled restaurant. That was the agreement we put the money into because Flor cost quite a lot for a small site. It doesn’t make sense by itself financially but if that was attached with something else, then that would make more sense. COVID hit and that threw that all off. Site three should have been open by now,” he said.
“As we realised we were heading into lockdown there was this pressure and intense scramble to come up with a concept and be operating with it next week or the world is going to burn. One of the reasons why I brought Pam Young over from America was because I had the view for site three. I knew she loved pizza; she loved the sort of restaurants I love in the States that I wanted site three to be like.
“To be honest, it was probably better than I thought it was going to be. Pam has run with it and come up with loads of brilliant ideas. I felt like I knew what I wanted the third place to be like – and Pam and I are still looking for that – but in the meantime can’t ASAP just run by itself? We think we can do it. The pizza scene in London is a joke. There are a few types of food that London is just appalling for, which is so bizarre. Pizza is a joke. I remember doing some interviews before we opened ASAP and some of them were like, ‘Oooh easy, we love London pizza’. And I was like have you guys ever been to New York? There are incredible restaurants in major cities in the States that Londoners just haven’t seen and just don’t know.”
ASAP Pizza was named by Lowe’s savvy cousin after a text exchange planted the idea. They needed a name ASAP. And they found it. Sometimes the best decisions are made under pressure.
Now ASAP Pizza has become one of the most talked-about slices in the United Kingdom. Plans are underway for a permanent home and maybe even more than one. If that sounds like a risk in the current climate, don’t worry, it has kept Lowe up at night. But as Winston Churchill once said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’.
“There are quite a lot of good property deals at the moment. If you double down and assume you’re going to get through (the pandemic), there is potential for a lot of expansion next year. Business interruption loans are the cheapest that’s been available to people in years and probably will be for a long time,” he said.
“There is definitely a section of the hospitality industry – whilst we are all hurting, from losing a bit to hemorrhaging on that spectrum – there is the view that we can make this back as long as we get through.
“It’s kind of mental, I’m now of the mindset that there is no way that it won’t work, but when we first had this idea of looking for a bricks and mortar site for ASAP right now and a bakery I thought that was insane, how can we possibly commit to more things at this time? But it went from once a week thinking that’s a good idea to the other six days of people like this is crazy to it starting to slowly switch. It’s bonkers.
“We have loads of potential sites for ASAP Pizza that will work. Our business partners believe that’s a safer bet than Lyle’s is right now. The name of the game right now is survival mode, it’s not about how much you’re making, it’s just making sure you’re not losing money.”
Lowe has played the game for a long time now, even if he hasn’t stopped to realise it. From the moment he jettisoned a career in the air for a life in restaurants, making one calculated move after another to progress. You get the feeling that this might just be another move on the path to his restaurants becoming synonymous with London.