‘All this job is, is communication’: An Interview with Joe Laker, Head Chef of FENN
By Hannah Laker
Edited by Lizzie Alblas
On a Friday afternoon, things are winding down, pints are poured and the weekend is imminent for most. But for Head Chef Joe Laker, his working week is only really just gaining momentum. Point proven as he pops onto the screen in his chef whites and a pen in hand, taking a quick break from the kitchen, down in the wine cellar of his restaurant, FENN. As I sit down for a video call with my brother, I note that this is the first major communication we’ve had in a while, with him making only very rare appearances on the family WhatsApp group, so I’m grateful for both a professional chat and a much needed catch-up.
As his older sister, I obviously know quite a bit about Joe’s background. But to start off the conversation, I ask him to talk me through his early career, hoping to gain an insight into how he managed to work his way up in the industry so quickly. ‘I don’t think I ever really took to academia, pursuing a career spent in an office was never really an option for me. I wanted to try working a kitchen, I got a job at an Asian place in Leeds, the food wasn’t complicated but it was the first glimpse into kitchen life, I learnt basic knife skills and I got taught how to behave in kitchens, to have respect. Whenever you go into a kitchen it’s all about respect and respecting those above you because they’ve worked to get there.’
‘I wasn’t dead set on being a chef still. It wasn’t until I went for a trial shift at The Black Swan with Tommy [Banks], as soon as I stepped foot in there, with the level of focus and level of creativity it was a no brainer from then on.’ For context, Tommy Banks is a Michelin Star chef who owns The Black Swan, in Oldstead, and Roots, in York. After his initial trial shift, Joe went on to get hired by Tommy for his then newly-open restaurant, Roots. ‘It was tough at Roots, it was overwhelming for me at the start and it was a huge learning curve, I had to work very hard because I felt behind everyone else. The self-discipline I learnt and the experience there set the precedent for my career, every kitchen I went into after that one I went into acting like I had something to prove. That’s probably why I’ve progressed so quickly, because I’ve just worked and worked. I always want to feel like I’m good enough for the position I’m in.’
I circled back a little to the idea of creativity in the industry. Here at The Letters Page, creativity is obviously a huge part of what we do. But I’m curious as to how it might factor into my brother’s profession too. ‘To be at the position I’m at, creativity is huge. It’s important to get the whole team excited, lack of creativity has a knock-on effect on everyone. A lot of it comes from where we source the ingredients from. I spend a lot of time picking out small scale farmers and all of the meat we get comes from sustainable suppliers. It breeds creativity already, if you believe in the product you’re getting it makes you excited to use it and you think about the ways to use it in terms of minimising waste. At the moment we’ve got a load of pumpkins in, we use all the flesh and skin from the middle and I’ve turned it into treacle.’
Joe has had some amazing reviews in the likes of The Guardian, The Times, The FT — to name a few (proud sister moment). But I ask him if any of them are stand out pieces, and why. ‘I think the Evening Standard was the best one. Jimi [Famurewa] was the first food critic to come to FENN, I didn’t know who he was, I was actually sat on the terrace with the Group Editor in Chief of BBC Good Food at the time. She had forced me to have a glass of wine with her, it was two o’clock in the afternoon, she said it was rude if I didn’t have a glass with her. So, I was sat having a chat with Christine in my chef whites, in between lunch and dinner service, and I end up locking eyes with Jimi and she suddenly leans over and says “I think that’s the restaurant critic from the Evening Standard.” I’m there slumped back, swirling the glass around, chinning wine with Christine who then tells me “I think you should walk away very slowly.” That was a fun story, and his review was just really nice and it’s the first time I’d had a proper article written about me, there’s a quote saying something about the immense level of control which was really nice to hear.’
Moving on from Joe’s career a little bit, I wanted to ask about his more personal opinions on his industry. We’d spoken before about what has been his favourite ever meal in a restaurant, to which he referenced A.Wong. The restaurant is based in Central London and Head Chef Andrew Wong offers food that explores the kitchens of China, from past to present. Joe had sent me pictures of the food at the time, but I wanted to know what made this such a stand out dinner. ‘I have no idea how they do what they do, some of the flavours, the techniques that they use, everything I ate, I have no idea how they do them. I could not go away and replicate what they’ve done.’
He also tells me a great story about how they presented him with a postcard halfway through the meal. ‘I didn’t think they’d actually send it; they get you to write a note and then they take it away. The whole menu was designed to take you on a journey around China, so I guess it was part of the immersive experience, to take you away from Victoria, London and into one of the provinces of China.’ A week later, said postcard ends up coming through the letterbox at my mum and dad’s house with a note saying ‘Having a lovely time at A Wong, lots of love Joe.’ We laugh about the fact that Joe has probably never written a letter in his life, but he’s adamant that this truly was a lovely touch.
To wrap up our chat, I ask if Joe has any advice for budding young chefs out there. ‘Find a chef that you respect, who you want to work for and that you want to push with. It’s all well and good finding a restaurant where you like the style and look of the food but if you don’t respect the chef, then it’s difficult to want to stay there. It’s really hard to not become a product of your environment, and, unfortunately, those ideologies become ingrained in you, it takes a while to knock this out. I would never want to be an aggressive person; you don’t get the best out of people by shouting and screaming at them. You need to find a middle ground; people need to respect you but they don’t need to fear you.’
I ask him if communication is a big part of this respect. ‘All this job is, is communication. Especially in service, there’s a direct line of communication between me and the staff. I’m constantly communicating with kitchen, front of house, customers, suppliers. I’m speaking to my suppliers every day, I’ve had a supplier come to me recently saying the halibut he had was bad, but he had some great cod. He could have sold me the bad halibut for double the price, but the clear ground of communication and mutual respect we have for each other means I get great produce each time.’
Exploring this idea of communication a little further, Joe explains the importance of communication within his team. ‘Communication with staff is key, making sure they know they can talk to me whenever they need to. Without communication in the kitchen, it’s a disaster. A lot of places have that front of house and back of house divide, where people don’t talk, that’s not healthy. Having that communication between everyone is, I think, the most important thing.’
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