30 things we love in the world of food, 2024 | Food

Chef Abby Lee. Hair and makeup: Juliana Sergot using Nars and Bumble & Bumble. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer


Chef Abby Lee. Hair and makeup: Juliana Sergot using Nars and Bumble & Bumble. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

Abby Lee

Turning up the heat on Malaysian food

A couple of months into her restaurant’s new home and Abby Lee is still taking it all in. Mambow moved from a shared space in Peckham, south-east London, to its own site in Hackney at the end of 2023. The new space is her own, the menu has doubled in length, the staff more than doubled in size, testing her nascent management skills. “I’m learning every day,” she says. “It’s been a real thrill.”

Lee’s mission is described on her website as “Malaysian heat and juicy wines”. Still under 30 but already one of the capital’s chefs of the moment, her ascent has been intense and relatively fast. After training at Le Cordon Bleu in London she returned home to work in Singapore, then moved to Italy, to a Michelin-starred restaurant. Back in London in 2020, Lee opened her first cafe just before lockdown, which inevitably forced her to close. Stuck at home with time to spare, she started a project collecting family recipes so they wouldn’t be lost. Her mother’s family is from north-western Malaysia, near Penang, while her dad is from Sarawak, in the east of the country across the South China Sea, above Borneo. What if she could bring regional dishes to London, a place where people think of Malaysian food as laksa or roti?

“Malaysian food is a real labour of love,” Lee explains, describing the balance it takes to master the perhaps 20 ingredients that could go into even a side of chilli sauce. “It’s a real fine dining skill that people might overlook because they see it as fast or casual.”

The Sarawak chicken on her new menu is heavy with peppercorns – “so very dear to our hearts” – with warm notes of cumin, fennel and coriander. Lee says it’s an easy sell for UK diners, reminding them of an Indian-style curry. She expects people to be surprised by a salad of raw fish, slightly cured with kalansi, garlic and ginger. “This is a fisherman’s salad, usually found along the rivers in Sarawak,” Lee says, and she’s given it a modern spin with tamarind granita and garlic chive oil.

Lee plans to change her menu every couple of months. The dish on the current menu that most speaks to her heart is gulai tumis, usually only found in Nyonya restaurants in Penang. It’s a sour fish curry, which she makes with skate wing plus a strong showing from tamarind, lemongrass and torch ginger flower – Lee’s holy trinity of flavours – and a strong fish stock. ”That’s everything for me.” Holly O’Neill

Ana Ortiz

From the Galápagos to Somerset

Ana Ortiz is a chef from the Galápagos and, with her husband, Tom Bray, an innovator in one of the UK’s most pervasive trends: live fire cooking. When visiting London as a student, Ortiz fell in love with Bray, and then when visiting Ortiz’s family, Bray fell in love with their family feasts cooked over fire.

Chef Ana Ortiz cooking on her fire kitchen at home in Somerset. Photograph: Harry Borden/The Observer

The couple lived in Ecuador for a while but moved back to the UK, settling in Somerset 17 years ago. Ortiz found a job in the kitchen of a local farm shop, then honed her skills in restaurants. For one private cheffing job, she wanted to cook outdoors, over fire, but couldn’t find the kind of asado cross – a metal rack for cooking large cuts or even the whole animal – that her family used. Bray had blacksmith Tim Lloyd make one, inquiries from potential customers followed and suddenly they had a business. Having kit for the first few UK Meatopia festivals helped establish them as some of the country’s leading live-fire-kit experts and now Now their fans include Marcus Wareing and Tomos Parry.

Ortiz’s father, an architect and keen cook, helped out with advice initially but now Bray designs all the grills, accessories and implements they sell, governed by simplicity and practicality. “Lots of chefs’ rigs look amazing but are so impractical,” says Ortiz, adding they’re often bought by kitchens with not enough experience in fire cooking. The couple also run live-fire cooking classes, both in Somerset and at festivals across the world, teaching anyone from keen amateurs to chefs.

At the end of 2023, Ortiz oversaw a sold-out week at Carousel, the London restaurant that gives its kitchen over to guest chefs. On the menu was food from the Galápagos, but also from Ecuador’s mountain highlands, where her mother is from.

It was a chance for her to showcase the breadth of Ecuadorian food, from ceviches and tamales to her favourite fritada – fire-confited pork. It was also a chance for her to cook with a team, although she has no desire to own a restaurant. Instead, she and Bray have secured a site in Wiltshire where they can expand their classes and host banquets. She’s thinking big – multiple fire pits, long tables, visiting chefs, 400-guest dinners. “Really ambitious, super impressive,” she says. “A proper asador experience.” Holly O’Neill

Aji Akokomi

Investing in west African food

When it came to opening his second restaurant, Aji Akokomi couldn’t help but feel vindicated. He had struggled to secure investment for his first, Akoko, and found it even harder to find a landlord willing to rent space to a fledgling restaurateur. It seemed a fine-dining spot serving west African food was too risky. Akokomi found himself in a catch-22, with investors and landlords wanting evidence his concept could be successful but reluctant to give him the opportunity to prove it. “People will invest in any business where they think they’ll get the return,” he says. “But with Akoko, they didn’t feel that would happen. .

“One investor said to me that the idea sounded great but to come back to him after I’d had success and he’d think about investing in African restaurants in the future.

Aji Akokomi, founder of Akoko and Akara. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

“A lot of people didn’t quite understand west African food and didn’t think a restaurant serving it in central London would be successful. I did, and I did – and I think its success has shown that it can work not just for us, but for other people coming up too.”

In the end, he funded Akoko himself. Opening in 2020, it made it on to the national restaurant awards Top 100 the following year and it now has a Michelin star. A celebrity endorsement from The Bear’s Will Poulter even prompted one diner to fly in from New York. Last year Akokomi opened that second restaurant, Akara, in Borough. “So yes,” he says, laughing gently, “I do feel a little vindicated.”

Born in Ibadan, Nigeria, Akokomi came to the UK in 2006 to get his master’s and then worked in IT. Once he decided to switch to restaurants, he trained at Leith’s School of Food & Wine. The food in his restaurants serves as a love letter to his homeland, the dishes evocative, even when unfamiliar to those for whom an ingredient might be new. “I wanted the food to be elegant and unmistakably west African,” he says.

Akara is a more casual dining experience, focusing on street food and lesser-known dishes (it’s named after black-eyed bean fritters popular in west Africa and Brazil). Opening it was easier. Out walking, Akokomi passed a new site being developed at Borough Yards, near Borough Market, and thought it would be a great place for a new venture. “I contacted them and they got in touch immediately and said they’d be happy to support us because they’d already thought of us,” he says. Perhaps Akokomi’s biggest legacy, apart from the restaurants, is the path he’s forged for others. He may have struggled without much in the way of precedent, but now he can serve in that role for others. Melissa Thompson

Roux scholars

40 years of elite culinary training

Chefs Michel (left) and Albert Roux, 1988. Photograph: David Crump/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

There are 206 Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK and Ireland. Back in 1983, when Michel and Albert Roux set up a scholarship for promising young chefs, there were just 33 and British cooks inspired little confidence abroad.

“Chefs in France would say, ‘They can cook?! They understand what good cooking is?!’” recalls Michel Roux Jr, who now co-chairs the prize.

“So when my father and uncle approached a three-star restaurant in France and said, ‘I’ve got this young British chef who has just won a competition and wants to spend three months with you,’ it took some persuading.”

Forty years on, the respect now afforded to British chefs worldwide owes a great deal to the Roux family, whose scholarship gave a vital leg up to such future stars as Sat Bains, Luke Selby and Mark Birchall. (There have been winners from Ireland and even France – entry criteria is based on being employed in a UK restaurant and trained in the UK and Ireland.) “There is such a sense of prestige about it,” says April Lily Partridge, who won last year’s competition, only the second woman to do so, almost 30 years after Mercy Fenton in 1994. Winners have the opportunity to do what’s known in the industry as a “stage”, essentially an internship, at any Michelin-starred restaurant around the world, all expenses paid.

Partridge, a sous chef at the Ledbury, opted to do several shorter courses instead, including learning fish butchery with chef Josh Niland in Sydney and bread-making with Tartine bakery in San Francisco.

“It’s just the most unbelievable competition,” says Partridge, who is hoping another woman will triumph when the 40th winner is announced on 8 April. “It’s not just about being a good chef, it’s about how many people you inspire. That’s what’s so great about it: there’s a sense of responsibility to share your skills and help make the industry even better.” Killian Fox

Ameer and Nicole Limbu

Street food champions and the rise of Nepalese food

Last May, Ameer and Nicole Limbu set up a food truck in Fife having spotted a gap in the market for Nepalese cuisine: succulent pork momos and rich buffalo tar kari and big puffy sel rotis with spiced sesame potatoes. For Ameer, who was born in Nepal and moved to Scotland aged 10, it was the food he always dreamed of serving in all his years as a jobbing chef.

Ameer and Nicole Limbu in their street food van. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

“On a complete whim, we entered the Scottish street food awards,” says Nicole, who quit her marketing job to join Ameer in the trailer. “We thought, let’s just give this a go and see if we can get a bit of press out of it.” They ended up joint winners and went on to compete in the British street food awards in September. To their astonishment, they won. A month later, the slightly dazed couple also won the “future food legend” category at the European street food awards, held in Germany. It’s not a bad tally after a first summer’s trading.

Their triumphs speak to the growing popularity of Nepalese food in the UK: restaurants showcasing traditional Nepalese dishes have been popping up around the country. But more than anything they reflect the Limbus’ dedication to their new trade and Ameer’s talents in the kitchen, much of which he credits to his mother. “I’ve definitely taken a lot of dishes from her and maybe tweaked the recipes as well, making them my own,” he says, adding in a whisper: “They’re possibly even a little bit better – but please don’t tell my mum I said that.” Killian Fox

Dina Macki

Exploring Omani food culture

Dina Macki. Photograph: Patricia Niven

Dina Macki won last year’s Jane Grigson Trust award, which rewards new food writers, and you can see why judges loved her debut cookbook, Bahari: Recipes from an Omani Kitchen and Beyond. Alongside recipes for distinctive dishes, such as lemon swordfish soup and beef in a sweet milk stew, Macki writes with insight about her heritage, which extends from the Arabian sultanate to Portsmouth, where her maternal grandparents settled in the 1960s, via the “spice island” of Zanzibar. Such is her enthusiasm, it’s a surprise to learn that she once did everything she could to hide this part of her life.

Desperate to fit in at her English private school, Macki “disconnected from my culture and food so much”, she recalls. “I didn’t want to know it, I didn’t want to smell it, anything.” It was at university, where she met Arab students while studying fashion and marketing, that “everything flipped”. With help from her mother and grandmother, she learned how to cook and started serving Omani dishes to appreciative friends. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, people are interested in my culture and I’m not embarrassed by it.’ That was a really big moment.”

After finding a wider audience on Instagram, Macki spent six months roaming Oman in 2021, discovering just how rich its food culture was. “I want people to fall in love with the country the same way I have,” she says. “I want them to see how amazing the food is.” Killian Fox


Câr-y-Môr spider crab


Sustainable seaweed and shellfish from Wales

When Tomos Parry opened his latest restaurant, Mountain, in Soho, there was one dish that stood out on social media: the spider crab omelette. Images of it quivering before a single cut spills rich, crab-flecked egg dominated food lovers’ Instagram feeds.

The crab is sourced more than 250 miles away, from Wales’s first regenerative seaweed and shellfish farm, Câr-y-Môr, in Pembrokeshire. “The starting point is my dad,” says Joanne Haines, who started the business in 2019 with her mother, sister and dad, Owen, a third-generation fish farmer. “He was sick of where things were going: of the amount of waste and antibiotics in fish farming, and he wanted to find a better model.”

The idea was to create a business that supported local fishers, provided jobs in an area of high unemployment, and celebrated Welsh seafood; and to do so sustainably. The result is a network of ropes growing shellfish and seaweed in the clear waters of St Davids.

There are no inputs and no waste: “Seaweed that isn’t of sufficient quality we can turn into fertiliser,” Haines continues, and what they don’t grow they buy from local fishers Owen knows, seasonally and sustainably.

“Câr-y-Môr is symbolic of what we are doing here,” says Parry, who was born in Anglesey. “They have dedication, coupled with multi-generational skill and expertise. The cockles are world class,” he says. At Mountain, the cockles are served steamed in their own juice. As for the famous omelette? “It’s our celebration of Câr-y-Môr: stuffed with its spider crab and dusted in sugar kelp which is beautifully sweet and tender and from Wales, which is so important to me.” Clare Finney

Trolley service

Return of a retro favourite

“Nowadays, there’s an emphasis on entertaining customers,” says François O’Neill. At his modern brasserie, Maison François, trolleys of beautiful, bespoke dessert and steak tartare provide that sense of theatre, as they do at a growing number of London restaurants.

The Rewthink dessert trolley at Maison Francois. Photograph: Amit Lennon/The Observer

Many of these are inside luxury hotels where, historically, table-side service was common. Think crepes suzette flambeed next to you at the Ritz. More recently there are the crepes at Corinthia’s Northall restaurant and the retro-modern ice-cream carts dispensing knickerbocker glories at chef Tom Sellers’s Dovetale. “I wanted to replicate old-school, opulent service in a fun, progressive way,” says Sellers, whose carts are designed by Seymourpowell, the interior designers for the Virgin Galactic spacecraft.

O’Neill’s inspiration was part Mad Men, part business nous: “There’s an element of upselling. It’s easy to say ‘no’ to a piece of paper, but bring a pudding trolley over and you’re enticing people in.”

The commercial rationale explains why Andrew Clark’s Rewthink is in demand. As well as Maison François, starry clientele from Shanghai to New York are supplied by the Kent workshop. An engineer passionate about wood, Clark fell into making original restaurant pieces, from trays to handbag stands, around 2006. Initially baffled by terms such as petit four or côte de boeuf – “To me, this whole area was completely alien” – his practical, ingenious designs spoke for themselves. Trolleys are constructed using bespoke mechanisms, such as bottle carousels or foldaway work surfaces, and now form the bulk of Rewthink’s work.

Doors are a pet hate. “If you have doors on a trolley, people fill it with rubbish,” he says. “It’s a cupboard.” Instead, Rewthink creates handsome, open-plan trolleys in European oak. They are durable, light, a manoeuvrable 40cm wide, and are user-friendly workhorses. “A trolley isn’t just a set of shelves with wheels,” says Clark. “To work in a restaurant, it has to be much more.” Tony Naylor

The golden age of potato cookery

Time to shine for the humble spud

“You’ve got to get people with the simple things,” says Sam Grainger. To Grainger, a professional kitchen’s value lies in making common ingredients, such as the potato, memorable. “It’s got to be the best potato you’ve ever had,” he says.

The Quality Chop House’s confit potatoes. Photograph: Patricia Niven

Hence the effort made at Madre, the Mexican restaurants he co-owns in Manchester and Liverpool. Its papas are steamed, crushed, air-dried, fried, fried again and dressed in roasted habanero vinegar, to create gnarled, buttery, crunchy spuds.

Best potatoes ever? The competition is fierce. The new potatoes with brown butter hollandaise at Manchester’s Osma are ludicrously good. In London, the filigree layers of Fallow’s boulangère and The Quality Chop House’s confit potatoes are classics. Then there’s a whole wave of multi-stage, crispy potatoes to consider, from the smashed potatoes with gochujang mayo at Leeds’ Eat Your Greens to Kudu Grill’s beef fat-dressed fingerlings in London.

Historically, expensive main course proteins provided menus with cachet. Today, creative chefs explore sides that are equally likely to emerge as “hero” dishes on social media. “That’s how we cook, taking the humblest ingredients and trying to make them stand-out,” says Patrick Williams, chef-owner of the Kudu restaurants. As a trainee, Williams loved the elaborate potato dishes common to classic French cooking. That complexity is matched in several of its dishes, such as the rosti at its main Peckham restaurant. Grated red rooster potatoes are slow-cooked in oil (“almost confited”), seasoned with dashi powder, set, pressed, sub-divided then deep-fried and dressed with smoked yoghurt and a cider vinegar wakame seaweed powder.

“Everybody loves potatoes,” says Williams, fondly recalling his smoked pomme puree with chicken fat and crispy chicken skin. “So moreish. I put on a few kilos, trying it. It’s not just putting chips on the menu. It’s about doing something different.” Tony Naylor


The snack they hate to love

Takis Fuego. Photograph: Olesya Semenov/Alamy

Haters have christened them “the worst junk food in the world”, but the popularity of this luridly coloured Mexican rolled corn tortilla snack has been growing nevertheless. Manufacturers Grupo Bimbo are happy to lean into the naysayers: the snack’s 2021 UK launch ran with the slogan: “Takis, none of your five a day”. On Reddit, fans share intel about limited editions and stockists (the range available in the UK is still small compared to North America) and what you might loosely call “recipes”. Me? I eat takis straight up, crumbled over macaroni cheese and corn on the cob, or in tostilocos, the Mexican street snack. Nicola Miller

Doughnut Day

Like Pancake Day but … better?

Paczki ready for Tłusty Czwartek at Krakow’s Cichowscy bakery. Photograph: Getty Images

On a recent visit to my local Polski sklep, I found its narrow aisles filled with trays of fresh doughnuts and the counter overflowing with yet more. “In Poland, we celebrate Fat Thursday, or Tłusty Czwartek. It always falls on the last Thursday before Lent [2024’s fell on 8 February],” says food writer Ren Behan, whose new book, The Sweet Polish Kitchen, is published this month. “The most popular sweet treat of the day in Poland are doughnuts, called pączki; therefore, the day has become known as Pączki (Doughnut) Day.”

Although pączki are fun to make at home, most people will order them from a bakery to take to work or share with their families, popular fillings being custard or jam, Behan tells me. Her favourite shop-bought doughnuts are filled with rose petal jam or damson plum butter that has been cooked down until thick, and she bakes her own custard doughnuts spiked with homemade advocaat liqueur and dusted with powdered sugar. “Eating doughnuts on Fat Thursday is considered lucky,” she adds. “You must eat more than one.” Nicola Miller

L’Enclume’s Berkswell pudding

The dish we dream of

L’Enclume’s Berkswell pudding. Photograph: Cristian Barnett

Tweezered intricacy is a hallmark of L’Enclume’s three-Michelin-starred tasting menu but it’s this savoury pudding, a modest briquette served under a flurry of grated Berkswell ewe’s milk cheese, that lingers longest in the memory. Created from sliced croissants, baked with egg custard and Berkswell, then caramelised in birch sap, its umami flavour is fathoms deep, stopped deliciously short of being overwhelming by the addition of stout vinegar. Were Simon Rogan somehow able to produce this pudding for retail, it would sweep the nation. The campaign starts here. Tony Naylor

Decision-free dining

Have it all at Forza Wine. Illustration: Caitlin Isola Caprio

“Being from the north, we hate the idea of small plates,” says Bash Redford, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “ Why do I want a small plate? I want a bit of everything.”

Consequently, at their Forza Wine bar-restaurants in London, Redford and fellow northerner and chef Michael Lavery offer their full menu of “snacks” – around 13 dishes in varying sizes, plus four desserts – at a set, slightly discounted price of £120-£140. Currently 65% of their tables of four are going all-in.

“It’s good business and a great way to eat,” says Redford, as it conveys a sense of generosity, showcases all Forza’s dishes and helps ensure an ideal spend per head. Rather than being gripped by fomo and prevaricating over their order, a table can simply choose the lot and relax. Which seems a natural fit for restaurants serving short or diverse menus of sharing plates, such as London pub the Buxton. But it is rare. “I like surprising people,” says Mayur Patel , co-owner of the Indian brand Bundobust, which serves a 21-dish “combo” for £115. “And it’s how Indians and specifically Gujaratis eat. We mix and play with dishes to create our own combinations.” Full menu? It’s the future. Tony Naylor

Lesley’s Sauces

Finding success with family flavours

The sauces at Jerk Kitchen were meant to be the support act, never the headliner, but increasingly customers would ask for a little extra of the glaze mopped on to their jerk chicken to give it a final caramel-sweet kiss. “It was never the plan to sell the sauces,” says Natalie Dinning, “but every time customers would say, ‘Go on, make me some up to take home’.”

Natalie Dinning and Lesley’s Sauces.

Jerk Kitchen operated outside the Emirates stadium, home to Arsenal, from 2006 until 2019. It was Natalie who persuaded her parents, Neil and Lesley, to let her start a separate business, named in honour of Lesley, who had been in charge of sauces on the stall before suffering a stroke.

“We knew the customer base was there and we knew the sauce was good because of their feedback.

“Dad wasn’t sure at first, just because we were so flat out with the stall and I had another job away from it. But eventually he gave me the go-ahead. And we haven’t looked back.”

There are now four sauces in their collection, including the original jerk sauce and a hot version. All are based on family recipes from Jamaica. “It feels pretty special to have our family legacy written into the business,” Natalie says, “and it means the world that people enjoy them so much.” Melissa Thompson


Coming out of their shells

Snails served in garlic and parsley at The Suffolk, Aldeburgh. Photograph: Anna Photography

Snails are one of the most unlikely “it” foods of the past 18 months. Ever since cult brasserie Maison François slapped them on garlicky flatbreads, the mollusc has been crawling its way on to menus: slipped into settoise or on to fried straw potatoes or toast. Eating snails in the UK isn’t necessarily new:“Snails have long been eaten in Britain’s rural communities,” says George Pell, who runs The Suffolk in Aldeburgh. “I was charmed once to see a video of a snail picker in Somerset who would take them to his local pub where they would be cooked in cider.” Pell’s snails hail from Herefordshire and come flambeed or in the classic Burgundian style, in garlic and parsley. Eating them involves little rituals: “The tongs and picks create a sense of occasion.”

For Maison François chef Matthew Ryle, the trend has been due to chefs serving them unsheathed. “They’re squeamish, but people will eat them without shells, in a sauce or on a flatbread covered with bone marrow,” he says. Of course, they’re now a must-have for any hip French bistro; but snails aren’t confined to them, any more than they are in France. At Nigerian restaurant Enish they are served in a hot peppery sauce; at Irish chef Richard Corrigan’s restaurant the Portrait they’re simmered in snail bolognese. You know you’ve made it as a mollusc when you’re topping pasta in an art gallery. Clare Finney


Anthony and Helena Adedipe, co-founders of Eko Brewery, in their Peckham taproom. Photograph: Phil Fisk/The Observer

Eko Brewery

A hobby that became a business

“You’ve heard about a ‘habit that got out of hand’?” says Anthony Adedipe standing in the middle of his and wife Helena’s brand new brewery. “Well, that’s what happened here.”

Eko has finally found a permanent home, a brewery and taproom, after the couple started it in 2018. One of the very few Black-owned breweries, it’s based in Peckham, south-east London, where Anthony grew up. Their beers have built a strong following, served at acclaimed restaurants such as Chishuru, Akoko and the two-Michelin-starred Ikoyi. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” says Helena. “Getting into Ikoyi was the push we needed. We felt honoured.”

As a mechanical engineer travelling the world working for a rail company, Anthony would try local beers. In Japan, he visited a brewery and something clicked. He says: “It has elements of engineering – you’re basically moving fluids around different tanks. It’s a science-based process.”

During a year-long work secondment in the US, Anthony and Helena got into the craft beer scene and on returning to the UK, Helena bought him a home-brewing book. He joined a brewing group, learning and experimenting with recipes that would eventually become part of Eko’s repertoire.

The first was Eko Black, a porter brewed with coconut palm sugar, a principle ingredient in palm wine, popular across Africa. Friends and family loved it and the couple decided to sell it. At first Eko was contract brewing, using established operations’ spare capacity to brew its own. But it meant they couldn’t grow and, but, unable to find a suitable space, they considered closing. “We were going to give it until Christmas, and then reevaluate,” says Helena.

Last year, a site came up in Peckham’s Copeland Park. Brewing will start this year, while the taproom is already open and proving popular. They also took over a kitchen opposite, calling it Eko & Sides and serving food from different chefs alongside the beer, as you often find across west Africa and the Caribbean.

“There’s never a drink spot without food being nearby, and we wanted that here,” says Anthony. The significance of a Black-owned brewery opening in Peckham – an area with a historically large Black population that is now being gentrified – feels important but adds pressure. Says Anthony: “Being the first and there being no others does create a pressure of not messing it up.” Melissa Thompson

Amber Gardner

Finding her way in wine

Amber Gardner photographed at Quality Wines, Farringdon. Hair and makeup: Juliana Sergot using Nars and Bumble & Bumble. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

“As soon as I realised that wine was a career, it was everything I could want,” says Amber Gardner. She had studied languages and history at university, later finding that wine touched on both. “At my first job I was just answering phones at a small importing company but I still loved it. There was so much knowledge to be had.”

Recently, Gardner has changed tack following years in service including the launch of London’s NoMad hotel. Late nights and managing shifts have been replaced by a more rewarding portfolio of projects. At Emile Wines, she works with Rebecca Perry selling terroir-driven wines, and drawing on a strong selection of female winemakers, to trade and retail. She’s also the wine buyer for new box-wine brand Bobo, which has proved a dream match. Founder Chris Wawak trusts her judgment and she’s been able to be adventurous, choosing her favourite grape, chenin blanc, for their first white wine rather than a safer chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. “It’s easy to buy expensive wine, it’s probably going to be delicious,” she says. “But trying to find a well-priced wine that the PR and the journalists and then the market will buy, with a good story behind it … that’s when it’s interesting.” She’s currently tasting new wines from Bordeaux, the staid region which is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance. She is also hosting dinners to showcase the wines she’s involved with, events that are easy-going and irreverent without stinting on the expertise. Leaving restaurants for the other side of the wine trade was a risk for Gardner but she doesn’t regret it.“I’ve carved out a unique position for myself,” she says. “I’d hoped for the best, but the other day I actually realised that I think I might be bloody happy.” Holly O’Neill

Mini cocktails

The next big thing

Felix Cohen is an advocate for the miniaturised martini. His Margate bar, Daisy, serves otherwise standard-sized drinks, but Cohen’s “martiny”, a dinky 50ml version, is a cult favourite.

Martiny (a tiny martini) cocktail from Daisy, Margate. Photograph: Parri Thomas

For Cohen, the martini ritual (“frosty, cold and dry; I’ve finished work and need to reset”) lends itself to a smaller serve size, a cocktail format he calls “amuse booze”. With £5-ish mini martinis popping up across London, at the likes of Poon’s Wontoneria’s (35ml lychee ‘marteeny’) or Arcade Battersea, it is a concept gathering momentum.

The martini is not the only cocktail undergoing a compact makeover. Maison François serves four, half-sized “petit” cocktails, including a 110ml bloody mary. In Manchester and Liverpool, Mexican restaurant Madre lists three £5 “high fives” at the start of its menu, inviting diners to “drink while you think”. Increasingly, says Cohen, drinkers are watching pennies and alcohol units. They might crave “intoxicating, aromatic” cocktails but “want to maintain a buzz rather than get drunk”. Tony Naylor


DJ Charlie Dark photographed at Bambi, east London, where he curates the music programme. Photograph: Perou/The Observer

Eat to the beat

The merging of bars, clubs and restaurants

“The music’s for us,” says chef-owner Gareth Ward, referring to the DJ who soundtracks dinner at Ynyshir, his restaurant near Machynlleth in Powys . “It keeps the chefs going. The pacier and louder it is, the easier it is to work. We’re all dancing, singing, having a great time.”

The first time resident Jacob Kelly, AKA J Cub, DJed at Ynyshir, he played “nice jazz, hip-hop”, music with a laid-back vibe. He laughs: “I got it completely wrong. Gareth wanted house music.”

Now, Kelly’s vinyl-only, five-hour sets get Ynyshir’s open-kitchen buzzing, he says and an infectious energy ripples out through the 20-cover dining room.

Ward would hate a hushed atmosphere. “It wouldn’t be me. Music’s in my blood; I’d still love to be a DJ.” He believes such idiosyncrasies give Ynyshir soul.

This approach is unusual for a two-Michelin-star, £380-a-head restaurant. But there is a growing overlap between food and music, from DJs playing upmarket Mayfair restaurants to the rave-adjacent dynamics of Manchester’s Diecast, a vast former foundry featuring DJs, live dance performance, daiquiris and pizza.

In a format partly pioneered by Brilliant Corners, London now has a sub-set of bar-restaurants, such as Peckham’s Jumbi or Notting Hill’s Caia, with fastidiously good sound, adventurous DJ rosters and space to dance later at night. Caia’s basement, says co-founder Tim Lang, “turns into a house party, basically”.

Following a similar model (DJs all night, sharing plates until 10pm, dancing till 1am), Bambi in east London is attracting both older ex-ravers, says owner James Dye, and younger people who want “experiential” extras with dinner. In this case, music. Bambi’s DJs are booked, says programmer Charlie Dark, on their ability to create a “nice connection” among guests, while going deep musically. “The emphasis isn’t on dancing from the onset. It’s a chance to share their eclectic side. We’re looking for people who are brave.” Tony Naylor

The Taybank, Dunkeld

Local food, local views

The Taybank in Dunkeld, Perthshire, Scotland. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

This historic hotel and restaurant is on the banks of the river Tay. The ground-floor pub is renowned as a music venue but directly above is a fine new restaurant with riverside views. Head chef Gemma Dallyn makes great use of seasonal produce from the Taybank’s own walled garden, supplemented by foraged ingredients and local game. Since the pandemic, the pub’s rooms have been redesigned with Scottish-Scandi appeal – mid-century furniture and soft sheepskin blankets. Breakfast is a joint offering with the excellent Aran Bakery, which is just around the corner. With tea and cake in hand, the nearby woods of the National Trust for Scotland-protected Hermitage provide an idyllic route for a morning stroll, as does Dunkeld itself, recently voted best place to live in Scotland by the Sunday Times. Ben Mervis

Let’s go to York

The UK’s next must-visit food destination

When Florencia Clifford moved from New York to York in the mid-90s, she swapped a big cosmopolitan city then discovering “good coffee, sourdough, beautiful produce” for a historic British one that, in food terms, was a comparative “desert”.

York in 2024 is very different. Energetic operators such as Clifford, the owner of brunch spot Partisan and new restaurant Brancusi, are transforming a city once dominated by chains and tea rooms into one of Britain’s tastiest destinations. There are distinctive, acclaimed restaurants, such as Skosh or Tommy Banks’s Michelin-starred Roots. Ambitious food is served in its old buildings (Andrew Pern’s York Minster Refectory, Ian Doyle at the Bow Room). The casual food scene is also flourishing in the form of Cresci pizzeria, next-level bakeries Cosgriff & Sons and Flori, or Bishopthorpe Road’s dynamic indies such as Pig & Pastry and Angel on the Green.

Skosh, York

With retail in flux and many big hospitality chains in retreat, space has opened up for those keen to feed the city’s latent appetite for exciting food. Demanding locals keep standards high. “It’s Yorkshire,” says Adrian Stancer, co-owner of bistro 22 Yards. “People aren’t frivolous with their cash.”

Anecdotally, many staycationers discovered this “new” York during Covid, and clued-up tourists eat well. But the positive changes are primarily locally driven, not least by York’s students. Clifford agrees: “Kids don’t buy CDs, kids buy brunch.”

Crucially, there are places for new talent to emerge. Entrepreneurial chefs can test concepts at the shipping container development Spark: York before opening their own places. That’s how Fish & Forest, Izakaya and Tasca Frango got off the ground. The much-loved Los Moros started out at Shambles Market Food Court.

Historically, gifted chefs outgrew York, says Spark co-founder Tom McKenzie. “It didn’t feel like there was the correct ecosystem,” he says. Now, there is infrastructure and a desire for new ideas. This once conservative city is, says McKenzie, “ready for change”.

He also hopes there is more to come: “Say ‘job done’ and you’re digging your grave. You need to constantly evolve.” Tony Naylor

Croft 3

Cooking with local produce on the Isle of Mull

Illustration: Biff/The Observer

Jeanette Cutlack would often pass Croft 3 on walks, drives and jogs around Mull’s north coast. With 50 acres of land, a beautiful but dilapidated stone barn and unobstructed south-facing views, it was a property coveted by locals. “It’s the dream,” says Brighton-born Cutlack, who moved to the Inner Hebridean island in 2008. “A renovation project with land that means they can have their own sheep and grow their own vegetables.”

In 2018, Cutlack heard that the retired owner was looking to sell, and she jumped at the opportunity, restoring the barn to create a restaurant and venue space. In October 2022, Croft 3 opened, serving dinner throughout the week to locals and tourists, as well as a Sunday roast. Cutlack, a home-cook turned chef, draws on the island’s natural larder. Venison, from deer occasionally hunted on the croft land itself, is served with potato gratin and bordelaise sauce. Brilliant shellfish are landed minutes down the road. In spring, clafoutis are baked with local stone fruit and rice pudding topped with rhubarb that grows in abundance.

In the off-season, Croft 3 doubles as a bonus village hall with Cutlack offering regular themed evenings, such as curry or seafood night. Ben Mervis


Cheese-centric group goes north

Rind’s pizzas topped with British cheese. Photograph: Jo Ritchie

Matthew Carver is best known for concepts such as the conveyor belt restaurant Pick and Cheese, in Covent Garden, and The Cheese Barge, moored in Paddington. They sound gimmicky until you visit and find well crafted menus driven by Carver’s support for small-scale producers. Now he has expanded northwards, opening a pizza restaurant within the acclaimed Courtyard Dairy in Settle, Yorkshire. “It’s a hub not just for cheese but for producers, chefs and foodies in the north of England,” Carver says. The tight menu revolves around the wood-fired oven, serving pizzas championing the best of British cheese, including a half lancashire, half wensleydale pizza – a nod to historic county rivalry. Many of the showcase varieties – darling blue, St Sunday – are rarely seen elsewhere in the country but it’s the community spirit that has most struck Carver. “There’s great solidarity among producers. It’s a really nice place to be.” Clare Finney

Elite meat-free cooking

The restaurant group with serious vegan mains

Arguably, meat-free small plates are simple. Cook stellar seasonal vegetables, add sauce and crunchy garnish, et voilà. Done.

Elite Bistro’s hispi cabbage with smoked potato puree

Creating compelling vegan main courses is a more difficult task and one Richard Sharples excels at. For each new three-course menu, the executive chef at the northern restaurant group Elite Bistros goes deep on a vegan main course that must “stand up to the lamb or beef”.

The use of Ottolenghi-ish spices or building out from a centrepiece vegetable, such as sumac-roasted cauliflower, is familiar. The way every element on the plate interacts, creating great dynamic balance and depth, is not. Components are painstakingly enhanced. Served with smoked potato puree, gremolata and pumpkin seeds, hispi cabbage is marinated in mushroom stock and malt oil extract before roasting, to give it savoury complexity. A celeriac and port gravy, served with mushroom-stuffed cabbage, requires 48 hours of roasting, drying, infusion and reduction. That dish “was the most intricate on that menu,” says Sharples. Tony Naylor

Sunny Acre

A perfect cafe in Glasgow

Mary Wan selects a cake at Sunny Acre. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

The platonic ideal of a neighbourhood joint, this buzzing cafe on the fringe of Glasgow’s Queen’s Park is owned and run by head chef Aysha Abulhawa and tireless host Mary Wan, hospitality veterans, who met in 2019 through their respective partners. They bonded over “creating a place where people feel very welcome”, says Abulhawa. “[A] space where, even if you’re having a bad day, you can have a nice time,” adds Wan.

There’s a genuine energy here as the busy whirr of plates spins out from the small open kitchen: gorgeous grain salads, open-faced rye with smoked mackerel, quiches and squash-studded brioche. The floor-to-ceiling windows that flank the entryway are often steamed up, but not enough to stop passers-by from peeking through at row after row of savoury and sweet cakes and pastries, making it nigh-on impossible to pass without a purchase. “This place lives and breathes,” says Abulhawa, who says she tries to create a seasonal menu that locals can return to day after day. Ben Mervis

Island dining

Meals worth crossing the sea for

Illustration: Biff/The Observer

Last summer, Great British Menu finalist Joe Baker opened Pêtchi, serving the food of his native Jersey cooked, Basque-style, over a bespoke grill and wood-fired oven. Local cream is smoked and churned into butter; chancre crabs are grilled and served on crumpets and local farms supply organic vegetables and herbs. It’s one of several restaurants celebrating the often quite specific produce and culture of their island homes, from the Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye, to the Hut on the Isle of Wight (once a local beach bar, now a social media sensation). That they offer the freshest seafood goes without saying, but they also have the merit of culinary skill, distinctive produce and, provided you’re prepared to hop on a boat or a plane, a seat by sea. Clare Finney

Chef and author Paul Flynn photographed in the Tannery Cookery School. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Observer

Paul Flynn

The Irish chef you should know

“I suppose I’m fairly well known in Ireland,” suggests Paul Flynn. He has a restaurant, hotel and cookery school, the Tannery, in Waterford. Plus, he’s had a couple of stints as the food columnist in the Irish Times and is a familiar face on national TV. But despite counting Rowley Leigh and Angela Hartnett among his fans, he is not as well known in the UK. His latest book, Butter Boy, ought to change that.

Published by Nine Bean Rows, it’s a collection of his columns from 2019 to 2022, in chronological order so readers can eat along with the seasons. “I make really tasty food, in a simple way,” he says, with some understatement. Many recipes are rooted in the French tradition – he loves butter, loves a sauce – with a nod to trends of recent years alongside the Irish cooking he’s been championing for more than 25 years. The other draws are Flynn’s warmth and his wearing of years of experience with lightness and humour. He might have started writing to raise his profile – he thinks his restaurant may have closed without the attention from his column – but he’s come to love the process. “I still do it because of the profile, but I can’t do service any more,” he laughs. “I’m 58. I even get frazzled on the pass.” Writing lets him keep his hand in with food and cooking. What governs his work? “I think telling stories,” he says finally. “I try not to be boring. And it has to be delicious.” Holly O’Neill

Sausage Press

The best of London – in print

Sausage Press’s picks of London sandwiches. Photograph: Sausage Press

In a time when most of us research dining options online, there’s something pleasingly retro about a series of physical, fold-out guides to some of London’s best food and drink. The idea for Sausage Press came when co-founder Jules Pearson, who runs lifestyle website London On The Inside, was browsing a gallery shop in New York in 2019 and came across an array of “niche, cool guides” to the city. “I felt there wasn’t anyone doing that kind of thing in London,” she says. “There are lots of websites and social media accounts, obviously, but not really any print guides.”

She brought a selection home, and when Covid hit she and her business partner, Ben Smith, had time to put the idea on paper. Each pocket-sized guide is themed – they’ve covered sandwiches, full English breakfasts and natural wine bars, with plans to tackle Sunday roasts and pastries – and lists up to 24 of the city’s best examples, with pithy write-ups, colour photography and keys to mark places out as wallet-friendly, say, or female-led. “Visually they’re a cross between Instagram and Top Trumps,” says Pearson, “though we stopped short of giving out ratings. They’ve been so much fun to do.” Killian Fox

Pub art

Portraits of your local

The Auld Shillelagh. Photograph: Matthew J K Grogan

Matthew Grogan’s illustrations bring his customers’ beloved locals to life. His repertoire is not confined to pubs – indie cafes and delis pepper the range of prints available at his market stalls and online – but he prefers pubs because they connect so many people, and because “the subject of your favourite pub always gets people talking”.

So far, his business has grown organically. “I want to spread out a bit more – but I like how it’s grown through local people and local places.

“The other day I sold a print to someone I’d sketched outside The Auld Shillelagh in Stoke Newington, whose friend had spotted him in it. He messaged me to say: ‘I think that’s me!’” Clare Finney

The Kitchen Sisters’ Hidden Kitchen

A podcast archive worth exploring

Illustration: Biff/The Observer

Before the boom in food podcasting came Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva of the Kitchen Sisters, whose NPR show Hidden Kitchens has been a source of much inspiration and occasional imitation. Running from 2004 to 2016, its premise was simple. “Call our hotline,” they asked. “Tell us what hidden and significant kitchens we should know about. Who are the kitchen pioneers and visionaries? Who glues your community together through food? What do we need to capture, document and chronicle before it disappears?” The 2,789 minutes of audio messages received went on to form the basis of more than 48 episodes and a book. Some of the most memorable? The secret civil rights kitchens where pie baking was a conduit for change,prisoners who cooked and served food to guests attending the annual rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary, a culinary programme for indigenous Australian teenagers, how astronauts eat in space, London allotment communities, and the George Foreman grill that became a de-facto kitchen for homeless people. Nicola Miller