interviews

Mr Johnnie Collins, Chef

05.04.2018

At the forefront of Britain’s food revolution is Mr Johnnie Collins, a chef and creator for The Store in London and Berlin. I first tasted his crisp, clean and simple food at London Fashion Week in 2015, and unbeknownst to me got chatting with him later that day outside the venue.
Since then, Johnnie was returned from Germany to work on Store Kitchen Studios at 180 Strand. Construction is currently underway on the building which now houses the Dazed Group, is the home of London Fashion Week and has an ever-growing list of outstanding exhibitions including the last Louis Vuitton installation. This month, we explored inside the multi-floor glass structure overlooking the Thames and shot around the temporary cafe and restaurant space where Johnnie treated us all to a Grey Goose cocktail.

This feature was made possible by Grey Goose, which we also enjoyed after a day of shooting on set. See more from my collaboration with the interviews with Mr Francois Thibauld in the South of France and New Yorker Mr Rasshid Hooks, a tailor in London.

You can follow Johnnie on Instagram @JohnnieCollins.

Johnnie wears striped shirt and trousers by Whistles, tee and apron belong to Johnnie, shoes by Dr Martens.

Johnnie Collins, Chef running Store Kitchen Studios

Do you have any early memories of food in your house?

Growing up in the countryside I was lucky enough to live in a household very much focused on food. My Dad is a wine merchant and my Mum is a garden designer. She’s also a great cook and we grew up in an open house – people were always dropping in for lunch or dinner, and we routinely ate as a family at the table. Everything we ate was homemade. The vegetables and herbs were from the garden and wine from Dad, so those sorts of values were instilled from a young age. Food was always important and that’s definitely stuck with me.

Do you have a time when you realised you had a talent for developing meals yourself?

The first ‘cooking’ I did was with my brothers when we started making our own sandwiches. I have one older and one younger brother so this ended up turning into daily, highly competitive sandwich making contests. I got to see that if you spend half an hour creating a sandwich and give it a lot of love, it’s going to taste much better than if you made it in 30 seconds. This is where we became interested in process, seasoning and understanding that using good ingredients was the key to great taste.

As a boy stuck between two siblings, do you middle child syndrome?

The rest of my family would say I do. I’m the forgotten one so I have to act out for attention and as a result was a lot more naughty than my brothers growing up.

What was the worst thing you did when you were a boy?

I got suspended from school from being rude to teachers. Not out of malice but just to keep things interesting. I wasn’t that bad but I once flooded my girlfriend’s house by falling asleep with the bath on. It wasn’t intentional!

Does your rebellious nature translate to your work?

Experimentation is a huge part of why I love cooking. Although I draw a lot of influences from other chefs and cookbooks, I rarely follow rules or recipes. It’s more instinctive. I love opening a fridge or cupboard that I don’t know and coming up with dishes and meals around what’s there. My girlfriend would always think we had no food, but 30 minutes later you’ve got something delicious. This can be seen in what we do at Store Kitchen Studios – we work a lot with vegetables doing large generous salads that can be mixed and matched. The menu changes daily and we will often think on our feet using what we’ve got and trying to limit waste. It’s constantly evolving.

Johnnie wears an overshirt by Universal Works, top by Uniqlo, trousers by Margaret Howell and shoes by Novesta.

The British aren’t known for it’s excellent food but there’s definitely been a revolution in the past decade. What’s your opinion on that?

Right now I think the English culture of food is returning to its traditional values. The average person is much more focused in seeing where their food comes from and how it is made. Whether it’s just being sold by words like ‘organic, natural and fresh’ that we see on packaging, but there’s certainly a turn away from processed food which is how we could have defined British food culture in the past.

What do you think about the idea of love being intrinsically linked to food?

Feeding someone is primal because cooking for someone is caring for someone. The idea of making an amazing meal for people you love and seeing how much they appreciate it is a beneficial experience in a world where we’re going towards less interaction and more looking at screens. I’ve always enjoyed the pleasure element to food. Even when I worked front of house, I loved serving people to make sure they had a nice dinner even when I wasn’t cooking it. Making sure they had a quality time was a big part of the love of food.

Johnnie wears corduroy jacket and green chinos by Universal Works, shoes by Dr Martens.

Thinking back to sandwiches, certainly a very British snack, do you still enjoy them?

Yeah, absolutely! I think my death row meal would include a sandwich course! I’ve just been in Sicily and the food so perfect for me because it’s simplicity done superbly. Sandwiches have British roots but putting ingredients on bread can be seen in almost every culture. Bread is a life giver even though there’s a bit of a fear of gluten at the moment!

What is your favourite type of bread?

You want different types of breads for different sandwiches. If you’re just eating bread and butter you want something with good flavour and a crust but if you want a plain, easy sandwich anything from a great baguette to plain old white will do. The real issue is to stay away from the processed loaves you see in the supermarkets. At the end of the day, bread and butter is the best snack – I love home made loves with whole grains that give texture and flavour. Bread from sourdough starters, which are naturally fermented and alive, for me produce the best flavours.

Johnnie wears leather jacket by Levi’s, sweater by Paul Smith, jeans by Levi’s Vintage Clothing, shoes by Dr Martens.

Johnnie wears red tee by Common Projects, navy trousers by Universal Works, trainers by Novesta.

What would your last meal be?

Scrambled eggs are still my favourite thing to cook and eat so it would probably start with a bacon and eggs course. I love very thin, crispy pancetta as a substitute for thick English bacon. I love bitter salads so would probably follow this with some chicory, lots of fresh herbs, and a strong, punchy dressing with charred nuts. A cheeky sandwich of herbed prosciutto cotto, aged mountain Gruyere, homemade chilli jam, crisp lettuce and Dijon on white bread may well sneak in. You can’t beat a whole fish on the bone with great chips and lots of different veggies. And ice cream is my favourite pudding – one of the best in London is Gelupo in Soho, I had one yesterday.

How do you stay fit?

We’re standing and running around most of the day! We work hard, it’s not a sit down job. There’s no real ‘project over’ being a chef either, you’re always prepping for the next day so there are always things to do. There’s barely any time off. I also go to the gym and am generally really active. I get up and go for a sunrise swim if I’m on holiday. I’m always into active holidays, there’s no chilling at the beach!

Johnnie wears a vintage suit by Gieves and Hawkes. All other items are Johnnie’s own.

Tell me what’s happening with The Store right now?

The Store is in the midst of a massive project at 180 The Strand, a huge office building that has been empty for a number of years. Under the creative direction of Alex Eagle and The Vinyl Factory it’s establishing a hub for creative industries. So far there have been some great events like Everything at Once with VF and The Lissen Gallery, but The Store is looking to open up to the public fully next year. There will be studios, events, creative tenants like Dazed and other who are already moving in. My side is the food and instead of just creating another restaurant, what we are trying to do is create a whole new physical and digital food channel. We are building a kitchen studio for filming and are looking to let young talent in food and drink (and also other creative people who love food) to come and use the space. The aim is to have a platform for talent food, setup in a sustainable fashion, and have a great program of events that bring the building alive.

How would you describe yourself in 5 words?

Energetic, fun, cheeky, determined, sometimes-difficult.

I guess that’s a chef quality – you need to be head-strong.

Yeah, I mean you have to stick to your guns. I can be quite argumentative but I think that comes from the competitiveness with my older brother. But I’m very quick and open to admit I am wrong, and the best part of the ‘job’ is collaborating with others. I think it leads to the best environment if you can work with people in that way.

You lived in Berlin while working at The Store over there, has this changed you at all?

Being in London for a long time was getting crazy. I moved for a new project with a positive energy and that was great. I love travelling, new people and new adventures and Berlin is great for that. The move came the perfect time and has had a lasting effect on me. Coming back to London has been great but difficult. I guess I wasn’t ready to leave Berlin quite yet and I miss a lot of the great friends I made there. Especially some of the people I worked really closely with. We were doing up to 90 hours a week together and had a good bond. But the project with 180 has such great potential that it’s getting exciting – we just have to make sure its amazing.

On the shoot you made us some espresso martini’s with Grey Goose. What’s your favourite cocktail to make?

To be honest I also love Grey Goose neat on the rocks with just a squeeze of fresh lime – very clean and refreshing but an Espresso Martini is great for an evening out with friends. As long as you use a good coffee for the Espresso, well-made sugar syrup and a dash of Kahlua for depth, it works very well with the chilled vodka. The glasses must also be chilled. I use 50ml of Grey Goose, 45ml of Kivu espresso a lovely single origin bean from the Congo, 10ml of Sugar Syrup, and 5ml of Kahlua. I also add a pinch of sea salt to bring out the flavours of the vodka. Just shake very well over ice to get a nice foam and strain into the glasses. You can garnish with some Cacao nibs for a nice touch.

What advice would you give your 18 year old self?

Don’t worry so much. Experiment with life, there’s plenty of time. Try all activities that interest you and find out what you’re into.

Did you worry a lot of a teenager?

I did worry. The world is changing a lot and there’s an attitude that as a teenager you’re supposed to know what to do in life but I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I was 28 and I still don’t quite know. I could have spent time travelling instead of being tied to jobs that wasted my time!

What sort of things have you done?

I helped my friend set up his restaurant and then that’s when I thought I’d like to do it for myself. My Dad told me in that case I should go and learn how to run a business. I worked in a bank for 2 years where I learned a lot but felt I was wasting my time staring at computer screens. Nonetheless, it was useful to know how to read a profit and loss sheet and how to set up a business. I did that whilst doing pop-up restaurants and supper clubs on the side. My skill set is definitely more on the creative side and in chatting to people rather than number-crunching!

Johnnie wears a sweater by Barbour.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

Figuring out what I wanted to do in life. As a young man you have quite a lot of pressure to work out what you want to do, earn money and get on. I wasn’t happy following conventional routes – the world has changed quite a lot recently so it was a long and difficult process. It gives you doubts. I worked in a restaurant on the front of house for a year when I was still young and although I then left to work in business I continued to do my own pop-ups and helping with other restaurants as I enjoyed doing it and needed the money. In the end I decided I wanted to combine work and life and set out to start my own thing. By this stage I was 29 and a lot of my friends were well on the way to career paths, families and more. Lets hope it all ends out all right!

What do you do when you need to overcome hard times?

My initial reaction is probably one that doesn’t work – get drunk and try not to think about it. I am slowly starting to grow up and realise there are better ways to face things. I want to do well and that spurs me on. Now I think the best remedy is to talk to people who matter – I am very lucky to have a supportive family and extended family of friends for that. I also find that getting out into nature is a great cure – go dive in the sea or run in the woods and that will put things into perspective.

Finally, leave us with some words of wisdom.

Do and see as much as possible. Talk to as many people as possible, see the world, benefit from experience, even turn to the person next to you on the tube and chat to them. You never know who you may be sitting beside.

This is a paid collaboration with Grey Goose, see more from their via Instagram on @GreyGooseUK.

Styling by Mr Gary Salter.

Special thanks to The Store Studios, 180 Strand, London.

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