by Joanne Jervis
“Fish Union was built out of a frustration at the lack of availability of fresh fish in the market…”
Richard Kirkwood and Andy Roberts, co-owners of the new seafood-focused restaurant Fish Union, make their vision of getting fishmongers back on the high-street and into the homes of customers very clear on their website, with their commitment to great suppliers and a desire to share their knowledge with customers. But, Kirkwood, the former head chef at iconic London fish restaurant J. Sheekey, wasn’t satisfied with just being a fishmonger — he had higher ambitions that included a weekly changing menu, a rotating guest chef, and meal kits which enable customers to enjoy Fish Union dishes at home.
Kirkwood sat down to discuss his motivations for opening a new business during the pandemic, why mental health is so overlooked in the kitchen, and what ingredients he can’t live without at home.
Q. You started Fish Union at a time when the restaurant industry was going through its own crisis. Was this something that you and Andy talked about doing regardless?
A. We’d talked about setting up our own fishmongers back in our Wright Brothers’ days; but whilst our aim was to put a high quality wet fishmonger back on the high street, we knew that wasn’t enough. This led to our homemade fish stocks and meal kits’ concept, which could then be sold to customers to compliment the fish they were buying and the small seafood restaurant menu followed. There still seems to be so much trepidation amongst the British public surrounding the preparation and cooking of fish and yet as a nation, we’ve got our head around how to cook a joint of meat? Fish Union is our way of hopefully changing that.
Q. You clearly work with some great suppliers, how do you choose who to work with?
A. It’s people Andy and I have known and worked with since our J.Sheekey days. When I know that the quality of the produce is top notch and that I can place a last minute order and it will be delivered in time; that goes a long way. Treat your suppliers well and the relationship can’t be beaten. Chapmans’ fish and Portlands for the best crabs for example — I know exactly what I’m getting from these guys.
Q. So what is the main difference in being a head chef and running your own venture?
A. You’ve got to be a grown up. All the time! The decisions I make with Andy have to be based on what’s right for the business, (with all the emotion taken out) so we’re able to do what’s best for our customers, staff and future of Fish Union. Decisions are not ‘flash in the pan’ like they are in the kitchen. During my first year as head chef at J Sheekey, I was completely full on because that was what I thought I had to be as a head chef. Then I realised that what I actually needed to do was nurture the staff, adapting my leadership to suit the different personalities I had working under me and I’ve continued that approach since then. I even became a mental health first aider at J.Sheekey because this game is tough and it can break you if you’re not supported.
Q. I had no idea that a ‘mental health first aider’ even existed in restaurants; although, the culture in kitchens always seems so intense, or have I been watching too many Gordon Ramsey programmes?
A. Gordon Ramsey is nothing compared to what I’ve seen and experienced over the last 25+ years! When you’re belittled in front of everyone, have food you’ve prepared thrown in the bin, or worse, at you and then have to just suck it up and get back on it, it can put you off working in a kitchen for life. We were doing around 300 covers a night at J.Sheekeys including 100+ pre theatre covers and that was tough. We had to get things done quickly, to an exacting standard and there could be no mistakes. I was also bullied by a chef when I first started out in Edinburgh because I was this privately educated, rugby-playing young guy and he didn’t like that, and even though it toughened me up and made me completely unbreakable, I didn’t want to run my kitchens like that.
Q. Going back to those early days in Edinburgh, how did you decide to become a chef? Did your school careers advisor get it right?
A. No, I was told I should join the Army! Which is funny really, because like the army, you get a real bunch of misfits working together in a kitchen and it’s sort of like a dysfunctional family, but also a team that works best when they’re unified. For me, passion for food got me into the kitchen but it was the camaraderie that kept me there. I started doing hotel and catering management at college, dropped out at 19 when I realised I was only interested in being front and back of house and then went to Malmaison before moving down to London.
Q. The first head chef you worked for, Roy Brett, is scheduled to have a guest chef spot soon at Fish Union which is exciting. If you could pick anyone else to be a guest chef, who would it be?
A. Tim Hughes is honestly the best chef in London who no one has ever heard of. Seriously. He’s brilliant, so I’d ask him.
Q. You mentioned to me before the interview that you’ve just moved house, what items in your fridge and cupboard could you not do without?
A. The fridge is currently empty, I need to do a big shop and that will definitely include mirin and Kizami and probably a chicken and mushroom pot noodle soup for the cupboards just to balance it out!
Q. Do you have a signature dish or indeed, does a restaurant actually need one?
A. I don’t believe a chef can decide what the signature dish is, unless there’s literally just 1 thing on the menu. It’s the dish that customers keep on ordering again and again and when you remove it it’s the one they ask about and request its return — that becomes your signature dish and for us, it’s probably the tuna tataki.
Q. And where does the inspiration for the menu come from?
A. It’s a collaborative effort at Fish Union and we’re led by the produce which we create a dish around, not to mention what we as chefs like to cook and eat. There’s also a little bit of nostalgia in there as well — our tuna and cuttlefish pie is layered with peas in honour of my Nanny and Auntie’s boxing day cottage pie which had the same layer.
Q. What’s next for Fish Union?
A. We’re about to launch our Sunday brunch menu. One of the dishes will be our take on the ‘sausage and egg McMuffin’ but with a tuna sausage patty, egg and gruyere cheese muffin. It’s taking familiar meaty dishes that people know and love and putting our Fish Union spin on it in an accessible way that customers will enjoy. We’re also going to look at the fish retail side and how we can expand that.
Q. Would you say you’re where you’re meant to be then?
A. Yes I’d say so, it’s been a busy 2 years but there’s a lot to come for Fish Union and the business is in an exciting place.
Joanne Jervis has grown up surrounded by the delicious south Asian food from her mother’s kitchen. She is passionate about food and sharing stories about it. She has always felt that food connects people on such a wonderful level — be it the nostalgia and memories that a dish can hold, or how it allows us to explore and learn about new ingredients and recipes.
This article is the work of Le Cordon Bleu Online Learning 10-week Food Writing for Publication course participant, Joanne Jervis. Le Cordon Bleu is not responsible for the content, opinion, and view of the author.
To find more information on all Le Cordon Bleu Online Learning courses, visit our website at https://online.cordonbleu.edu/