“The stripper pole used to be there,” says chef Tomos Parry, motioning towards Table 40 in the second-floor dining room of BRAT. The East London restaurant has been among the city’s hottest from the moment it opened, but the building has lived many lives before: as a strip club, a bacon factory, a tea factory. Today I’ve come to talk to Tomos not about history, but about the city’s current dining landscape and his restaurant’s place in it.
“Hackney real estate is crazy now,” he remarks. “Same as Notting Hill.” And if anyone is well-equipped to comment on this neighborhood’s evolution in recent years, it’s Parry. The beginning of the last decade saw him and other young chefs now running places like The Clove Club, Lyle’s, and Som Saa kicking around this part of town. Nearby pop-up space Climpson’s Arch was an incubator for several of these projects, and it was there that Tomos’ 2012 residency followed that of Dave Pynt, the Aussie who now tends the fire at Burnt Ends in Singapore.
Open-fire cooking — almost de rigueur in today’s restaurant build-outs — was, by necessity, a central element of his kitchen setup back then, and has become inextricably linked to Tomos’ cuisine ever since. But what’s particularly interesting is how he found his own voice within that framework, transcending trends and neat categorization by exploring the intersection of his own family’s story with centuries-old traditions from other parts of the world.
“I’ve tried to make it clear from early on,” Parry explains, “that BRAT is not a Basque restaurant,” in spite of its menu being dotted with things like kokotxas and turbot, Flintstonian beef ribs and golden brown cheesecakes. Asked to elaborate, he mentions how he grew up in Wales, with Welsh as his first language; at university, he studied not cuisine, but politics, history, and journalism.
“Wales doesn’t have a massive food culture, really. But just like the Basque country, there is fierce pride there. It has its own language, its own separatist groups. Even the terroir is strikingly similar. Meanwhile, do you know the only other place in the world that Welsh is spoken? Patagonia! I’ve always found it so fascinating that open-fire cooking is something that links those cultures together.”
Not content to simply channel Francis Mallmann or one of the famous Basque asadores, Tomos and company find inspiration in other places, too. The wine shelves at BRAT mimic those at a shoebox-sized Tokyo bar called Ahiru Store, and the list was co-curated by the team behind London’s Noble Rot. Last year alone, Parry collaborated with chefs from Hong Kong, Manila, Sydney, and Taipei. Business partners Ben Chapman and Brian Hannon — the duo behind Kiln and Smoking Goat — bring backgrounds in art, architecture, design, and large-scale f&b operations that have rounded out Parry’s perspectives as a business owner, and informed how the restaurant looks and feels.
“We’re a new food city,” says Tomos, “but there’s something special about old favorites.” Stomping around San Sebastián, he feels comfort in knowing he can always get tortillas at Bar Nestor, mushrooms at Ganbara, and so on. Back home, he tends not to change the menu a whole lot, instead finding “a certain warmth in providing guests the same dishes and trying to make them as great as possible.” It’s that generous spirit that keeps us coming back here again and again, and makes us so excited to welcome BRAT inHouse.