Jackson Boxer, chef and restaurateur
Most articles on Jackson Boxer, the chef behind Brunswick House and Orasay begin with a mention of his family. There’s a good reason for that, because that family includes grandmother Arabella Boxer, renowned for her writing on food, dad Charlie, who owns Italo, the rather wonderful deli in boho Bonnington Square, and brother Frank, who runs Frank’s, the rooftop bar in Peckham.
Jackson himself worked for Margot Henderson, co-founder of St John’s, as a teen and by the age of 24 had started Brunswick House, the unique eatery sharing a space in a townhouse with a salvaged antiques company on a roundabout in Vauxhall. More recently, he opened Orasay in Notting Hill, named after the Scottish island where he was often taken on holiday as a child, and specialising in seafood.
Which brings us almost up to date, except for his recent venture, the bar below Stone Nest which opened in Soho last year.
We stole some of Jackson’s non-existent time to ask about his life as a restaurateur and what plans he has for the future.
Did your family background mean it was always on the cards for you to head into the food trade in some way?
I often wonder what drew me into food especially, because it wasn’t really my family. My grandmother Arabella was an amazing food writer, but published her last book in the early 90s, and lost her appetite, and interest, in food, in later life. My dad started his amazing deli, Italo, when I was already about 22 and working in kitchens, largely to distract himself from a severe case of writer’s block, but it was the social aspect of running a food shop, rather than its gustatory potential, which grabbed him. My mother is an artist, and a great entertainer, one of the most generous-spirited and energetic people I’ve ever met, however she always rather fancied a career practicing law for me. Ultimately, I fear that if they had wanted me to go into food, or encouraged it, it probably would have slightly ruined what felt like a bold, passionate, and independent direction of my own.
Did food always play an important role in your life when you were growing up?
I was a very greedy child. I loved food. I loved eating. I loved cooking. I thought food was delicious. But then again, I thought everything was delicious at that age, and I had an enormous appetite for life generally. It was only as a teenager, when I became very introverted and unhappy, as I suppose many of us do, that food took on an emotional and intellectual complexity for me, which I found both fascinating and compelling.
In addition to this, though food wasn’t something my parents were actively interested in – they didn’t go to restaurants, or waste time talking about food, or shopping for it fastidiously – they were both great cooks, who loved sitting around a table and talking, either with friends, or just as a family. It’s that communal experience of eating together which had the most profound effect on me growing up, and which now finds expression in how I work.
What influence did being around Margot Henderson as a teenager have on you?
Margot taught me how to get shouted at without bursting into tears. She showed me how to work hard on no sleep, and remain absolutely confident in the clarity of your own vision. She is an absolute force, and an incredibly talented cook, but with the most extraordinary drive and tenacity behind that. I utterly revere her.
What cooking experience did you have before opening your first restaurant?
I was 23. Not nearly enough!
How did you come across the site of Brunswick House and decide that was the perfect spot for a restaurant? And do you remember the first night of service?
I grew up in Stockwell. When I was a kid, Brunswick House was a shambolic wreck huddling under the grim face of the Nine Elms cold store, a huge brutalist monolith built in the 60s to house produce for new Covent Garden market, but long since fallen out of use and into forbidding ruin. It held a great psychic fascination for me as a child, and often wove its way into my dreams. Brunswick House was then taken over by LASSCO about 20 years ago, who set to slowly patching the 250-year-old building back together, and returning it to some of its former glory. When I heard they were interested in making room for a small cafe in the large annex they used as a storage shed, my interest was immediate.
The summer before, I’d helped and supported my brother Frank, as he created his extraordinary eponymous Campari bar on the roof of the Peckham multi-storey car park. We were looking for something that might have a greater ability to survive the winter, and so he helped me in turn get started. We bought a second-hand coffee machine, a couple of cheap fridges from Argos, and an induction hob, and opened a 12-seat coffee and snack bar. The last 12 years have been a fascinating series of trials, errors, small steps forward, big collapses back, but here we are, on the other side of the pandemic, proud tenants of one of the most beautiful old private houses in London.
What are your favourite spots for eating in South London?
I love Chishuru in Brixton. It’s a West African restaurant, serving a highly inventive menu of absolutely beautiful food. Joké, the chef patron, is one of the most talented cooks I’ve ever met, not to mention one of the most fascinating and wonderful people. I visit my dad’s deli Italo a lot, where the food is always amazing.
Does Orasay have a completely different ethos to Brunswick House?
Orasay is a lot smaller than Brunswick House, but it was such a beautiful space I was very taken by the idea of cooking there. I wanted to consider what kind of limitations I could put on my cookery in order to make the challenge of a smaller space as interesting as possible. I decided to build a menu entirely around day boat seafood from around the British Isles. Given the challenges of fishing, using rod and line on small boats, in uncertain weathers, the availability of top quality fish in this island is always inconsistent. We have some of the greatest seafood in the world, but most of it finds a more appreciative audience abroad. I wanted to work with these small fishing boats, for whom I had such a great deal of respect, to profile their extraordinary catch, changing every day, in this small, beautiful dining room.
How do you choose the menus at your restaurants?
I used to spend a great deal of time worrying what people would want to eat. Then one day I simply decided instead to cook what I would want to eat. So now I just do that.
Do you have very different teams for both restaurants or is there quite a crossover?
Generally speaking, most of the teamwork full time in one or the other, but we are an incredibly close-knit group, and spend a lot of time with each other.
What attracted you to the idea of opening a bar in Soho?
I did a lot of my growing up in Soho. When I was a kid it was full of cheap bars and divey clubs. When I was 16 it was somewhere I could reliably drink and dance without much care. It was sweet and seedy and full of life. Trash at the end, Astoria, NagNagNag, Cheapskates, Trisha’s, Gerry’s, Colony Room, Gaz’s, Garlic & Shots, Crobar. A few of these still exist, most don’t. Also, when I was a kid it was where everyone from all over London could meet. Your mates from east, from north, you’d always end up meeting in central. I wanted to bring back a bit of that. It was very much in the forefront of our minds, me, Frank and Tic, when we were discussing what we wanted the bar to be – for kids in London. Anyway, we did it, they came, it’s beautiful. Full credit to my brother Frank for realising our shared dream so successfully.
What impact has the last couple of years of lockdowns and uncertainty had on you?
I don’t think anyone had an enjoyable pandemic, and for us in kitchens it’s been emotionally exhausting, physically punishing, and, financially, close to ruinous. However, if you’d have asked me at the beginning of the pandemic where I imagined I’d be in six months, I’d have told you I’d probably be running a soup kitchen for the last remaining survivors, so gloomy was the tone of all predictions about the apocalyptic potential of the virus. I also thought shuttering restaurants would lead to everyone forgetting about them, falling out of the habit of eating socially, hooked into Netflix and Deliveroo permanently, never leaving the house. How happily wrong that proved to be.
Are you satisfied with three establishments or do you have plans for more in the future?
I’m perfectly happy and contented with what I have. I’m enormously overstretched and overworked as it is. London is ruthlessly competitive, profits have never been lower, willing collaborators hoping to work in restaurants fewer, nor economic predictions for our immediate future so grim. But give me a sniff of an interesting new project, where I could attempt to build something beautiful and magical, and I’d probably, in my utter madness, find it terribly hard to resist making the same mistake all over again.
If you have time away, what locations inspire you as a chef?
Inspiration to cook is a funny thing. It doesn’t really come from outside of me, but from inside. Normally because I’m hungry. But my favourite places are the desolate and lonely ones. Long solitary walks to the top of misty mountains through wind and rain. That gives me the hunger and desire to get back in the kitchen and surround myself with fire and noise and cook delicious things to make people glad to be alive.
You’re a friend of Quentin Jones – one of the artists we represent. How did your friendship come about?
Quentin was the year above me at the school I joined at 16. I don’t think at that point I’d ever seen anyone so good looking, smart and self-possessed. Naturally, I was terrified of her. We then ended up at the same university, wound up sharing the gig of restaurant reviewer for the student paper, got riotously drunk together every week over dinner, and have been the best and closest friends ever since. She’s one of my favourite people in the world, and I’m still absolutely in awe of her.
Finally, if you have a Sunday evening spare with just you and your family, what would you all love to be eating?
It’s impossible to cook anything for my children that they all like. I have four now, three of whom eat, and whatever I cook will be violently rejected by at least one of them, if only for form’s sake. I’ve taught each of them to cook one thing with me, and it’s probably the very simple risotto, made from roast chicken stock, which me and my daughter Roma cook together, that I get the most happiness and satisfaction from. I could eat that endlessly.