With guidance from his mentor Ottolenghi, Ramael Scully is running wild in the pantry of his debut solo venture. Emma Lake reports
Brightly coloured ingredients fill the odd-shaped, illuminated jars that line the entrance of Ramael Scully's first solo restaurant.
It's a scene straight from Roald Dahl's George's Marvellous Medicine, except the former Nopi head chef is using his signature parlour to create what he hopes will be exciting and intriguing menus, rather than grandmother-enlarging potions.
When I drop by the restaurant in London's St James's, the jars are filled with ingredients including turmeric syrup, golden salted egg yolks, gleaming preserved lemons, dehydrated parsnips and pickled peaches… and not a snozzcumber in sight.
Their contents could be seeds of inspiration, staple ingredients or the midst of an experiment, Scully explains, as he jokes that he's just waiting for one to explode.
The chef says: "It's just the start, it's only going to get bigger and bigger, and as it does, my food gets bigger, with bigger flavours. I always feel when the customer goes out to eat that they should get that one-hit wonder that explodes the taste buds."
e recently added salted egg yolks are the result of his latest experiment and set to be transformed into a sauce to accompany monk's beard with garlic and chilli, which will be served to guests later that week.
Scully's eponymous restaurant opened in February, with the backing of former boss Yotam Ottolenghi, who says about his colleague: "He has an insatiable appetite for bold and vibrant colours and irreverent blends of ingredients. His kitchen is an exciting and unexpected place to be."
The chef himself struggles to simply define his style of cooking. This is unsurprising when he starts to talk through the influences that have inspired it. His mother is of Chinese and Indian descent, while his father's heritage lies in Ireland and Bali. His early childhood was spent in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before his family moved to Sydney, where he trained to be a chef. He went on to travel around the world, working in the UK, Australia and Russia, to name but a few locations.
He explains: "When I was growing up in Malaysia I had nine aunties who would cook all different types of curries. My mum had lived in the UK for seven years studying to be a nurse, and she would make shepherd's pie and roast chicken in a Marks & Spencer pot.
"My family are very critical, but I learned through my aunties, who cook from the heart and soul. When I got to Australia I learned about Middle Eastern and French cookery and then when I arrived in London, in 2005, I met Yotam."
While his tutors had dismissed Scully's desire to blend Asian foods and French techniques as "crazy", Ottolenghi helped him develop his approach. Scully says: "He is the one who gave me a chance to do my style of food.
The pair proved to be a winning formula. Scully worked in Ottolenghi Upper Street, Islington, impressing his boss with his "ability to combine ingredients with virtuosity and flair". A brief interruption in their working relationship saw Scully training chefs in Moscow and it was while in Russia, a trip that Scully credits only with teaching him a new appreciation for the produce available in the UK, that he received a call from Ottolenghi to return and help open Nopi. The Soho restaurant and subsequent cookbook of the same name, which debuted at number 15 in The New York Times bestseller list, saw the chef gain a public profile and acclaim.
He said: "I was really lucky in Yotam, he helped me get that style and that focus on one ingredient. We might put so many flavours into that one ingredient that it really works.
"What I learned from the big man is not to put too many things on the plate. He would come up and say 'you don't need this, you don't need that'. I've now had times when my head chef will be like 'let's add this' and I'll say 'no it doesn't need to be there'. At Nopi it was always three or four elements - if we did a fifth we were breaking our own law. The problem with me and Yotam is we focus on one ingredient, but we put 27 ingredients into its preparation."
er six years working alongside Ottolenghi as head chef of Nopi, Scully has gone solo, giving his passion and creativity free reign. He explains: "It's my ultimate chef's playground. I'm making a place where I can have my passion, my creativity, where I can let go, with no restrictions. I can change the menu every day and work closely with suppliers to be creative."
Scully's playground was two years in the making, commencing with a long search for the perfect site compete with a "dungeon" for him to preserve, pickle, brew and stew.
The thought and science behind Scully's experiments are clear as he talks about the timings and quantities needed to pickle tomatillo compared to a carrot and the processes that will follow to release the vegetables' sugars before they become the cornerstone of another creation, be it as a sauce, purée, accompaniment or the star of a dish.
He explains: "The pantry is the soul of the food. Some chefs work out from the protein, but after years of cooking, you know what mackerel tastes like and what goes with it. I like to work so that's the last thing I think about. If I get the pantry right, then it comes along.
"Some things I have done have backfired and I can't wait until that pantry starts exploding. The whole thing about doing this is experimenting and seeing what happens. You never know what's going to happen."
e chef's focus on one ingredient in each dish has been brought to Scully St James's, but don't be fooled into thinking this is simplistic cooking. A sticky butternut squash salad served alongside an apple shrub salad has been days in the making to create a soft centre under a candied crust, while a salt-baked avocado is lavished with the care and attention others would reserve for a prime cut.
Scully has a well-earned vegetarian following from his time with Ottolenghi, and while meat and fish are likely to take a balanced footing on the restaurant's menu, equal care and attention will be given across the board.
He explains: "Creating great vegetarian dishes is harder than making a great meat or fish dish. To make it taste sexy and look good, Yotam got me thinking that if you can create a great vegetable dish you will become a more rounded chef."
The restaurant itself is unfussy, with clean lines and wooden features, a space where the drama comes from the open kitchen.
He says: "I'm a simple kind of guy, I dress simply and like simple things in life. After travelling in Scandinavia for five years, I just loved the simplicity of design. I do focus on Asian food, but I didn't want to dress it up like an Asian restaurant. I like the greens and showcasing the pantry to let people know what I really use in the kitchen.
"I'm happy with it being really simple. I don't like sitting in a stiff atmosphere and I believe you can have great food shown in a Michelin style without that."
The chef is adamant that Scully St James's is a place where the food is king. He says he will not be turning around as many covers as possible in each sitting and would like to speak to guests to personally introduce his food: "I think with all restaurants you've got to find that perfect formula, and when we found Nopi's it worked really well, but doing 500 covers a day - it wasn't personal any more. I wanted to have my own place before I turned 40 so I could cook how I feel. It's been great; last night we had 20 covers, 15 for lunch, and we have more time to look after them - I even come out to serve the food."
A smaller number of covers has also allowed new supplier relationships. These include a breeder of Welsh black sheep Scully had met at a food festival. The chef was wowed by the product, but the supplier could not meet the demand of Nopi. Two years on, the mutton is on the menu at Scully St James's. Meanwhile, an organic vegetable supplier from Cornwall is delivering wonky veg, much of which finds it way into his pickling jars, while a fish supplier keeps him updated on the catch of the day.
Scully's insatiable love for creating exciting dishes is abundantly clear. When he is not at work, he seeks inspiration through travel or books and magazines - he explains that there will be at least 10 volumes by his bed at all times.
He says: "Yesterday was my first day off and I had to clean my room because I had books everywhere. I'll be sleeping and there will be books next to me. I get up and they're on the floor. That's my knowledge, my research. I think every head chef goes through the stage where if no one is teaching you, you must teach yourself something.
"I live in Hornsey, it's a 25-minute journey in, so I read on the train, just to make sure I'm taking in information every day. Today I was reading about Brussels sprouts. It was in an issue of Gourmet Traveller, which my mum sends me as a present every year from Australia. If I read it now, with the different seasons, I'm ready for next season. It keeps me on top. I always say to the young chefs, you've got to make time for yourself, read and just get that knowledge in you."
The chef explains how such influences emerge in his food. Set to become a staple dish is beef short-rib pastrami served with horseradish and pistachio, which was inspired by a trip to the renowned Katz's Deli in New York with a group of friends.
lly is keen to have a few constant offerings on his menu and joining his short rib will be arepa (a Venezuelan bread) served with eggplant sambal and bergamot labneh (a type of yogurt) as well as a vegetable jerky snack.
Other dishes will change based on Scully's discussions with suppliers and the pantry experiments of each week. When I visit, a surprise delivery of Persian saffron has inspired a fried bread, while experiments with frozen marshmallow are set to be paired with rhubarb.
Ottolenghi described Scully's kitchen as "exciting and unexpected". In his restaurant Scully has created a stage to bring this drama to diners who watch as he and his team whizz around, transforming the intriguing contents of his jars into vibrant dishes.
From the menu
•Arepa, eggplant sambal and bergamot labneh £8
â¢ Octopus, salt-baked avocado and black garlic £15
â¢ Forbidden rice, vegetable XO and turnips £9
â¢ Radicchio, maple shiitake, pear and pine nut £8.50
â¢ Welsh mutton, black barley, bisbas £16
â¢ Golden carrot sorbet, tarragon, caraway £6
Scully St James's
Chef-patron Ramael Scully
Head barman Euan Blackmore
Head chef Tim Yates