Chef Mr Ollie Dabbous On Home Cooking, The Restaurant Business, And His “Indulgent” French Toast
French toast. Photograph by Ms Heather Taylor
Mr Ollie Dabbous is known for his boundary-pushing food, but these days he’ll settle for… French toast. “Good home cooking is all about maximum reward for minimum effort,” says the chef, who, having honed his craft in some of the country’s best kitchens, now heads up Hide in London’s Piccadilly. The smart space features two restaurants, a bar and five private dining rooms spread over three sprawling floors. It’s an ambitious concept that’s lived up to the hype – Hide won a Michelin star just six months after it opened in 2018.
The daily-changing menu at Hide includes carefully crafted dishes formed from impeccably sourced ingredients, such as white beetroot with horseradish, caviar and lovage; Cornish mussels with saffron and orzo; and rich duck confit with pickled cherries. But since the restaurant has temporarily closed its doors, Mr Dabbous has found joy in the simplicity of cooking at home.
“There is very little overlap between what I cook at work and what I cook at home,” he says. “It’s a completely different mindset. I’m making a bit of everything – Spanish omelettes, meatballs, some nice pasta dishes and Middle Eastern food. Barbecues when the weather’s nice, which are one of life’s few pleasures that can still be enjoyed during lockdown. Even a little bit of baking.”
It’s a change of pace from the professional kitchens Mr Dabbous is used to (he cut his teeth in Mr Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons), one he compares to a leisurely Sunday drive versus racing at Le Mans.
“Cooking in a restaurant kitchen is methodical, an exercise in consistency and efficiency,” he says. “I’m there to critique, rather than enjoy. When I’m at work, I don’t taste something and think ‘that’s delicious’. I taste it and think ‘that is correct’. So the goal is to ensure every element of the dish is executed as it should be, to give the diner the best experience.”
The lockdown has given Mr Dabbous a new perspective on food waste, too. “It’s hard to be frugal when, as a society, we’re used to taking so much for granted. I hope this time will help modify people’s behaviour, so they’re less wasteful. If there are odds and sods to use up in the fridge, they don’t have to be the star of the show – cook anything alongside spices and pulses, and the end result is usually very tasty.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s scrimping on ingredients. “I’ve bought some hampers from Le Marché des Chefs,” says Mr Dabbous. “They supply Hide, but during lockdown, they’ve been selling their fruit and veg to people at home. Using their produce makes cooking a pleasure, not a chore.”
Those small pleasures have been important for Mr Dabbous during what’s been a tough time for the restaurant industry. Does he see any light at the end of the tunnel? “I think there will be a transition period, when restaurants offer both socially distanced tables and home delivery to make up for otherwise depleted earnings,” says the chef.
He’s already launched Hide at Home, a delivery service for diners in London keen to swap their usual home-cooked dinners for roast Iberico pork with mango chutney, or fresh egg pasta with Cornish crab. “Inevitably there will be closures, but times were hard even pre-lockdown. I hope the restaurants that do survive will go on to thrive, since the industry will be less saturated.”
In the meantime, Mr Dabbous is taking solace in French toast, the recipe for which he’s shared here. “I made this for everyone one Sunday morning, and paired it with champagne,” he says. “It was nice to go to the extra effort and make something memorable, even at a time when there’s not much to celebrate.”
Try it yourself this weekend – and don’t skimp on the champagne. After all, says Mr Dabbous, “if you can’t be indulgent now, when can you?”
6 egg yolks
120g caster sugar
500ml whole milk
500ml whipping cream
1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped
4 x 2cm-thick slices of brioche bread
1 tbsp cornflour
100g ground almonds
150g salted butter, softened
20ml dark rum
2 tbsp demerara sugar
Lemon zest and crème fraîche, to serve
Beat together the egg yolks and sugar until just combined. In a small pan, bring the milk and cream to the boil, then add the vanilla and pour into the eggs, whisking well. Allow to cool to room temperature.
Place the brioche slices in a shallow baking tray and pour over the egg mixture. Allow to soak, completely submerged, for a minimum of 4 hours, or ideally overnight, turning halfway.
Preheat the oven to 170°C fan.
Strain the brioche slice on a cake rack without squeezing them – you want them as wet and juicy as possible. Reserve the soaking liquor that drips through.
Warm the reserved soaking liquor in a pan. Whisk the cornflour with just enough water to dissolve, then whisk this into the soaking liquor and bring to a simmer to thicken and cook out the flour, transforming the mix into creme patissiere.
Transfer this to a bowl and cool to room temperature. Add the ground almonds, 100g of the butter and the rum and beat with an electric whisk until smooth.
Sprinkle a little demerara sugar on one side of each of the brioche slices. Heat the remaining butter in a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat until it is pale brown. Add the brioche slices in batches, sugar side-down, and heat for a minute or so, until golden. Remove from the pan and place on a shallow baking tray.
Spread each slice with the almond and rum glaze, then warm in the oven for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle over a little more demerara sugar (make sure it goes all the way to the edges) and place under the grill until golden. Serve with lemon zest and crème fraîche.