Getting a Handling on sustainability: an interview with chef Adam Handling

Adam Handling

Three new Hoxton beer and drink venues are now open and already in full swing – The Frog Hoxton restaurant, Iron Stag bar, and Bean & Wheat coffee & beer house. The three sites are the latest venture from chef Adam Handling and follow the recent London trend of offering distinct eating and drinking options under the same roof. 

We meet Handling to discover the drivers behind his rapidly expanding empire and why sustainability forms a key part of that growth:

At 30 years old Handling has already been a chef for half his life and his talent and determination are undeniable. He already has 3 AA rosettes and a Michelin Bib Gourmand under his belt for previous food offerings and is in the running for a Michelin star for his Covent Garden restaurant, The Frog By Adam.

Handling has come a long way since the launch of his first restaurant, Shoreditch’s Frog E1 (which the new site has replaced), in just a few months and on a shoestring budget – fuelled by a determination to do the type of cooking he wanted to do rather than what he was being told he should do.

It was part-funded by a loan he told the bank was for a car, and painted by himself and his team of chefs who even put the handles on the toilet doors (backwards). He couldn’t afford bartenders or even restaurant manager, initially, so the chefs served the meals themselves.

You get the impression things at the new site have been done very differently, but until further notice, guests at all Handling’s site will continue to be served by the chefs.

Another recurring theme is Handling’s commitment to sustainability.

All of his enterprises feed into one another, quite literally; he buys whole animal carcusses, which works out cheaper per kilo, and the prime cuts tend to go to Frog by Adam, the secondary cuts to the The Frog Hoxton and any leftovers go to the café Bean and Wheat, which was set up exactly for that purpose – to help close the loop.

Handling is clearly much more than just a chef. He’s an entrepreneur, in the rare position to own the majority share of his restaurants. He has also created his own olive oil, Olivia, which is naturally used in his restaurants. His range of cold pressed juices, Black & White, are created from the surplus produce from his farms in West Sussex, where his group head chef, Steve Kerr, helps to grow most of the key produce for his restaurants.

Not bad for someone for whom chefdom was a simply a means to get out of going to school, beginning with an apprenticeship at Gleneagles when he was just 15. He says it was six years before he could cook a menu on his own and another four before he could create one.

His determination to succeed comes – like many of us – from never wanting to hear “I told you so”; his strong-business head from growing up in a once financially secure family that lost its money but not its heart. Handling is a man of conviction with an enviable self-belief but he takes criticism, especially restaurant reviews, to heart.

He says the menu at The Frog Hoxton is “how I would want to eat out”, featuring epic sharing plates that celebrate and encourage a zero-waste approach to eating, with dishes such as wood-roasted monkfish with tandoori-spiced butter, and BBQ lamb, olive, courgetti.

He also says to truly understand what’s going on in his head, you have to eat at Frog by Adam.

But here’s an insight, in his own words, until you get to either one…

On sustainability:
I don’t see sustainability as a trend, I see it as something everybody should be doing. It’s like me saying: ‘I hope your shoelaces are tied’.

On respect:
If you have respect in yourself and you own the business and financially there’s a benefit for it – why the hell is everyone not being more sustainable? The people that aren’t doing it are people that don’t have respect for themselves, their team or they don’t own the restaurant.

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On his group head chef, Steve:
Wherever I am he’s beside me, he’s my rock.

On loyalty:
If you invest in me, I’ll invest in you.

We bought the farms for Steve. He built a sandpit about the size of this table outside of his house in Canary Wharf and he would come in with three courgettes and a flower and he would be so happy with it.

Johnny, one of my senior sous, is into beer so we built him a little beer fermenting area. We can’t sell it because it’s illegal, so we just give it away.

Even the junior members of staff who helped to build Frog E1 have equity in the business. There’s no shadow of a doubt that unless I kill someone or do something stupid, this will be worth money so I will share it with the people who built it with me.

The Frog by Adam

On creativity:
Sustainability both hinders creativity because what you may want to do isn’t feasible yet it creates creativity because you have to think outside the box.

On finances:
Realistically, nobody would do anything if there wasn’t a financial gain in any aspect of your work. You will not save the planet if you can’t make money out of it because you need to live.

I’m not a company pushed by finances. It’s my decision. The more investment I get the less I own, so I’m as smart as possible. I own mostly all of it.

On writings on the wall:
I could never be where I am in life without the people I have around me so it doesn’t matter if you’ve worked here for one day or worked here forever, you will sign that wall because you are part of the history of this restaurant.

On attitude:
I don’t want to be standing next to you if you’ve got a face like a slapped arse. If you’re trying, you’ll be alright in my kitchen. If you’re miserable, you’ll be out of there.

On inspiration:
Sat Bains is the closest to where I have always wanted to go to since I was a little boy. I like the whole stacking of cutlery on your table – just because it’s a formal restaurant doesn’t mean you can’t eat how you want. ‘Chill out, be who you want to be’ – thats the ethos of the service and then the food is outstanding.

On relaxing:
I come to work to relax. When you have 100 staff depending on you to pay them, you prefer to be there to chill out.

On the birth of his son:
“Let me show you my little boy because I’m very proud. The guy’s a beast.” [Yep, he’s one of those parents.]

On getting married (possibly next summer):
I’ve always dreamed of my dream wedding. I know what I want and it’s going to be awesome.

On mentors:
I’m very opinionated but also very self-motivated. I don’t need someone to pat me on the back and say ‘I know you can do it, I believe in you’. I don’t care if you do or not, I know I can and I believe in myself.

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