The scientist and restauranteurs

16 April 2019

Interview with 

Mark Williamson, Alex Rushmer and Lawrence Butler

CHOPPING VEGETABLES

this is a picture of a chopping board full of vegetables

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It’s not every day you get the chance to interview professional chefs in a brand new restaurant. And what’s more, a restaurant which has installed an experimental oven which the creators claim can revolutionise cooking. So will it work? Katie Haylor and Chris Smith set its inventor the grand challenge of roasting a raw chicken in just 35 mins. Here's Mark Williamson - the scientist behind the oven and Alex Rushmer and Lawrence Butler - the two chefs putting sustainability at the heart of their new venture…

Lawrence - Hello. My name is Lawrence Butler.

Alex - Hello. My name is Alex Rushmer and we're at Vanderlyle in Cambridge. Vanderlyle is a brand new restaurant opened by myself and Lawrence and we are a primarily vegetable focused, sustainable restaurant in the centre of Cambridge on Mill Road.

Chris - And standing next to Alex is...

Mark - I'm Mark Williamson. I teach chemical engineering at the University in Cambridge and I'm also the founder of Cambridge Oven Innovation. It's a spin out company from the University and we are developing a brand new exciting domestic oven.

Chris - Now I know that fellows at the University of Cambridge are fond of fine dining and fine cuisine, perhaps that's why you're in this fine restaurant, but why are you really here?

Mark - Because we’re doing some exciting food trials with Alex and Lawrence, discovering new ways to cook food using this new technology. We have an oven which cooks food in fundamentally different ways to conventional ovens and it uses substantially less energy.

Chris - Now Alex, you run a serious business, serious venture, you’ve been on MasterChef, what did you think when he came to you and said I’ve got an oven which is going to reinvent the way we do cooking?

Alex - Initially, a little bit sceptical I suppose, but that was changed pretty quickly once we saw the oven in action. It's very rare that you get to see something at such an early stage of development and something that can so fundamentally change the way that we do things in the kitchen, so it was super exciting.

Lawrence - The immediate results that we saw impressed us so much that we couldn't help but be involved.

Chris - So you've actually installed one here and are you gonna knock out your daytime nosh on this to see really how it performs? Is that the idea, you're sort of doing a clinical trial for an oven?

Lawrence - We are going to be doing a lot of recipe testing for the oven so that we can eventually have a database of things that we have figured out exactly what the best way to cook using it is so that we can have that for the end user as well as a resource really.

Alex - Chefs love their toys, they love their gadgets, and they love anything that makes their lives easier, makes the processes quicker. Given our fairly fundamental approach and focus on sustainability, anything that uses less energy is always going to be a bonus for us.

Chris - Have you given these guys some shares?

Mark - We have indeed yes. They are stakeholders in the business.

Chris - Well they do say that the proof is in the eating. We have a chicken roasting. Are you confident?

Mark - Yes, reasonably so. We've cooked a lot of chickens recently and we think we know how to do it really quickly and really energy efficiently. In fact we're going to do Yorkshire puddings for you today as well.

Chris - My favourite. Thank you Mark. I’m looking forward to trying this.

Katie - Now, no roast dinner is complete without some veggies so are you going to let me loose on your knives?

Alex - It's not my knives so I'm more than happy to let you use them, but Lawrence might not be so keen.

Katie - If I’m closely supervised. How about that?

Alex - Never touch another chef’s knife. I think that's one of the rules of the kitchen.

Lawrence - I think we can let that go in this case.

Alex - I think we can let it go, yeah. The menu at the moment, our opening menu is entirely vegetarian. We have no meat, no fish on there whatsoever. In fact this chicken that is currently roasting in the oven is the first piece of meat that we've allowed in our kitchen.

Katie - So we've rocked the boat a little bit then?

Alex - You have a little bit but you know, I think that's all part of the fun. I'm not saying that we will never cook meat or fish in this kitchen. There will be times when we have found a farmer that we can work with directly who farms ethically farmed meat and sustainable meat, and that's what we’re putting front and centre of the restaurant.

Lawrence - At the moment, quite simply we’re just enjoying cooking vegetables.

Alex - And at this time of year as well we’re heading into the spring. We’re almost in the middle of spring and the produce that we are working with.

Lawrence - It’s incredible

Alex - We are so fortunate, we are working directly with an organic local farmer who just honestly provides the best vegetables I've ever tasted. The idea came to us actually reasonably quickly about 18 months ago. We cooked together at the Hole in the Wall in Little Wilbraham just outside of Cambridge.

Chris - That was your previous restaurant?

Alex - That was my previous restaurant. So six very enjoyable but very long years. We both went our separate ways, we parted company amicably. I spent some time cooking in various mountainous regions of the world in Switzerland and Ethiopia. And it gave us time to reflect on what we wanted from a restaurant experience, both as a diner and as a restauranteur. We knew that we wanted to work on a sustainable level. For us that means two things: it means from an environmental perspective but also sustainability from a personal perspective as well. So we only work four days a week. We have a very small team, all of whom are fully invested in the philosophy of what we're attempting to do. The biggest thing we can do to diminish our environmental impact is focus much less on the cooking of animal proteins and focus much more on the cooking vegetables and fruits and root vegetables.

Katie - As we are here, I cannot help but ask, I've got two pro chefs in front of me. Can I have a tiny masterclass on chopping some veg?

Lawrence - Of course you can.

Alex - I think we can organise that.

Katie - My chopping skills leave a lot to be desired. I'm gonna have to put that out now, full disclosure; please help me.

Alex - Okay. I suppose lesson number one is keep your fingers out of the way. So I suppose day one at cookery school, you're taught about the claw.

Lawrence - That's day two. Day one's all about eggs. Yeah, day two the claw. It's just a technique that you use to keep the ends of your fingers away from the blade at all times so that no matter how quickly you're chopping you're not gonna cut the end of your finger off.

Alex - So most people when they first pick up a knife they use what you refer to as maybe a tennis racket grip, so you're holding it as you would a tennis racket right on the handle, but that doesn't give you a whole lot of control. It certainly doesn't give you the control that you need for up-and-down, or even side-to-side. So readjust the grip so you've got the hilt of the knife in the back of your hand, and you’re almost holding the top of the blade almost as if you would a pencil.

Katie - It's more like you're playing a violin or a cello bow or something like that?

Alex - As a complete non-musician I will have to take your word on that. So we’ll start off by getting the grip right.

Katie - Okay. A bit more like that?

Alex - So if you just tuck that finger in a little like that and it should feel as if you've got much more control over the blade.

Katie - It does. Chris, I've been chopping wrong all my life.

Alex - What I want you to do is hold the celery in your left hand. So you steady it in your left hand but make sure you keep the tips of your fingers tucked in. And then what you can do is use the part of your finger between your two knuckles as a guide for the blade.

Katie - Ah, so the blade actually rubs up against your fingers each time?

Alex - That's exactly it. So you just shimmy that part of your hand back. The flat of the blade is parallel to the flat of that first part of your finger, and that should give you the control that you need without any risk at all of chopping the ends of your fingers or your nails.

Katie - Okay. They're not as even as yours, Alex

Alex - That's okay. You can work on the evenness later on.

Katie - Well it's all very well I've chopped one stick of celery. If we’re going have a roast dinner we’re going to need to get them cooking. So what exactly are you prepping veggie-wise and how are you going to cook them?

Lawrence - We're going to cook some purple sprouting broccoli with some of the shoots from that as well and first we’re going to start it out with a bit of time in the pan and then we’re going to pop in the oven just to finish off.

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