Having started out in the restaurant industry 18 years ago, as the first-ever apprentice chef at Gleneagles in Scotland, you could say that Adam Handling has always been a force to be reckoned with. Claiming that it was his sheer determination to avoid going to university that pushed him to pursue the apprenticeship, that chance decision would lead him to become one of the UK’s most celebrated chef talents of today.
Now, manning the helm of his eponymous Adam Handling Restaurant Group, Adam’s restaurants are synonymous with fine dining based around the best of local, seasonal British produce. Underpinning each concept is also a fundamental commitment to minimising waste and promoting and educating people on how to eat and cook more sustainably.
“I’m Scottish, so although university is free and my parents pushed for me to continue my studies, for me, I always preferred to be outside and was much more interested in doing my own thing.
“My mum eventually changed her tune and said that if I could get a high-end apprenticeship and commit to that then perhaps she would be on board with me not going. My dad then helped me to go to various interviews for apprenticeships I had found, one of which being a proposal at Gleneagles Hotel.
“I was 15 at the time but remember it like it was yesterday, pushing the big ballroom doors open and stepping into Gleneagles. After three interviews, I got the job, but the start date slightly clashed with my end of school exams. Luckily, they held the position open for me and told me to enjoy the last summer of my life and I would be starting on 27th September. After that it was boom, game on.”
Adam admits that it wasn’t until about 6 months into the training that he truly started enjoying what he was doing and became inspired by the people around him. He explains how it was actually all because of a huge spoonful of duxelles that he was forced to eat that helped him understand what it means to be a chef.
“Previously, I had hated mushrooms, but after tasting the duxelles and understanding what we wanted the guests to taste as opposed to what I liked or disliked, it suddenly all clicked into place.
“The more I ate, the more I was inspired. I had always thought I hated a lot of these things (because my mum wasn’t the best cook when we were younger), but seeing these ingredients elevated to another level, being part of the kitchen camaraderie, and feeling like I belonged to this club were all a massive part of making me stay within this profession.”
With TV chefs being all the rage during his culinary training, Adam believed that the glitz and glam lifestyle that came with being a chef was as normal as the anger in the kitchen, the bullying and the grown-up playground mentality, which also happened to be more commonplace at the time.
“You just sort of think that that’s normal. I didn’t realise that that’s not how it should or could be until some years later. The more I grew as a chef personally, my inspirations changed massively. Naturally, the older you get, the more you have confidence in your abilities and the vision you have.
“This also meant that some of the people or styles of cooking that I initially admired or got me excited actually become part of a path that leads a completely different way to where you want to go.”
At around the age of 24, Adam suffered from burnout – perhaps as a result of striving for perfection and fame, but without really knowing what he, or his cooking philosophy was all about.
“I really lost interest or my focus in cooking. I just wanted to become the youngest Michelin-starred chef in the country and that’s all I could think about. I didn’t care about my family, my personal life, I didn’t care about anything. I was just driven by my ego to get this star to the point that I wasn’t fun to be around.”
Having also severed ties with a partner at the time, Adam had reached a breaking point and decided that he needed to get away and reboot. After travelling around Southeast Asia, a whole new world and attitude towards cooking suddenly opened before his eyes and remedied his jaded view of classic cooking.
“Travelling around these places blew my mind. I had never been to a different country on holiday before, and was French-trained in cooking, so for me to be experiencing all these different places and flavours was truly inspiring.”
New flavours, tastes and the treatment of produce ignited something in Adam that had previously been missing. “You know, you go to the other side of the world and see that from poor to rich, their food ethos is completely opposite to the UK. From Vietnam to Japan, they utilise everything in their cooking. If it’s not in season, it doesn’t get used. It was all about them being proud to be from that specific country and celebrating this by what they have available to them locally.
“I had never tasted anything like this or cooked in this way before, so I decided to do non-Michelin-star culinary training in every country I visited so I could learn from a local source.
“The main thing I took away with me and still stand by today is the reasoning that food is nature, so make it look as natural as possible. Equally, if it’s not in season or grown locally it doesn’t get used, so fundamentally, everything should be used, and waste should be minimal.”
Adam returned to London reborn. With this new ethos in mind, as well as a renewed sense of excitement for cooking, he focused all his attention on how to create dishes with these new ingredients and flavours using the produce he could find around him.
“From here, I opened The Frog E1, my very first restaurant, and it became apparent that everything needed to be from this country. It needs to be great, great food with the inspiration from London. I changed my way of thinking about food and said that my cooking style is British food inspired by London because London is such a multicultural city and you can make some wonderful things using what you find in this country.”
The first venue soon took off, and before he knew it, Adam was opening Bean & Wheat, his first run at a sustainable restaurant that was situated at the side of E1.
“Bean & Wheat was a way of using the offcuts and by-products from the main restaurant. It made sense and actually helped pay the bills, so this is how the sustainable element of the brand came about.”
Two years on from this, Adam and his team created Frog in Covent Garden. This flagship restaurant allowed the team to be a bit more “loud and proud” about what they were doing and what the group was all about. With more financial stability and restaurant experience behind them, the new restaurant elevated Adam’s philosophy, creativity and recognition of the brand to new heights, earning him countless awards along the way.
Now, the proud owner of four successful venues; Frog by Adam Handling and Eve Bar in Covent Garden The Loch and The Tyne in Old Windsor, and the recently inaugurated Ugly Butterfly in Cornwall, Adam is committed to championing the best of British produce and with a firm zero-waste policy. In fact, Adam and his close team at the Ugly Butterfly were chosen to cook for the G7 world leaders during the G7 Summit in 2021, which was held in Cornwall. In keeping with the goal of making the event “carbon-neutral,” most ingredients were sourced from within a 100-mile radius and fitted the restaurant’s ethos beautifully.
“The Ugly Butterfly is a sustainable powerhouse restaurant that literally uses everything from the perimeters of Cornwall. If it doesn’t grow there, then it doesn’t get used. If it’s not reared in Cornwall, it doesn’t get used, simple as that.
“We’ve been able to tally it down to create great luxury experiences, which offer a fully sustainable cycle of products and ingredients. We use offcuts and by-products of food from the restaurant to create distils and infusions for the bar attached to it – it’s truly wonderful, wonderful stuff.”
With each venue following suit and being driven principally by the local area, each has their own unique menu but shares some common elements in order to maximise in on the product usage.
“Ugly Butterfly is driven by Cornwall, Loch & Tyne is driven by what’s in their gardens because they grow fruit and vegetables on-site, and Covent Garden is more based on what’s in season in the UK because it’s located in the city.
“When it comes to creating the menus, we all sit down together (now over Zoom since COVID-19) and discuss ideas. If somebody wants lamb on the menu, we say no worries and bring out a diagram of a lamb. We then ask which of the other restaurants wants to utilise the other parts of the lamb. If the restaurants don’t want to or can’t use up the whole lamb, then lamb won’t be on the menu. The idea is that all produce and ingredients are used in-house, or within the whole group otherwise, they don’t feature.”
With winter dishes such as brown crab served with a rich crab-claw emulsion and pickled apples and cucumbers; cod with Cornwall-grown ginger and lemongrass, and a vegetarian take on a duck dish that involves whipped roasted pumpkin and a tea made from fermented sugar-glazed pumpkin skins, the restaurants are a testament to how far Adam has come on his gastronomic journey. His hard work and dedication to being the best that he can be means that not a single detail or person within his group goes unnoticed.
“The most beautiful part of the restaurant group that I am most proud of is that everyone, from my sous chefs and upwards, have been with me from before I opened my very first restaurant.
“Building that really beautifully close environment is the only way to create a great restaurant group. The staff built my restaurant group, and this is also something I constantly remind myself when making decisions. During the pandemic, we sold four restaurants and I sold my house in order to make sure we didn’t lose a single member of the team.
“Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am now. If there is an issue, I am going to be chucking everything I have at it to make sure they don’t go down with it. The way I see it, you look after your staff, and they will look after your guests.”
Adam even has a system where whenever a new venue opens, the next in line for that challenge within the group will be put forward so that everyone gets the chance to move up. This means that everyone gets the chance to climb the ranks and feel like a valued part of the restaurant group.
“Whenever we open a new venue, all the core team will be there with them for at least two months. We guide them and support them during this time to make sure they get the help they need for that first part of the opening. When that person is ready to go at it alone, we step back for a couple of weeks of the month and focus on another restaurant. We will never let them fail.
“I spend most of my time in The Frog because my family is here, but I try to go to the other venues as much as I can. The head chefs in the restaurants are phenomenal and I often just go there to hug them and eat lunch because they are more than just my staff. They will ask me for help if they need me, but they love the fact that I drive there just to eat their wonderful food.”
His onus is on feeling welcome, so every guest who enters one of his establishments can sit back, shut their eyes, and know that they are going to be able to relax and enjoy quality food in a non-pretentious setting.
“Our return rate is massive. About 35% of the restaurant has been there before or been to one of our other restaurants regularly. The reason I created The Frog in the first place is because I wanted to have a place for people to go to where no matter who you are, how you dress or what you look like, you will be made to feel like you belong there and the most welcome.”
Adam explains how the front-of-house are encouraged to go that extra mile in making sure people feel seen, by setting them the task of finding out something about each guest that walks through the door.
“We like to make sure people feel like we have taken an interest in them, so we will always ensure we ask questions and try and find out something about them. People don’t always want to interact, which is fine, but the point is we try and people appreciate this.”
The idea behind this is that Adam and his team are building experiences and by taking the time to make an effort with guests, it makes such a huge, and long-lasting, difference to their story. Seemingly unstoppable in his need to better himself, his staff and his restaurants, Adam has his goals for the future firmly in sight.
“I always want to impress people in my life. This constant drive makes me want to have the best restaurant in the country. I want people that work for us to be respected in the industry for having worked within the group. I want the prestige of our training programmes to be the focus of the Adam Handling Restaurant Group.
“Since the pandemic, we have seen that casual dining is slightly on its knees, but luxury dining or experiential dining is on the up. So, more than the issue being about covers, it’s actually about not having the staff to serve them. There is no denying that there are many external factors at play, at the moment, but I genuinely believe that there are ways that you can manage these to the best of your ability to ensure your own operation is still successful and the most important way has got to be prioritising staff welfare.”
With a powerful message for the industry, Adam is making waves amongst his contemporaries who quite often fail to see the importance of having your whole team’s best interests at heart and, as a result, the impact this has on the bigger picture.
“I believe the responsibility for high-end dining to move on and forward is to make the staff feel comfortable in their operations. People will put in their heart and soul if they feel they understand what the target is, the direction to reach the target, and the tools to do it. If one of these are broken, then the employee won’t be comfortable and as committed as they could be, which eventually seeps into the day-to-day runnings of a restaurant. This is something that nobody wants as it’s like poison within a company. Just look after, listen to, and be kinder to the staff a little bit more.”
Adam insists that he needs to keep opening restaurants in order to create new opportunities for his committed team members, so more exciting venues are definitely in the pipeline. With hints made at possible locations outside of the UK, Adam coyly admits that plans for at least another three restaurants are being discussed, but are dependent on the targets of the existing restaurants. He also vehemently stands by the need for a greater push with sustainability in the restaurant industry, and will continue to make this a cornerstone of his culinary training.
“Sustainability has been used as more of a buzzword, which is annoying, but it also doesn’t address the full problem. Using local ingredients and minimising waste isn’t actually being sustainable, it’s just being a good human being. To really become sustainable, you must teach. You need to make sure that the next generation that comes into play has the skills to be able to think about how to utilise and responsibly source.
“Likewise, understanding the value of a Pound and how to spend this in a way that is beneficial for the UK is much more a long-term way of being sustainable.”
Constantly forward-thinking and with a burning passion to succeed, Adam Handling really is on the path to being bigger, better and stronger than ever, and all the while leaving a positive footprint for future chefs to come.