My First London Home: James Knappett

James Knappett, photographed by Marcus Cobden

The chef behind the two-Michelin-star Kitchen Table restaurant in Fitzrovia talks to Jane Slade about fine dining, foraging and training with Gordon Ramsay

I grew up in Soham surrounded by the Cambridgeshire Fens. I loved food and my mum’s cooking.

At school I wanted to be a policeman until I was told it wasn’t like being Bruce Willis in Diehard, so I opted for work experience in the kitchen of the Lamb Hotel, Ely.

I walked in and discovered a bit of magic: beautiful sauces, delicious smells, the adrenalin of service. I just loved it.

I used to watch Gordon Ramsay’s Boiling Point on TV then met him at a food show and asked him what I had to do to get a job in his restaurant.

He gave me his card and said “come to the back door of Royal Hospital Road”. I bought a suit, did a trial and got the job. I was taken aback when Gordon said: “If you go for any more interviews, don’t wear a f***ing suit. Chefs don’t wear suits.”

I lived at the PM Club in Earl’s Court, a hostel for the hospitality industry – it doesn’t exist any more – and it cost £70 a week to stay there in 1999.

Gordon’s kitchen was tough. I was working 18-hour days with barely a break. I hated it. After six months I left and went to work for Rick Stein in Cornwall, and loved it. I stayed for three years.

I was still hung up about walking out on Gordon though, so went back to London to work at Pétrus run by Marcus Wareing – and found he was worse than Gordon. A very stern, hard man, but the hardest-working chef I’ve ever met. I hated every minute but was determined not to quit again. After a year, suddenly everything changed and I started to live and breathe it.

I shared a flat in Stockwell with six chefs. It cost £600 a month – I just had time for a shower and some sleep and I lived off cereal.

I met my wife Sandia Chang who was working as a sommelier at Per Se in New York. Working with Thomas Keller at Per Se and René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen was transformative. We got married in 2007 and I wore the Gordon Ramsay suit!

The food at Kitchen Table is contemporary European, driven by the seasons and ingredients. I love being a chef in England, where we have four seasons. They’re hugely emotional in terms of how we want to eat. It’s not a fashion thing like you’ll find with some restaurants, every dish is about seasonality.

We serve 20 diners in an intimate theatre-style kitchen setting. They sit in a horseshoe and watch us cook and serve 17-20 courses, while Sandia looks after the wines. She launched Bubbleshop, an online shop where guests can buy the rare wines and champagnes they sample with us.

When I can, I love going to the country. Foraging is huge for me. My favourite fruits to forage are damsons. I also love sloe berries, dogrose, beefsteak mushrooms, chickweed and watercress. February and March are the seasons for wild garlic, chickweed and scarlet elf cup mushrooms.

I have wonderful suppliers. All British. I go to Rhubarb Robert for my rhubarb. He
grows force-grown rhubarb in dark tunnels and picks them by candlelight. I get my beef from Mark in Wales. My cheese comes from the Isle of Mull and Fen Farm Dairy in Suffolk.

I cook at every service and have 12 staff. I also have two children aged two and four. Before we had kids, Sandia and I would work from 7am to midnight.

We live in a four-bed Victorian house in Haringey with our dog Paxo. My favourite place to eat is at home – Sandi cooks Asian food and I cook roasts.

I used to cater to all dietary requirements at the restaurant, but I called a halt to that when one customer said he was allergic to bread but not breadcrumbs.