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Toogood Interviews Florence Knight

TOOGOOD INTERVIEWS FLORENCE KNIGHT
CHEF AT SESSIONS ARTS CLUB

September 2023
Photography: John William

“Here, too, was the scrubbing of floors and boots, of arms and necks, of red and white vegetables. Walk in to the morning disorder of this room and all the garden was laid out dripping on the table. Chopped carrots like copper pennies, radishes and chives, potatoes dipped and stripped clean from their coats of mud, the snapping of tight pea-pods, long shells of green pearls, and the tearing of glutinous beans from their nests of wool.”

From Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

 

Florence Knight didn’t have a great time at school. But at 15 she did make the wedding cake for her English Literature teacher. She was part way through a textiles degree when a family tragedy changed her path. “My father passed away, and I couldn’t carry on at London College of Fashion. I had been working in restaurants to earn money, and I decided to follow that path.” A stint at Leiths, out of the frying pan and into the fire of the kitchen. “I realised I was a visual learner, and once I was in that environment it all felt very familiar to me. I’m from a big family of five and creating order in chaos was quite normal. I fell in love with it.” 

What was dinnertime like growing up in that busy house?

Food was very celebrated. We never had plated food ever, it was always serve yourself. I was quite shocked when I went to people's houses and people put food on the plate. We’d usually have a big pot of stew or my mum’s watercress soup. Bread. Hams. I suppose looking back it was quite idyllic. We had chickens we had dogs we had cats. Chaos. It started me off with a very healthy relationship with food and what it can mean to a family.

How about the first dish you put on a menu?

Not necessarily my first dish, but there is a dish that was a turning point for me. Baccalà mantecato is Venetian and it’s fucking difficult. My boss at the time said it couldn’t be done. I’m very competitive and so after practice practice practice – I nailed it. It's a pain to make and I would never put it on somewhere where you've got big numbers, but in small quantities it’s heavenly. I just remember that moment of getting it right, thinking it was even better than the ones I’d tried in Venice. I suppose that was the moment where I began to really trust myself.

How would you describe or define your point of view as a chef?

It starts with the food. Then you narrow it down so it starts with the season. You're thinking of what ingredients are available, and then you add technique and flavor. I want it to be as simple as that. I think I've got quite a distinctive style on the plate, kind of less is more. I’m happy there’s a femininity there, and strength. I like things clean, but with a softness. Flavourwise, I want to showcase one thing. Like my pasta with lovage. Or a good chocolate tart. You don’t need to start adding other things in. I want my food to be classic, elegant, and not too messy.

 And this is your style at Sessions?

Jonny’s ethos is studio. He gave me total autonomy over what I wanted to do with Sessions. I've been very lucky. He's completely trusted me. We both took a risk on each other, not really knowing what to expect. I feel very fortunate to be cooking here and be with my team, able to express myself daily on the plate.

 Do you have any rituals in the kitchen?

I like to be start my day before everybody else. Coffee. Get my head around the service ahead. Make my list. There’s always a sharpie pen clipped to my collar and biros in my hair. I often speak to the kitchen about how service is like a kind of dance you do every day.

 What fiddly job, or mindful distraction do you enjoy?

On Mondays we do prep with no service. There’s no adrenaline from service and so you need to find self-motivation. I love those quiet, mundane, Monday moments. De-boning a quail. Breaking anything down in prep is satisfying. When you’re cooking your phone is nowhere near you. You’re here for the dish in front of you and you haven’t got any space to think about anything else. It's still the place I love being more than anywhere else.

 How do you get the best out of your lovely team?

In a way, I’m here to selfishly steal the wonderful bits from them, and then work on the bits that need to be better. I'm very honest with them. I’ve had most of my Sessions team for two years and I love watching them grow. I’ve worked in some not-nice kitchens and I would never want to perpetuate that kind of negative cycle. There’s no need for the old-fashioned belittling or aggressiveness. You see these people more than your family. And here at Sessions we have a tiny kitchen under the stairs, so if one person has a bad mood we all feel it. I work hard to keep things positive. A packet of Skittles can go a long way to get your team through the day.

 What makes for good dinner?

Good ingredients. It might be a boring answer but you really can’t do anything without food produce. Buy the best within your budget, and pay attention to things like ripeness, temperature. Nothing worse than a cold burrata or tomato. Oh and never throw your pasta water away.

And how about when you are at home cooking for yourself?

I eat nursery food at home. Healing and high protein. I love an omelette. I love steak and eggs. It needs to be quick.

Best thing to put on toast? Marmite. Your idea of happiness? Richard and the children. Your idea of misery? Being alone. Sexist Smell? Fig leaves. You are DJing the last party on earth. What last song are you playing? Baltimore by Nina Simone. A painting you love? Anything by Milton Avery or Bonnard. Most overused word? Fuck. Besides London, best town or city in the world? Paris. Worst bad habit? Not being kind enough to myself. Best album to listen to in full? Naturally by J. J. Cale Most treasured possession? I’m not sure I care about stuff that much. There’s a book my brother sent me, that had a handwritten note in from out dad. I hadn’t seen his handwriting for a long time and it’s something special to me.

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