Nicola Miller talks to Canadian chef Alex Rotherham about life during lockdown and the new cross-cultural menu it has inspired at No4 Restaurant in Bury St Edmunds
Walking past the shuttered Abbeygate Cinema and No4 Restaurant and Bar during lockdown was a special kind of agony. Devoted customers were left with only their memories of savoury bowls of poutine filled with skinny fries, rich chicken gravy and cheese curds, vibrant, jewel-like rice and salad bowls, sandwiches made with soft-crumbed pan Cubano, excellent vegan gluten-free brownies, and Canadian Nanaimo bars with their soft layers of custard, biscuit crumbs, coconut and chocolate. They missed the utter bliss of collapsing into a comfy seat to watch a film, a glass of wine and popcorn to hand.
But now the business is back and lovers of Vancouver-style diner food can rejoice because Canadian chef Alex Rotherham who was furloughed, is back at the stove, serving up a cross-cultural take and presenting customers with a dilemma: do they choose their much-missed old favourites or try out one of his new dishes?
At the time of writing, it is only Alex in the kitchen, hence the (temporary) shorter menu but the restaurant’s extension of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme into September to offer customers 25 per cent off meals Monday-Wednesday has kept trade steady.
Alex’s background in chain hospitality where he spent time working with restaurants which were struggling has equipped him with a keen sense of quality control and the reduction of food waste through clever menu development: “I design the menu not for me, but for the customer. I learned how to make a marketable menu that appeals to customers. I learned to balance.” This stands the restaurant in good stead at a time of economic uncertainty, where every penny spent on ingredients matters more than ever.
“What I envisioned in my head when it came to reopening time was completely different from the reality. I had a vision of a full-scale menu, full crew in the kitchen. . . then boom! For safety, it is one chef in the kitchen at a time, and that meant I had to go for a simpler menu.
“Some of our dishes have a lot of ingredients; the teriyaki rice bowl had over 50 and with one chef in the kitchen, prep for this is harder. So, we have a new spicy garden rice bowl. It has a sherry glaze and lots of ingredients: sugar snap peas, red peppers, jalapeños, roasted cashews, and we encourage customers who loved the teriyaki rice bowl to try this.”
“But even with these restrictions, at the moment our food sales are on par with what we’d normally do at this time.”
How was lockdown for a chef used to feeding lots of people?
“The first few weeks it was frustrating. I was cooking all the meals for my wife and kids. My kids like simple food, but I got to experiment a little bit and test and push them to try new things.
“Then it kind of got into a rhythm. . . we were just interacting as a family.
“I couldn’t work on furlough, so I spent more time with my children and transferred menu planning for the restaurant into menu planning for them.”
Prior to lockdown, Alex was working on new dishes and after his return to work he started to introduce them to his temporarily slimmed-down menu. This meant removing some old favourites.
It must be hard to pluck up the courage to do this, I ask him.
“I’m 100 per cent confident that my jerk chicken burger is a better dish,” he answers. “I have been wanting to do jerk chicken for years but my Cajun chicken on the menu was so popular I kind of felt locked in. So post-lockdown, I have taken advantage of the situation to reboot my menu.
“The jerk chicken for the new burger is harder to execute. It is a rub/marinade. It marinates for six hours. There’s fresh scotch bonnets in there, lots of spices, it is then griddled. You can taste the freshness and you can taste each individual spice and this comes before you get to the heat.”
Alex is secure enough to avoid the trap of early adoption. He has taken his time developing a jackfruit burger, something that many restaurants rushed to put on their menu when they became cognizant of its meat-like properties. “A restaurant – feet away – doing something is a reason for us not to do it immediately,” he says.
As a result, his jackfruit burger with barbecue sauce made from scratch has a deeply considered flavour served as it is with a barbecue sauce in a potato bread bun. “I played with jackfruit at home and my kids ate it happily. Post-furlough we began to make it here from scratch with green jackfruit. It is actually 100 per cent vegan.”
The poutine is most certainly not vegan. As a Canadian, Alex is very exacting about it. It is hard to get proper poutine in the UK and there are regional variations in its homeland, too. “So, the cheese curds,” smiles Alex, knowing that poutine is a subject close to my heart. “They are proper Cheddar cheese curds from Goulds Cheddar and we’re selling so much more poutine than we have ever sold before. I am even prouder of it now. I actually had one customer from Quebec, and she said it brought tears to her eyes when she ate it. Eight or nine different herbs and spices go into that gravy. A lot of places use beef but it has to be chicken gravy.”
The other thing No4 Abbeygate is known for is its superb bread, and especially, the pan Cubano.
Tell me how Cuban bread ends up on a menu in Bury St Eds?
“That was something I was used to in Canada. And here, all our bread is custom made for us even if the concept is from far away. I worked with my baker to develop the Cuban bread and recently we introduced potato bread buns for our burgers. My baker is his own creative self and he comes back with his interpretation of my brief. It is literally back and forth, eight or nine possibilities.”
Alex’s menu is a story. A chef’s story. “A lot of my menu comes down to not being driven by looking at a competitor. It is more ‘I got a gut feeling’ and a lot of the new dishes – the spicy garden rice bowl, the curried chicken rice bowl – are a result of my asking ‘what do I have in my kitchen?’”Alex’s food may be Vancouver brought to Suffolk, but it manages to reflect local tastes and availability of ingredients, “even as my menu expands and gets bigger, it will grow from what is already here.”
No4 Restaurant and Bar, 4 Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds
Call 01284 754477
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020