David Eyre, Chef
This is David Eyre, Head Chef at Eyre Brothers in Shoreditch, where, last night in his kitchen, he and his team prepared sixty meals between eight and nine o’clock, or if you include starters and side dishes, one hundred and twenty dishes – one every thirty seconds. Yet more important than David’s obvious panache and dexterity, is the superlative quality of the food at his Spanish/Portuguese restaurant which specialises in tapas and deft versions of traditional Iberian dishes.
It is no surprise that there is a discernible shine upon David’s brow and his stray locks have strayed – although in the circumstances I think we may indulge these details that only enhance the charm of his raffishly handsome Humphrey Bogart features, augmented by the deep baritone voice in which he calls out orders to his fellow chefs. Caught here in this fleeting moment of stillness within the clamour of the evening’s service, David was briefly silent, clutching himself in disbelief and wonder and joy at the horde of happy diners, noisily enjoying their meals in the moodily lit restaurant next door.
“I love cooking, so it suits me brilliantly that people want to eat what I like to cook,” David admitted to me with a broad grin, as if this state of affairs were merely accidental, when the truth is that he one of those who has encouraged the taste for Portuguese and Spanish cuisine in this country over the last twenty years.
It was David’s childhood in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, that gave him his passion for this particular food. “My father came from Spitalfields originally, ” he confided to me,“and my mother from the West Indies and I was sent to a school in Zimbabwe where the food was really horrendous, though I was fortunate that my mother was a fine cook. I came to London to do an Engineering degree but my passport was British, and I didn’t want to return to Mozambique and become an ex-patriot, so I decided to stay here. And I got offered a job at Massey Ferguson, the tractor manufacturer, but when I saw where I was going to work, I said, ‘I’m going to get a job as a waiter and you can keep this!’”
With a business partner that he met while working in Covent Garden, David opened The Eagle in the Farringdon Rd, Clerkenwell – the celebrated gastropub that set the template adopted by thousands of others in subsequent years. Yet even this spectacularly influential endeavour is one that David seeks to explain away. “We couldn’t get the finance to open a restaurant, so we opened a pub,” he revealed, “I was very briefly married at the time and my wife’s aunt was rich. She said, ‘The recession’s coming but people always want a drink, so open a pub.’ And we managed to scrape together fifteen thousand pounds and got a pub because the government monopoly commission was forcing breweries to sell them off at the time. It was the constraints that made it possible. We served coffee and steak sandwiches and braised vegetables (and Italian sausages because Gazzano’s was next door). It was all about the ingredients. And the menu changed twice a day because we had no fridge.”
Let me admit, in those days I had an office in Clerkenwell where I went to write every day and, if my work was going well, I treated myself to a delicious steak sandwich at The Eagle as a reward. Although it seems difficult to remember now, there were no other pubs at that time where you good get such high quality Mediterranean food in a bar.
Displaying his characteristic trait, rather than attribute The Eagle’s extraordinary success to his talent as a chef – and skirting over how he taught himself to cook – instead David confessed with a pitiful smile of self parody, “I used to groan the busier it got, because it caused me more and more sweat!” Seven years later, David moved on to open Eyre Brothers in Charlotte Rd, Shoreditch – “a jumped-up sandwich bar,” as he termed it, and from there it was only a short hop to the current restaurant.
“The reason I take my inspiration from Portuguese culture,” concluded David, “is because it is a modest way of life, in which peasants eat better than kings. I abhor pretentious restaurant food, designed on plates with tiny portions, that’s all about the chef and not about the ingredients. The English like food where they can see what they’re getting and here, even though this is a modernist restaurant, it is really granny’s cooking – that is if you have a granny who can cook!”
For one service, I joined David in the kitchen where he stood at the centre, studying the orders as they came in, giving instructions to his sous chefs for vegetables and tapas, while they called back their timings before he composed each dish upon the plate personally, leaning over with hunched shoulders to place the food with conscientious delicacy. David was in constant motion, turning and striding up and down, occasionally raising his arms in flights of lyricism – in gestures that were in part those of a conductor, in part those of the triumphant victor and in part those of hysteria. Yet as the orders accelerated, the team got onto a roll and the kitchen became a very dynamic place to be as everyone worked together as virtuosi under David’s tutelage. I realised I preferred to be there with them in the kitchen rather than sitting in the restaurant, I did not envy the customers – except, that is, for their food cooked by David Eyre.
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