Cheese Chat with Farokh Talati of St. JOHN Bread & Wine

Farokh Talati is head chef of St. JOHN Bread & Wine which was founded by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver who famously popularised the philosophy of “nose to tail eating” in the 1990s. When we visited Farokh for this interview in September, he was busy preparing saddles of hare, fillets of bream, freshly-landed squid, shoulders of lamb, celeriac remoulade and fragrant peppers for that day’s lunch service. Farokh is also about to publish his first recipe book called Parsi: from Persia to Bombay: recipes and tales from the ancient culture. We spoke to him about what inspires him in the kitchen and how he manages to use short-dated goods from Neal’s Yard Dairy in his menus. 

How do you approach writing the menu at Bread & Wine? 

It’s not so much that we’re sitting down and coming up with new dishes. We have our repertoire. A beautiful thing about Bread & Wine is it’s had many amazing head chefs in its time, and their mark still remains. It’s always nice that when they come back years later, their cod’s roe or their terrine is still there, they’re honoured in that way. 

It’s a constant evolution. Every now and then there’ll be something new. For example, we’ve just started working with this amazing farm up in Shropshire and they sent pattypan summer squash. One of my sous chefs Paris shaved them, added a lemon dressing, some mint and some spring onions and grated some Berkswell on it, and it’s one of my favourite dishes this year.  

You’re one of our most reliable customers for what we sometimes call ‘Neal’s Deals’, discounts for extra-ripe cheese or short-dated fresh dairy. How does that inform how your menus? 

I like to be flexible. One way to look at it would be that I need cheese anyway, and especially in this day and age, it’s important to be frugal and savvy. If I can bend with the wind, it can either go on the menu for less, or help to support another dish on the menu, amazing. 

The second part is that there’s a lot of cheeses that I’d have never asked for, touch, tasted, smelled, if it hadn’t been for Neal’s Deals. I wouldn’t have Long Lane Sheep’s Yoghurt or Winslade in my fridge now, or Ingot last week if it wasn’t for that.  

That brings diversity into the kitchen, chefs get to try things, guests get to have a different experience, you don’t get set in your ways. I’ve been in that situation where it’s so hard to think outside of the box and be adaptive, but if you keep throwing new things into the mix you learn what to do with it. I spoke to Hadia on your wholesale team, and she suggested making a Sheep’s Yoghurt ice cream, and now that will come onto the menu this weekend. 

Was there a lot of cooking in your home when you were young? 

There was. I’m a Parsi, descended from Persians who emigrated into India. When I was young, I used to eat my granny’s dishes, my mum’s. Trips to India would revolve around sweets, snacks, fried things on the street. Then as I got older, and Mum had too much to do during the day, I started to crave things and started to cook myself.  

You’ve been over in India recently working on your first book ‘Parsi: from Persia to Bombay: recipes & tales from the ancient culture’, how did that go? 

It’ll come out in November. It’s about Parsi food and culture. I’d love to open a Parsi restaurant in London. That’s the dream. If you want Parsi food anywhere outside of India, there’s no restaurants. The cuisine’s unique because it’s a mix of Iranian food, where you have aromatic spices, dried fruits, nuts, rice, stewed meats, and then when the community arrived in India they found coconut, fish, heavier spices. 

I was always inspired by the way we use the 'Nose to Tail' book in the kitchen, where we wouldn’t refer chefs to a print-out, we’d just grab the book, read what Fergus has written and go from that. I thought, one day if I run my own restaurant, I want to have that. I just started jotting the recipes down, testing, trialling, doing pop-ups and supper clubs. Then as the years ticked on, I thought “this could be something”, so I started to write them up nicely.

Is there much dairy in Parsi food? 

Not so much – there is a chapter on dairy in the book though. In a Parsi household, you’ll be making paneer, you’ll be making yoghurt. Traditionally buffalo milk is used. There’s a recipe for how to make Topli Nu Paneer, which is made in a basket and uses animal rennet. The Parsis are famous for using offal – in most of India that’s not the case because of the huge number of vegetarians. 

I remember when I first learnt to make Topli Nu Paneer. Andrew Lowkes (a former member of Neal's Yard Dairy's wholesale team and now the owner of Landrace Bakery in Bath) was working with you and we were going through what temperature I should be doing things, what kind of milk I should be using and where I could buy my baskets from. I got loads of information from you guys at that point. 

Did you grow up eating a lot of cheese? 

My dad was obsessed with cheese – Stilton, the stinkier the better. Most nights we’d sit down with cheese and crackers after dinner. I used to sneak down at night to eat more cheese at 2 in the morning – don’t tell my parents that. 

When I open a Parsi restaurant, if I’m going to stay true to what a Parsi café in Mumbai is like, there’s not going to be a cheeseboard. So, I’m going to try every bloody cheese I can while I’m here and learn about it while I’ve got the opportunity and we have that connection with you. 

I have to say, it’s amazing to work with suppliers like you, we’re so, so lucky. Sometimes when we do briefings just before service and someone asks me a question I don’t know the answer to, I’ll literally just call you guys up and put you on speaker. The knowledge you have is incredible, from the cheese to the farmer, to what the cheesemaker had for breakfast that morning, it’s really cool.  

How do you eat cheese at home? 

I usually just put it on a board, cut a few small pieces and tell myself that’s all I’m going to eat. Then I eat those and carry on cutting. No bread, crackers or anything. I like to suck blue cheese like a boiled sweet and let the fats melt in my mouth. To be brutally honest, I’ll just buy a crap pizza from a supermarket, grate loads of Neal’s Yard cheese over it and bung it in the oven!