“Freedom of creativity, plus a naïve entrepreneurial spirit,” is the simple answer to why Nicholas Balfe, the young chef-patron of Salon, opened his acclaimed establishment in a small space that used to be a hairdresser’s in Brixton Market.
It may take a certain naivety to open a new restaurant in London’s fierce and crowded culinary scene, but it also requires creativity and talent to run one of the city’s most buzzed about kitchens, three years running, and become a food columnist for The Guardian. Though the gist of Salon is simple – a set seasonal menu that offers the best local and organic flavours inspired by the British landscape – it’s a formula that is obviously working.
Balfe’s culinary resumé is a list of some of the city’s top food spots – Head Chef of Brunswick House, stints at Frank’s in Peckham and the Young Turks. When opening up Salon on a shoestring budget, the self-taught chef looked to his Yorkshire roots to create an inventive menu with the countryside in mind, giving Brixton Market a decidedly British flavour amongst its more bustling, global fare.
“It’s all about teasing the most out of ingredients and flavours,” he says, “I don’t want to challenge people with my dishes, but I do want them to think about their food. And have fun with it too.”
Salon’s seasonal flavours of the great British outdoors include dishes like leeks and mussels with bergamot and raw cream, and a pheasant and January king cabbage with spelt. On evenings and weekends a four-course set menu created by the chefs is an undeniable highlight.
But the organic spirit that drives Salon goes far beyond the food. Balfe points out that the flowers one notices around the place are also strictly seasonal, explaining that he feels “flowers and plants you can find year round are off-putting.” One step inside the space and it’s not hard to miss the fact that the food, flowers and aesthetics inform one another – these elements reflect an organic cycle, where seasonal goods are championed at the time of year they are available.
Flowers don’t just make appearances on the walls and tables of Salon – expect one or two on your plate as well. Balfe isn’t afraid to incorporate a flower into a dish—alliums and Brassica flowers were recent additions—but only if they make sense, and never just for show. “They can add vibrancy and dimensions – think of the aroma, warmth and spices - but only if they’re relevant to the flavour of the dish,” says Balfe, “I’d never do it just for aesthetics – that doesn’t make any sense to me.”
He’s keen to share the type of flowers that can work well for the everyday dish, Nasturtiums for example, are punchy in flavour; “They’re similar in profile to rocket or a watercress. […] I love serving them with grilled lamb in the summer, and they’re great with meat.”
Balfe’s favourite flowers also make for easier culinary wins – wild garlic flowers and elderflower, “both striking and delicious, full of flavour and versatile.”
Over three years since opening, the chef feels confident that the standard gamut of problems that any new business faces has been found and solved, and the future is all about improving. Salon has also given him his own platform for further explorations, like collaborations with Harvey Nichols and London Collections: Men.
However, it’s the opportunity to adapt the natural world to unconventional settings which got his imagination going again. “Urban gardening is now a real inspiration – it’s all about using small or atypical spaces in smart ways.” Living in London, it’s tough not to feel the physical and social pressures of a rapidly growing mega-city, and Balfe finds what can be called as ‘re-wilding’ as a starting point for new ideas.
“That’s the future, as cities become more crowded, the opportunity to utilise urban farms and gardens is something I’d like to incorporate into my next restaurant.”
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