Chatting to Helen Hall – Co-founder of Peckham Cellars – for this week’s Careers Q&A, we learn about the path she took to go from student to chef-owner, her advice for those now cooking at home and her latest kitchen discovery.
Ever since school I’ve always half joked about owning my own place – whether it be bar, café, restaurant – I was never sure what and dreamt of calling it The Hallway. I think I just loved the pun more than anything else! I went a different route and studied international development at university, but after getting back from travelling and working the bar at the Hoxton Bar and Kitchen to earn some cash, I instantly fell in love and knew it was for me. I’ve been in the industry in some form or another since then – over a decade now!
I started on the bar at now-closed Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen. It was so fast paced and buzzy, plus great fun to work at on a weekend. There was a live music venue in the back as well so I got to see loads of live music. I just loved seeing everyone out enjoying themselves, cracking jokes with all the guests and knowing that you had added something to their experience. I just knew I wanted to be able create that experience for people in my job permanently.
After Hoxton I went on to work for the Columbo Group. I started on their management training scheme at the Camden Blues Kitchen and then went on to be a part of the opening management team for the Shoreditch and Brixton branches. They were a tough company to work for but they taught me so much about providing unique, memorable experiences for people. They took a chance on me with the openings, allowing me to take on roles and responsibilities that I didn’t necessarily have the experience for: from design and building work to recruitment and menu development. It meant I developed my skills very quickly and was really motivated and engaged. It taught me a huge amount about managing people.
I went to Cornerstone last year and although the fish was incredible (Cornerstone would be a close second to Peckham Bazaar for my favourite restaurant spot) the pastry was also pure perfection. After a bit of detective work on Instagram I found out the pastry chef was Kelly Cullen and I think she is enormously talented. Pastry is one of my favourite sections in the kitchen and sometimes it can be a bit of an afterthought, but her work was really impressive.
One of my favourite things to cook – because it’s simple, easy, delicious and healthy – is chicken soup. I simmer a whole chicken in water, flavoured with aromatics, until it’s just cooked through then drain it, shred the chicken and use the cooking water as a broth for the soup. Its super versatile too. Sometimes I make it with flavours synonymous with south east Asia and use aromatics such as chilli, ginger and lemon grass and have it with rice noodles, bok choi or some similar greens. Or I make it more with more European flavours such as bay, parsley, thyme and have it with carrot, onion, celery and spring greens with rice or pasta.
Mis en place or prep really is your best friend. It took me ages to learn this, but having everything prepped, weighed out and ready to go before you start cooking makes everything so much easier and less stressful. Another thing I really took away from cookery school was onion sweating! Most people don’t cook onions for long enough, including me, until Leiths. They need to be sweated long and slow, covered, on a super-low heat until they are meltingly soft – and garlic should be added just for the last minute or so you get a stronger flavour and it doesn’t burn.
I love Yotam Ottolenghi and will go back to him again and again. I have all his cookbooks but my favourite is Jerusalem. I have cooked so many things from this book and they all turn out so well. I would credit him with my career as a chef to be honest. I liked cooking before, but his books really inspired me and pushed me to be more creative. Although his recipes seem complicated because they have lots of ingredients, they are often not difficult to follow and yield great results (and you can always Google substitutions or even miss a spice and it’s not the end of the world). A few of my favourites are the chicken with caramelised onion and cardamom rice, the lamb shawarma and the chermoula aubergine with bulgar and yogurt.
I have been wanting to use more sustainable meats like veal and goat and so have been trying to cook with them at the home. I love veal and it’s a great alternative to other red meat. I make an amazing white ragout with it for pasta. I have also been substituting goat for lamb, I recently made a rolled goat breast and a goat shawarma which both worked really well. The distinct flavour of the goat meat really added to the dishes.
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