Box to Box
We speak to Nat Tallents, Executive Chef of Plymouth's The Box Kitchen & Bar, about her career, life during lockdown, recent food discoveries and on representing the South West region in this year's Great British Menu .
Thank you for taking the time to chat to me. Unlike many chefs I speak to, you didn’t grow up in a particularly ‘foodie’ family, so where did your love of food/cooking begin?
I grew up in the North of England (in Lancashire), and yes, my parents are the opposite of foodies, my dad still hasn’t even eaten a slice of pizza let alone an artichoke or samphire. I started working in restaurants at 14 and it was then that I was aware of food and ingredients. Fresh fish for example we never had, it was breaded or tinned paste! Fresh vegetables, different meats, it was a different world. I remember the chef, Conrad (I think he was called) would be cooking and I was asking him, whats that? All the time he must've thought I was crazy!! After that I started eating food properly and then came the need to want to learn to cook and experiment. But I didn’t buy my first cookbook until I was about 19!
How would you describe your style and ethos?
Growing up in the north and cooking in Yorkshire, I learnt a lot about nose to tail; local foods, game and slow cooking. So I would say a lot of what I do is linked back to those lines of braising, great sauces and using as much of an ingredient as possible. I hate food waste and try to limit what I waste as much a possible, even when cooking at home.
Who has been the biggest influence and when did you realise you could do this as a career?
My first mentor Tim Bilton took me on as a commis with virtually no experience, I literally couldn’t even make an omelette when I started for him. He would ask for something from the fridge which was upstairs and I would run up the stairs googling what it was as I didn’t want to look stupid if I took him the wrong fish or didn’t know what fennel was etc. It was working there over 3 years that I grew from novice to head chef and realised this natural flair and passion for food, cooking and the industry.
It has been an incredibly difficult year for hospitality. Have you used the time to develop your skills, and with everything that has gone on, are you looking forward to welcoming diners back even more now?
The main thing I got to do this last year was cook for myself, I have never had the time or energy or enjoyed making food for myself. So learning and creating at home has been an ultimate joy and something hopefully I can continue with after I go back to work fully. Also throughout lockdown I did national chef and was practising dishes for GBM whilst simultaneously opening the box in September and launching a huge crowdfunded so I managed to keep myself very busy even when not at work!
I also started a degree in September in sustainable tourism at Falmouth University, I felt it was time to start thinking about the future and what I can do within the industry to impact change and so far I have really enjoyed the content. Sustainability is such a huge thing but also sustaining staff and passion for it is something we need to work on to inspire the next generations of chefs and managers.
The Box was such a huge project and unfortunate that it opened during a pandemic so I think everyone is just ready to open the doors and keep them open, it’s been a long time coming!
Have there been any recent food discoveries whilst in lockdown?
I have been eating a lot of vegetarian food to be honest, I made a rule at the end of last year to not eat meat or fish unless I know where it’s from and its been ethically produced etc so I’ve not eaten much of that since December which has been a really good exercise for me. I also got really into making smoothies and weird ice cream flavours!
What can we expect to see own the menu when you reopen?
My chefs are working hard on the new menus for re-opening as they’ve really found the last year hard, this will be the 3rd re-opening in a year for the box and the team are so passionate about it. The plan is to use lots of local produce, foraged ingredients and keep the simplistic style, lots of colour and vibrance!
You are no stranger to challenging yourself, having appeared on MasterChef: The Professionals in 2012 and participating in the National Chef of the Year competitions. This year, you are representing the South West in the Great British Menu. How fortunate are well to have such amazing produce on our doorsteps, and how exciting is it to be competing against other chefs for a place at the banquet?
So as I said i'm northern but I’m in Love with the south west. I live in Cornwall and just think the produce and suppliers down here are incredible. How lucky we are to have some incredible gin, beers, vegetables, fish and meat. The possibilities were endless. I am so proud to be representing the south west as I feel it is my home, I would never live back in the northern (sorry mum!) and GBM has been a lifelong ambition for me. The competition was so much fun and the chefs in my round were incredible, we had a great time filming.
Can you give us any hints on what you may be using/cooking?
I can’t give too much away! But hopefully doing all my suppliers proud!
What would it mean to have a meal at the main banquet?
To have a dish at the banquet is just well, incredible. I think you have to have your eye on the banquet no matter how scared or nervous you are otherwise why would you enter! And it really is nerve racking!
So when will the restaurant reopen and what plans do you have the rest of 2021?
The Box will open from May 18th and theres lots planned plus I have a lot of exciting bits and pieces happening over Devon and Cornwall this summer. It’s looking like an enormous summer for the industry so let’s hope we can also have some fun and enjoy it too!
The Box Kitchen and Bar,
t: 01752 304774