Interview with Chef John Cook – Ember by John Cook
Name of Business/Pop-up | Ember
You’ve been (sorry) a major figure in Cardiff’s restaurant scene for some time now, but you closed your permanent home, Arbennig, in May 2018, after almost five years. That came as a shock for many, but you soon returned with Ember, which as a series of pop-ups and kitchen takeovers must be a radically different way of working!
How long has it been running? About 6 months.
Tell us about your first experience of cooking, then.
That would be making stock pots and discovering how to make a “proper” sauce. My first head chef was Scottish and ex-military, and I learnt so much from him.
Who or what inspired you to become a Chef?
My grandmother. She was the head cook for the Queen Mother at one of her residences, and I remember reading her thank you letters from HRH.
Where have you trained?
I spent one year in Bridgend College, but wanted to get out and work! So I left and started at the Coed-y-Mwstwr hotel in Coychurch where I learnt the fundamentals of my trade.
What was your first job within the industry?
That would be washing dishes at Sizzlers Steak House when I was 14. I’ll probably end up on pots when I’m on the way back down!
Is your cooking influenced by any particular region or style?
I’m a massive fan of Italian and Mexican food, not just for the simplicity but their amazing produce. They both have a ‘nowhere to hide’ approach to cooking! Many styles and regions have their influences on me, though, as I’m not permanently ‘boxed in’ to any particular style.
If customers had to describe their dining experience with you in only three words, what would they be?
When you come home from work, what do you like to cook?
Scrambled eggs usually, but sometimes a cold baked bean sandwich hits the spot!
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
A good burger! [Ed: one of John’s many other projects is Hoof, his smashed burger menu at Sticky Fingers Street Food, which is commonly described as the best burger in the city at the moment.]
Do you have a favourite ingredient to work with?
I don’t really have one, it’s all great and each has its own place in each season, which then informs what I cook.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Owning my own restaurant, Arbennig. Before I had it, it was Le Gallois: I looked at that place as a young chef as if it was the place to work, the pinnacle. It always had a good reputation, but when Grady was there the food was at its peak. He’s a fantastic Chef.
Then I spent five years in the same kitchen building my own team and reputation. Madness!
[Ed: While at Arbennig, The Good Food Guide awarded John’s cooking the joint-highest score in the city. The restaurant has continued to host a high standard of cooking with Heaney’s and Uisce; and lastly, in a nice quirk of fate, the Head Chef at Le Gallois, Grady Atkins, now cooks mere yards across the road from John’s Nook, in Canton.]
What is the greatest compliment you have ever had about your food?
I’ve had a few who have asked to marry me! A few say that it’s better than any Michelin-starred food they’ve eaten. I’ll take that all day long.
What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
The creativity is my outlet and also the kitchen banter, that bond you create with the people you spend more time with than your own family. It’s like no other place.
What advice would you give to any young person keen to start in the industry?
Remember that it should always be substance over style.
Keep pushing and wanting to learn.
Don’t rush it and expect it to come overnight, it takes time, and remember that we are always, always improving.