- September 12, 2017
In the shortest of times Brighton newcomer Pascere has not only won the hearts of local food lovers but has also garnered rave reviews in the national press. I went along to meet owner Amanda Menahem and Chef Johnny Stanford, not only to taste their food but also to find out more about the people behind this success.
Opening a restaurant takes you from being a serious food lover to a serious player on the other side of the table. Why?
I couldn’t not. I spent years admiring venues and noticing the details that make places work. I spent years observing what can go wrong from the customer perspective. I have a strong customer service ethic and a desire to make a difference. This goes back to my early years as a barmaid and years spent in retail management. I felt a strong urge to put this into practice. It’s crazy, a risky, difficult business but something I needed to do.
How long was Pascere in planning? Was it easy to find the right chef?
In my head, years! In reality about a year and a half. There are so many fantastic chefs with many different styles. At the heart of my vision is striving for perfection and being the best we can be, but not in a stuffy way, after all, a burger can be a perfect burger! I just needed to find a chef who had the my same high standards, bought into my vision and someone I would enjoy working with. So much is about personality and trust. I was incredibly lucky to find Johnny.
Focused, driven, refined, comfortable, fun, elegant, humble, best, team, ever
How involved were you in the design of the restaurant?
I was a total control freak! I pored over and chose every detail.
Has your previous experience been useful?
I found myself drawing upon my business experience more than I thought I would. My strong hands-on understanding of how to recruit, develop and build a team has also been extremely useful. Now that we are open I know what analyses we need, what reports to look at and the need to control and manage costs. I won’t always get it right but having that experience definitely helps. I do also recognise that there are huge gaps in my knowledge having never opened a restaurant before. Luckily I have a capable and supportive team.
What is your earliest food memory?
My biological father is from Israel and my earliest food memory is eating freshly made falafel in pitta on Tel Aviv beach and the Indian restaurants of Brick Lane. I still love these foods!
How involved are you in the dishes that your chef creates?
Early on I described what I was trying to achieve and the kind of dishes I wanted on the menu. Some of these ideas were pretty specific. On holiday in Seville I had amazing roast chicken croquettas and so I wanted these, Johnny’s version is spot on. I also wanted a cheesecake and Johnny created our popular strawberry cheesecake. But most of the menu is Johnny’s creation, I admire his creativity and trust his judgment. I think we will work in this way very effectively, bringing our own perspectives to the table. Luckily Johnny is a delight to work with. My focus is achieving a good balance between the refined offering at dinner with simpler dishes at lunch and the popular small plates menu. We’re already discussing new dishes….
You are passionate about wine
Definitely! There is so much to learn and that’s what excites me. I am studying the Italian Wine Scholar with Sussex Wine School now. I took French Wine Scholar last year and loved it but it took over my life, I’m hoping that it will be a little easier this time.
In a burgeoning restaurant scene you seem to have already garnered much praise, to what do you accredit that?
It’s been a wonderful reception but the perfectionist in me will always be cautious. I do believe you are only as good as your last plate of food. The combination of ambience, elegance and warmth alongside spot on food and wine will make it a winning formula – but only time will tell.
What kind of people are already coming to Pascere?
It really varies, younger, older, hipster, fashionista, yummy mummy, business folk, families… what they all have in common is an appreciation for a nice environment, great food and wine.
Are you driven by gaining awards and stars?
The most important thing to me is that customers love it. That’s enough for me. I think awards are great for the team. I’d love Johnny to get some recognition for his culinary skill, as he deserves it, he’s humble and talented but also driven.
How much of your life is taken up by being a restaurateur?
It’s all consuming. Even when I’m not there (which is hard – like leaving a baby!) I’m thinking about it.
Sum up Pascere in just ten words
Elegant, luxurious, refined, warm, family, decadent, fabulous food and wine.
Were you a fussy eater as a child?
No, my mum made sure of that. I ate most things although I hated peas. We didn’t have extravagant food growing up, so discovering new things was always exciting and interesting.
How old were you when you discovered you had a love of food?
I was about 7or 8. I used to help my grandma making Sunday lunch. She’s an incredible cook. Still an inspiration to me today.
When did you decide that food would become your career?
I knew from high school I wanted to do something with food. I didn’t really have a concept of what a chef was – I just wanted to cook. I didn’t do well in my food technology GCSE, my teacher said I had the right temperament to be a chef and my mum agreed. I’m still not sure what they meant by that!
Was there a single moment of realisation, a dish or a restaurant that played a part in that decision?
There was no fairytale moment or epiphany, it just happened. I always wanted to do this, something I enjoyed and was good at. When I got my first job I knew I’d made the right decision.
Did you follow the conventional path of catering college?
Yes, I attended catering college in Manchester as well as working nights and days off in restaurants. It’s so important to have hands-on experience as college can only prepare you for so much.
Where was your first professional post?
An event catering company called le petit repas. It was fun but what I really longed for was a position in a restaurant kitchen. After a year I took my first job in a restaurant. The rest has been a blur of highs and lows, sleep deprivation, amazing new ingredients and having fun cooking great food with some amazing people.
Which chefs have been most influential in your cooking, if any?
There are chefs I’ve worked for who’ve influenced my cooking and helped shape who I’ve become, and some have become good friends: Paul Kitching, John Rudden, Matt Gillan and Ian Swainson. There are chefs I respect who influence my thinking: Grant Achatz, Pete and Johnray Sanchez, Simon Rogan… the list is pretty endless!
What is your favourite dish and your favourite ingredient?
That’s a hard one. It’s like trying to choose your favorite album and song! But the first ingredient that comes to mind is scallops. I love all shellfish but scallops are definitely a favorite. A favorite dish is a shellfish bisque served with treacle soda bread served at restaurant in Dublin: The Green Hen. The only dish I’ve ever ordered twice.
How important is sourcing the right ingredients?
Finding good quality ingredients, and sourcing sustainably is very important – second nature to us as chefs. We cook to showcase and respect an ingredient and its provenance. I like to use suppliers and producers who have the same passion as I do for my cooking. It’s disrespectful to do anything else. Seasonality keeps things exciting and interesting. The fact that some ingredients are only available for a short amount of time means you have to do something special. I look forward to a change of seasons. New ingredients and new ideas. It’s a chance to create something special. Locality is also a key consideration. Helping local suppliers and businesses is incredibly important, but I won’t sacrifice quality for the sake of locality.
Which global food styles do you like, do they influence your dishes?
I like all styles – way too many to choose just one. I like techniques and ingredients that I find interesting and that I enjoy as a diner. I enjoy finding ways to incorporate them into my style of cooking without undervaluing or changing them. We’ll use ingredients such as miso, and techniques such as fermentation, pickling, and others that we “borrow” while staying true to my own style.
If you could sum up Pascere in just ten words what would they be?
Focused, driven, refined, comfortable, fun, elegant, humble, best, team, ever
A taste of luxury
I have the best job in the world, well at least when it comes to visiting a restaurant with as clear a vision as Pascere. It is certainly hard to believe that the team here have achieved so much in what would seem so short a time. It’s 25 years since I started to write about restaurants and back then I was pretty obsessed with one element and that was about food knowledge – both mine and that of the restaurant I was covering. Not a bad starting position – but one that I soon realised was only a part of the job, so much more goes into creating that excellent dining experience, whether it’s a speedy fuel stop or a special occasion.
Pascere most definitely is special and I have already been there three times which is a lot for someone who writes about somewhere every week. So why? I would love to say that there is a simple answer and I hope that a lot of that can be gleaned from my interviews with the two main people behind the place. And by saying that I would not demean the excellence of the kitchen brigade and front of house team who have all bought into this success. I also love the interior, it has a warmth and level of luxurious comfort that few venues seem to achieve – and I love that!
Anyway, enough of that and on to the food. The menu is divided into small plates and also an a la carte offering. I’ve dived into both and have been excited by the exquisite attention to detail, respect for ingredients and the inventive creations of chef Johnny, there’s no silliness here which is a great relief.
On my most recent visit I chose the lamb sweetbreads to start. Not the easiest of ingredients to prepare, a lot of work and the lightest of touches to make them good. These were simply delicious, beautifully tender, creamy even with the presence of a sorrel ice cream and a sheep’s milk panna cotta of breath like delicacy to balance the rich glaze and worthwhile dots of sharp lemon to raise the profile. It tasted wonderful and looked wonderful too.
Next duck, beautifully prepared and succulent breast sat on a pistacchio puree and a fine cherry puree too. In addition there was a dark duck bon-bon, fashionable but on this occasion worthwhile, a duck liver parfait delicately encased in pistacchio crumbs, cherry, glazed onions and the refreshingly bitter addition of both raw and braised chicory. It was so well judged that no matter what combination of elements ended up on my fork they simply worked.
I like a pudding that rounds off the meal in gentle comfort and the buttermilk sponge does just that, it’s a warm cuddle of a pud, a gentle goodnight kiss of soft sweetness, cloud-like cake, sticky honeycomb and cinder-like cooked honeycomb, refreshed by a reduced milk ice cream… sorry, I had to stop a moment and wipe my brow. I hope you get the picture, there’s so much more I could share but really, you need to get there and find out what all the buzz is about!
Pascere 8 Duke Street, Brighton, 01273 917949.
Open Mon-Sat 10am-10pm, 11am-6pm Sun