Chef Gabriel Waterhouse is talking about his childhood, and casually mentions his role in building his family home. Well, alongside his father and three brothers. His parents, both psychologists by profession, took inspiration from 1970s sitcom, The Good Life and moved to rural Northumberland – “the absolute middle of nowhere”, says Gabriel, just outside a tiny village called Wark, the kind of place where a neighbour leaves a brace of pheasant on your doorstep as a gift. While his mum went out to work as a practicing psychologist in nearby Gateshead, his dad held fort, putting his four sons to work on the construction of their house. “His childcare involved lots of pouring concrete and hammering nails,” Gabriel tells me.
Much about Gabriel’s life is different now. He’s a chef serving high-end dishes at his restaurant, The Water House Project, in a particularly urban pocket of London – a canalside development near Bethnal Green – but several core tenets endure. Or, better put, there are traits inherited from his upbringing which shine through. The academic education (Gabriel has a philosophy degree) renounced for dexterous endeavours, and the sense of self-sufficiency on which his life as a chef and restaurateur has been founded. His is a small team of cooks and front of house staff, all of whom do a bit of everything, overseen by himself and his wife Patricia Wakaimba, or Trish; from developing the ten course tasting menus every season to ingredient sourcing, wine pairings and all aesthetic decisions, The Water House Project is a family affair overseen by the couple and with, over the years, contributions from other Waterhouse family members – ceramics by Gabriel’s sister-in-law, magnificent arrangements of dried flowers suspended from the ceiling by Trish herself, and, in the early days, waiting and pot wash by his brothers, Samuel and Josh.
“You stick together when you grow up in such an isolated place,” he says, when describing the restaurant’s roots as a supper club in 2015. Gabriel was working at Galvin La Chapelle, a French restaurant which is a Spitalfields stalwart, when he chose to take Friday and Saturday evenings off work for a few months to try out an idea for a supper club he’d been incubating. (Now, as a restaurant owner, he says he understands the generosity of that concession – to lose a senior chef for the two busiest nights of the week.) He bought some trestle tables, assembling and disassembling them every weekend, to seat 12-14 diners for a six course tasting menu. “Initially, I just recreated what I’d been taught, but over time, I found my voice,” he says. It was then that he decided to leave Galvin to focus on the supper clubs (“the rewards were greater,” he says, “and your blood pressure is high and your freedom low when you work at restaurants like Galvin”). It was also at this time that the supper club moved from his flat and into a warehouse space owned by tile manufacturer Bert & May on Vyner Street.
So, in food, what is the Waterhouse voice? Like the running of his restaurant, Gabriel likes to keep things close to home, sourcing his ingredients solely from the British Isles. I wonder if he also draws inspiration from the time he spent as a vegetarian as a child, and the fact that all three of his brothers are, for various reasons, vegan. “The focus for a dish is never solely on the protein,” he responds, “and while that’s important, and often the selling point, it’s usually not the star of the dish. It’s what surrounds it.” The night I visit The Water House Project, the menu reads somewhat traditionally, giving the impression that the proteins will take the lead – Hampshire rainbow trout, Orkney scallop, Lake District lamb – but it is the extraordinary flavours dancing around those ingredients which actually do the heavy lifting. In its shell, the scallop swims in cherry blossom vinegar and is speckled with toasted hazelnut and torn pieces of oyster leaf which, yes, actually taste of fresh oysters. Or the cod, a beautiful piece of fish, says Gabriel, which he chose to combine with ingredients that are abundant. “Lemon verbena is used a lot in high end places; yes, it’s a lovely ingredient but it’s very expensive. For this cod, I wanted something of that fragrance but more humble and plentiful. Lemon balm is so underrated: it’s so aromatic, it grows very easily, and it works so well here.”
“For me, good food is about how you combine ingredients,” he says. “Technique is important, but I think chefs can put too much emphasis on that, especially in so-called fine dining. My focus is on how the flavours merge.” Each dish at The Water House Project is delicate but does something profound with flavours – they are deeply layered, challenging enough to make you sit up straight and think about what you’re eating, but not at the expense of deliciousness or tranquillity. Because don’t we all want to relax when we eat out?
Yes, says Gabriel, and that’s why the premise of The Water House Project – which, after all, has its roots in a supper club where guests sat around a communal table in his kitchen – has shifted over the years. The timing of the restaurant's opening independently of Bert & May was unfortunate, just six weeks before the first lockdown in early 2020: devastating for an ambitious chef embarking on a solo venture. Covid-19 changed people’s interest in dining next to strangers, he says, “Post-pandemic, we evolved that idea so that people could enjoy the communal aspect but with less intense social interaction.” The restaurant now is a newly-built warehouse style space near Cambridge Heath station, a large room broken up with a long table at which only two groups sit, at opposite ends, and lots of smaller tables around it. The utilitarian aspects of the space – exposed pipes, cement columns – are softened by linen curtains, which filter the bright evening light as it bounces off the canal, and tall shelves that display little arrangements of more dried flowers. And then there’s the open kitchen, probably the most open kitchen I’ve ever seen.
“We take ‘open’ to the extreme,” says Gabriel, of the kitchen “There’s no border between us and our guests – the space is completely fluid. Because of the restaurant’s roots in a supper club, we’ve always wanted it to be relatable, homely.” (To me, this is “homely” in the way that I wish mine was – peaceful, no flapping, and always with wine in the fridge.) Gabriel insists that the fact they do just one sitting per service, and that everyone eats the same thing at the same time, means there is little scope for panic. Dishes and paired glasses of low-intervention drinks – many surprising, such as ‘Just Kids’, a Slovakian orange wine or a smoky cider from Devon to accompany a dish of calcots with wild garlic, apple and Suffolk’s Baron Bigod cheese – arrive to all diners at the same time. Everything is planned ahead, curated and choreographed, and executed in a way that seems at once immaculate and organic.
When I visit The Water House Project, the Spring menu is on the cusp of changing for its Summer counterpart. The change is imminent, and the staff talk excitedly of their tasting of the next menu in the following week. Guests are all handed a menu with a little background on the restaurant, which, it says, started as a process of Gabriel “figuring out what worked, what he liked. A Project.” I get the impression that, until the eleventh hour, parts can move here: ingredients swapped, wines interchanged, seasonings adjusted. It is a work in progress, and a small team’s effort, too. Perhaps cooking in this way is always an act of self-realisation – finding your voice in what people taste, communicating with them in flavour – but it seems to me that this is particularly self-conscious for Gabriel Waterhouse who, after all, named his a “Project”. Let the project never cease.
Poached Pollock with Mushrooms, Lemon Balm and Pickled Morels
400g pollock loin (you can also use another white fish such as cod)
60g table salt
1 litre of cold water
For the cure
50g coriander seeds
50g fennel seeds
50g table salt
50g granulated sugar
For the pickled morels
100g morel mushrooms (alternatively you can use chanterelle, trompette or oyster mushrooms)
125ml white wine vinegar
25ml sherry vinegar
3 sprigs thyme
1 crushed garlic clove
For the mushroom consommé
1000 chestnut mushrooms
5g dried morels or porcini mushrooms
5g lemon juice
For the sautéed mushrooms
400g king oyster mushrooms
Dry fino sherry (such as Tio Pepe)
50g lemon balm
A few glugs of dry fino sherry
To prepare the pollock
Remove the skin from the loin or ask your fishmonger to do this. I feel the best way to do this is to cut a small incision just above the skin and with the skin side facing your chopping board, place your knife into the incision whilst your knife blade is almost flat against the chopping board, then carefully pull the skin so that the knife cuts through.
Prepare a brine by dissolving 60g table salt with 1 litre of cold water. Once dissolved, submerge the loin and leave to brine for 40 minutes in the fridge.
Whilst brining, weigh the coriander and fennel seeds and blend in a jug blender to a fine powder. Once blended, measure and add the salt and sugar and mix together with the coriander and fennel in a bowl.
Remove the loin from the brine and pat dry on a kitchen cloth. On a tray layer half of the cure. Set the fish onto this and then cover the top half with more cure, gently rubbing it into the fish. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge for 12 hours.
After 12 hours rinse the fish under cold water and then dry using a kitchen cloth. Place it on a clean kitchen tray and return to the fridge for another 24 hours to dry.
In the restaurant at this point we wrap and roll the fish using a small amount of cling film which allows us to shape it. We leave these rolled loins in the fridge for a couple of days before carving the fish as it allows us to get a beautiful shape to finish. This is not completely necessary though and the fish can be cut into four equal portions at this stage.
For the pickled morel mushrooms
Measure the sugar, white wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, thyme and garlic into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, prepare the morels by cutting them in half lengthwise, rinsing them under cold water to remove any sand or grit. Place the washed morels into a bowl and as soon as the pickle comes to a boil pour this over the morels whilst hot. Leave to infuse at room temperature until cool then placed into a container and store in the fridge until needed.
For the mushroom consommé
Finally slice the chestnut mushrooms. Add these to a high sided pan along with the water, lemon juice, salt and porcini or morel mushrooms. Set the pan over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 40 minutes then remove from the heat and leave to cool at room temperature. Place a damp kitchen cloth over a colander or sieve and strain the stock from the mushrooms. Keep the stock in the fridge until needed.
For the sautéed mushrooms and to serve the dish
There are several ways of cooking the fish. In the restaurant we use our steam oven at a low temperature which allows us to cook the fish very gently. This can also be done in a sous vide water bath by poaching the fish at 45/50°C and then precisely carving the fish.
For home cooking, the best way to poach the fish is to do this in the mushroom stock. Bring enough stock (roughly half) to a gentle simmer then remove from the heat and carefully lower the fish into the stock. Place a lid onto the pan and leave to poach gently off the heat for 10 minutes. The residual heat will help the fish to cook through. The fish is cooked when it becomes firm but flakey in texture and slightly opaque in colour.
To prepare the other elements of the dish whilst the fish is poaching, first of all dice the oyster mushrooms into 1 inch pieces. In a sauté pan add a small amount of olive oil and over high heat sauté the mushrooms along with one crushed garlic clove. Colour the mushrooms to a light golden brown before finishing with a little salt and a dry sherry. Check the mushrooms for seasoning before serving.
In a separate saucepan, reheat the remaining mushroom stock and add the lemon balm, leaving it to simmer for five minutes to infuse before seasoning with more salt and sherry. You will need around 50ml of sherry, but this is all about taste and preference so go with what you like. Once the lemon balm is infused, pass through a fine sieve and keep warm in a saucepan.
Take four hot bowls and divide the sautéed mushrooms between each. Carefully place the fish onto the top of the mushrooms and seasoned with a small amount of salt. Carefully pour over the consommé and finish with a few pickled morels and a drizzle of olive oil.
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Lesley Lau.