I met chef John Farrar a couple of years ago when I reviewed the Leeds-based, underground restaurant – My Nobody. Farrar was head-chef at the time.
I was instantly drawn to his shy and rather awkward demeanour, but more so, once I’d spoken to him, his passion and desire to shake up the fine-dining restaurant scene. His ambition was to make exceptional cooking available to all by focusing solely on the food. Mr Nobody wasn’t about white linen, excessive waste and too much man-power – it was about the food, and the food only. And by ‘eck he delivered on that front…
On taste, on presentation, on imagination, on pushing the limits with flavour combinations. What Mr Nobody didn’t deliver on was elegance and sophistication beyond the plate. (Think Michael O-Hare – Man Behind the Curtain – in a back street cafe setting). But this is what made the place so unique.
Unfortunately, two years after opening, just as Mr Nobody was starting to gain a reputation as one to watch on the Leeds restaurant scene, the place abruptly closed its doors – a situation that was out of John’s control, and one that left him high and dry and with a lot of time on his chef’s hands.
So today, nearly a year after grabbing his chef’s whites and hot-footing it out of Mr Nobody’s dark dungeon-like premises on the lower ground floor of a bar on Call Lane, John is channelling his spiritual energy into another venture – an idea that he developed using string and post-it-notes on his bedroom wall over a three month period. This planning, along with his extensive network of friends and industry colleagues who share similar values to John, saw the launch of The Blue Acorns Project earlier this year.
I caught up with John at Lambert’s Yard in Leeds to find out more about The Blue Acorns Project.
John – tell us about The Blue Acorns Project?
The first part of the project is The Chefs Table series – a number of themed pop-up events here at Lambert’s Yard. Six head chefs who have individually achieved special things inside and outside of our industry. We’ve won awards including Leeds first Michelin star. A chefs co-op and it’s an industry first. This will go on to fund the bigger picture.
What’s the inspiration behind the name and how does it reflect what you are trying to do? It sounds more ‘social housing’ that ‘innovative dining’.
There’s a big element of social responsibility in what we are doing. We want to make great food accessible to everyone. We want to make exclusive dining inclusive. People from different social classes eat different foods – Not all foods are available to everyone and we want to change this. We want to give everyone the opportunity to experience incredible cooking without breaking the bank and we want full creative licence and the only way to achieve this is to focus less on my own personal glory, and more the our mission.
Our founders have come together and launched “The Chefs Table Pop Up Series” to self fund our extremely exciting plan….
Myself and four other chefs – two of whom have a Michelin star. And a team of experts covering marketing, branding, management – all the assets needed to run a proper business, not just a kitchen.
And the inspiration behind the name?
Blue – like the sky and the ocean – means vast. Acorns go on to create forests. Serendipitously, the famous philosopher, the late Ralph Waldo Emerson came into my life whilst I was in a restaurant in Spain. Wrapped around my napkin was a ring of paper with a few lines written in Spanish. I had no idea what it said, but something made me take it home and I translated it.
It translated into “Nothing great in life was ever achieved without enthusiasm”. Those words struck a chord with me – they spurred me on at a low point. I took a real interest in this bloke and his philosophical quotes – in particular,“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” His quotes formed part of my crazy post-it-note wall.
So your vision?
Share the success. A team of people at the top of their game who are willing to invest their expertise, knowledge and time to keep us at the top of our game without the need for any financial investment. Take on students – the acorns – and turn them into trees. Teach them everything we know and then learn from them. This isn’t about me as a chef, it’s about the cause. I’m not interested in Michelin Stars, I’m too rebellious for that. I don’t want to confirm to all that shit. I just want to create great dishes and eradicate the links between social class and food.
There’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve made a difference to someone’s life, we hope to do that it two ways, firstly we build the very best food related projects and secondly train them with the world-class training system we’re building.
If we do our job well, eventually our “acorns” will do a better job than we ever did, that’s the kind of success we’re after. The best people to share equity with is your team, they (mostly) always must come first. While not every entrepreneur will agree with our strategy we’ve studied the needs of people mindfully and come up with something very different to the status quo. We go forward together with education and inspiration at our core.
So without a restaurant premises and investment, how? How do you get people to buy into you idea without paying them?
Trust and belief. I think people instinctively know when someone is meaningful. They see the effort, enthusiasm and energy that I have put in. They’ve seen the hundreds of sticky notes on my bedroom walls – three months of thoughts, ideas and planning. But I don’t want to direct – I want to share the success, and given time, it will be a success. If everyone involved gives just a little of their time, then this will become a success.
And without any money how do you run the pop ups?
We swap skills with others. Call in favours. Payment in kind – that sort of thing. We change the decor to align with each theme and beg, steel and borrow what we need. The focus is on the food. The cost per head (anything from £22 per person depending on the event/theme) covers the ingredients and we have a little bit left over to re-invest into the grand plan.
We have some great contacts so we can get our hands on the best ingredients. For example we managed to get hold of some wild ducks so one of the pop-up themes was duck. We created eight dishes from duck – noodles, pancakes, pates, duck breast and more.
We don’t want to play in the premier league – we want to clean up the bottom.
What do you mean by that?
We want to turn kebabs, Indian food, chicken etc into something special.
So what’s next up your chef’s sleeve?
We’ve got lots of irons in the fire. We are developing a new steak pop-up idea in Leeds. A kebab concept in Middlesborough and we are also planning on running the ultimate supper club from my apartment in Leeds.
Tell me more about the supper club – they are all the rage at the moment right?
We’ll take the supper club to the next level. This whole project is more about lifestyle than earning a shit load of money. We’ll run an Indian pop-up whereby we’ll go to India and research the best ingredients and dishes and return to Leeds and deliver an Indian evening in the most authentic way possible. We want to document our experience in each destination and screen it at the super clubs. Immersive, experiential – but also affordable because we are using my apartment as the venue. We’ll work for three days and travel for four. It’s a lifestyle thing. Again changing the landscape of a traditional career as a chef.
Any other projects on the proverbial boil?
We are looking at a CSR (corporate social responsibility) venture in Leeds – we’ve been asked to consider running a project that will bring underprivileged kids and possibly the homeless into the kitchen. Jamie Oliver without all the bollocks. We’ll train them. More of those acorns that we will grow into trees.
The whole concept is very much like what I’m trying to do with Girl About Yorkshire and even beyond Yorkshire. Bringing together great female writers all of whom get to share in its success. Collaboration – not competition. Creating a dream team.
Yes – absolutely.
I’m super excited to be invited to the Mexican pop-up on Friday night at Lambert’s Yard. You can chat to my husband about your solution to product a tasty ten quid chicken for £3.50 through anaerobic digestion. You lost me there.
For more information on The Acorn Project and the Leeds-based pop-ups CLICK HERE