“I don’t want to sound like we have a chip on our shoulder, but I’d like us not be viewed as ‘well done little island boy’, because I’ve been lucky enough to travel and eat in many places and I think we stack up pretty well.”
So says Joe Baker at the end of our conversation about his new restaurant, the Jersey food scene and hospitality in general - a summing up of what he is trying to achieve with his latest project. If this sounds like sour grapes it isn’t intended as so, Baker simply wants Pêtchi to not just be regarded as a good restaurant for Jersey but as a good restaurant full stop.
You could argue that Baker, a finalist in the 2020 series of Great British Menu, has already achieved this with Number 10, the restaurant he opened in St Helier in Jersey in 2016 with his parents before taking on its running by himself the following year. Over the past seven years the restaurant became known for its seasonal modern cooking before Baker finally called time on the business earlier this year to open Pêtchi. Unlike Number 10, which he says he opened when he was too young (aged 25) Pêtchi, which is housed in a Grade II-listed building in what was once the harbourmaster’s office, comes at a more mature time in Baker’s career when – in his words - the training wheels are fully off.
Moreover, it is the restaurant Baker has dreamed of opening - a heavily Basque-inspired project that celebrates Jersey’s bountiful seafood cooked simply on a grill. “Number 10 was a great spot to hone our skills and really figure out what we want to be,” he says. “Seven years later and I feel like we know that now.”
A labour of love
Two years in the making, Pêtchi is a labour of love that has seen Baker create an individual restaurant under difficult circumstances. Taking on a listed building overlooking Jersey’s Liberation Square (the building still holds the flagpole for when the flag was flown after the island was liberated from the Germans) has not been without its challenges, with large amounts of extraction required and changes to the layout all having to be done in accordance with strict building regulations. Once open, sound dampeners had to be affixed to the walls to soften the noise bouncing off the brick walls and wooden floors.
"Seafood with a touch of
smoke is always going to be delicious"
Pêtchi is also a very personal restaurant, Baker having been inspired by his time working in San Sebastian and more recently a memorable meal at Asador Etxebarri, the most famous of the region’s live fire restaurants. The open-plan 50-cover dining room gives way to a small kitchen that has a polished concrete pass that contains Jersey seashells hand-picked by Baker and features a bespoke charcoal grill designed by Rhys Allen, who has also created one-off pieces for London restaurants including Brat and Kiln. Also in the tight space is a wood-fired oven for cooking dishes such as flatbreads as well as smoking butter.
With its stripped back Scandi aesthetic and an a la carte menu of hearty dishes, it’s a departure from the more cosy surrounds and set menu format of Number 10. While it might be a restaurant style that is currently a la mode, Baker insists his choice is one of longevity rather than of the moment.
“Longevity is important to me, I’m not going to do something else now. I want to enjoy it and for it to be the opposite of gimmicky. Cooking like this – yeah, it’s quite a la mode at the moment, but it is always going to be good because it’s the right way to cook. Seafood with a touch of smoke is always going to be delicious.
“At Number 10 we served a tasting menu for the last four years. It worked well from a business perspective, but I much prefer the buzz of seeing a table of people tucking into different dishes and curating their own thing. Tasting menus can be so methodical and precise, which is great but it’s repeating the same thing, so it loses a bit of soul. As you get older you learn to cook what you like.”
Cooking over fire
Baker’s choice of cooking method over wood and charcoal, which is sourced from Spain, was a deliberate act in letting the ingredients do the talking. He draws comparisons between Jersey and the Basque Country that make following the region’s approach to cooking quite rational. “The thing I like about Basque food is its purity. There are parallels between both places - Jersey is insane in terms of our climate. We have one of the world’s largest tidal ranges and immaculately clean water and unreal produce here with which to cook. The Basque [cooking style] lends itself well to that because it’s all about the product. There’s no hiding.”
Menus will change to reflect seasonality but a continually shifting food offer is not part of Baker’s plans. “I only want to serve the best products, and there’s not an unlimited supply of the best. We will always have lobster and scallops provided people are out catching them but I’m not going to suddenly put something else on instead. The ingredients will stay the same, how we use them throughout the year with garnishes and stuff will change.
“I feel like I’ve moved on. I’d rather perfect something like at Asador Etxebarri. Change for change’s sake is not positive. You’ve got to keep your loyal customers interested and engaged but there is no point doing something completely new with an inferior product.”
Dishes on the current menu include wood-fired flatbreads with either raw red prawns or herb and pecorino; raw Jersey beef and nori tarts; grilled Chancre crab crumpets; and seabass tartare with gooseberry ponzu and plantain. Larger dishes include whole wood-roasted mallard with malted bread sauce, fig and rainbow chard; wild local seabass with Amalfi lemon; and a grilled turbot chop. The restaurant makes its own ice cream and butter, which it smokes over apple wood.
“People are obsessed with this idea
of stepping back. There’s
something flawed about that"
Another key dish on the menu is the ex-dairy beef chop, which Baker gets from Spain, but which initially comes from ex dairy herds in The Netherlands. “We select only the Jersey breed, which lends itself so well because there is better marbling and a better fat content because it’s quite a small animal. If you want to do a one bone rib it’s got a nice thickness to it. It works well in the restaurant format.”
The style of cooking at Pêtchi has proven advantageous when looking for staff. Rather than coming into the kitchen every day and mindlessly switching on the induction, Baker says the vagaries of running a wood-fired grill keeps the team engaged.
“By cooking over wood and charcoal we’ve made it complicated for ourselves, but it also keeps us focused and alive to the intricacies of what we’re doing. The only reason we have got really good chefs is because we are doing something different. Like attracts like. Staffing is hard, and Jersey is not a city of young, hungry chefs like in London. These are all family men, which is also good for mental health. No one is out drinking til late. I am so much happier here than when I was in London.”
From finance to financiers
Born in Oxford, Baker’s journey to owning a restaurant on Jersey is an interesting one. His father was an actor and so as a child he moved around a lot, including living in LA, returning to the UK when he was 10 years old. At the age of 16 he enrolled in a two-year cooking course after school at a higher education college that taught him the basics of cooking.
Following his school years, he applied to read English literature at Durham university but deferred it to go to Australia for his first cooking job at Vasse Felix winery in the Margaret River Wine Region in western Australia, spending his time between the kitchen and his surfboard.
He later returned to the UK to do his degree with the intention of becoming a lawyer, but by then had been bitten fully by the cooking bug. Instead, he opted to do a finance masters while cooking full time in London at Abbeville Kitchen in Clapham, run by head chef Kevin Hastings. “He was my first and only mentor; we were writing a new menu every day and doing proper butchery and then I was doing my masters at the same time as well as partying with mates. It was an intense year, but I got it done,” he recalls.
“Islands can be a bit provincial -
which is their quality but also their drawback”
From here he met his future wife and the pair decided to move to Jersey to open restaurant Number 10. “Naively or foolishly, it felt the right thing to do. I always knew that if I was going to do the cooking thing, I didn’t want to spend five or 10 years working in other people’s kitchens. I’ve always been quite individual. I’m self taught really.”
Bakers’ willingness to do things his own way is reflected in the fact that Pêtchi has no backers and is instead funded by profits from Number 10 and, as he neatly puts it “a shit ton of debt”.
“A lot of chef owners get into bed with people, but I’ve never done that. It’s just me and my wife. One of the first things I learnt when I did my finance masters is that debt is cheaper than equity, but you’ve got to have the balls to take that on because if it all goes tits up, I don’t have someone who can bail us out.”
Does he feel the pressure of this, particularly during these challenging economic times? “Definitely. I’m having to be quite philosophical about that because it’s four or five times the investment of Number 10. I’ve had to bury my head in the sand about the realities of it. If I’d have known the true cost, I’d probably not have done it. We could have said ‘we have a young child and we’re comfortable here let’s just keep what we have’, but I knew that I wanted it.”
Does the Jersey location help? “Islands can be a bit provincial - which is their quality but also their drawback,” he responds. “It’s also an expensive place to live and to build things, so people who are in this game and want to do it need money. I would have liked to have built this restaurant by the sea, but we have to be realistic; we need to sell nice wine and be a viable business and this is the place to be - but we are still by the harbour.”
“I would like a Michelin star.
I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t an aim"
That said, the monied Jersey clientele and Jersey’s generous tax system doesn’t hurt. “You have a wealthy customer here and we couldn’t live without them. It’s quite a wealthy island, there’s a lot of people who like food and travel a lot and do understand what’s good. It’s a bit like in central London, we don’t want to be elitist, but if you want to do something at high level you will need those people who can afford to come once a week.
“I only pay 20% tax. It’s maybe not fashionable to talk about it but restaurants are a hard game to make money and a living, so if you’re then paying 50% tax on that it’s hard.”
A lack of direct competition also has its advantages. “We’ve definitely gone out and done something new for the island and we do stand out. There aren’t people doing something like this in Jersey, and for that I’m grateful. I hate the promotional side of things, I just want to do what we do and hope that’s enough, but I guess there’s an added bonus when people walk in and go ‘wow, this is different’. In a cosmopolitan city that’s really hard to do. I look at London and its chefs and restaurateurs and think ‘how do you do it?’”
Baker cites London chefs Lyle’s James Lowe and Brat’s Tomos Parry as inspirations, but unlike these chefs who have undertaken second sites – Lowe with the now-closed Flor and Parry with the recent opening of Mountain, Pêtchi will be his sole focus, with no plans to do more. Like Lowe and Parry there is no desire to step back from the kitchen in the short term or even in the longer term.
“People are obsessed with this idea of stepping back. If that’s your goal, to create something you can step back from, I just think there’s something flawed about that. The goal should be to carve out the time to go and eat out at restaurants and reignite your passions. It’s a tough game and if you don’t do that things slip.”
With Pêtchi then, Baker is in it for the long haul, and he’s not shy of his ambitions. “I would like a Michelin star - I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t an aim. And I think on balance it is worthy of one. I also want people to come to Jersey and ask locals where the best place to eat is and for them to say here.”