Meet the chef: James Donnelly

Bringing his modern British cooking south of the river in London, James Donnelly tells us more about his new residency at Bermondsey Bar & Kitchen

Did you always want to become a chef?
I left school not knowing what to do really but I found my feet cooking roasts in a small gastro pub in Cambridge at 16. The pressure was exhilarating and I still feel that energy today in the kitchen. It’s where I fell in love with cooking!

Working with Tom Aiken and at The River Café must have been inspiring
It really was a pleasure to work alongside Tom; he makes things look so easy and effortless! He’s a real big hitter in the industry and I learnt a lot from him. My stage at The River Café was an eye opener to see how much effort goes into such seemingly simple food. The chocolate nemesis at The River Café is still a work of art and one of the best chocolate desserts ever in my opinion.

Tell us a little more about your new restaurant
At Donnelly’s we are trying to create a vibe around modern British cooking; it’s my passion to share food styles from around the globe while showcasing the amazing and versatile produce we have here on our shores. After a pop-up at Louie Louie in Elephant & Castle and The Sun & 13 Cantons, we’re now based at Bermondsey Bar & Kitchen. The residency is going really well and we’ve extended it to the end of the year.

What type of food are you serving?
British small plates ideal for sharing with family and friends. I take huge pride on showcasing the Great British Larder and work closely with small UK producers and suppliers, such as Todenham Manor Farm, Montogomery’s, Forest Coalpit Farm in Abergavenny and Hackney Gelato. We even get our salad from community allotments in London.

Signature dish?
My Scottish salmon and Cornish scallop tartare with roe crème fraiche and homemade bread has been on the menu since the very start. It’s a beautiful and indulgent plate of food!

Favourite ingredient?
My favourite ingredient is probably the morel mushroom; it shows itself at the perfect time in spring when asparagus and wild garlic are still around. It gives that delicious earthiness to complement spring vegetables.

Working with local suppliers is obviously important to you, tell us more
For us it is all about the suppliers and knowing where our produce is coming from. I think unfortunately this has been lost in the past with big supermarkets supplying cheap mass-produced meats and vegetables. I think people are starting to take notice again now of the quality of ingredients and we would like to be part of that scene! Seeing the farmers who are passionate about their industry getting fairly paid and treated is a must.

Gadget you can’t live without?
My Nutri Ninja blender has done me proud. She’s been at Donnelly’s since our first pop-up and still has plenty of life left in her. Whether it’s making wild garlic pesto or perhaps an herby chimichurri to go with our marinated mutton chops, it’s been a really useful piece of equipment.

Your culinary heroes?
There are so many culinary heroes I could talk about: Tom Aikens, Marco Pierre White, and Gordon Ramsay are all giants in the game. In recent years, I have been inspired by what Tom Kerridge has done in the industry. Achieving a Michelin star at his pub The Hand & Flowers and doing good, honest food is a feat that all chefs should aspire to!

Words of wisdom to your younger self?
Write it down – every recipe, idea, technique! A lot happens in a kitchen and to have all of it on paper is a dream.

Kitchen soundtrack?
It is such an eclectic mix in our kitchen. It can be a grime morning followed by a Rolling Stones afternoon, anything goes! Our Sundays are currently set as reggae Sundays, as a busy roast and brunch service calls for calm and collected heads.

Favourite restaurant(s)?
I have so many favourite restaurants it’s hard to pick one. In London, Sabor is definitely up there, as I have loved all that Nieves Barragán Mohacho has done since Fino and Barrafina. She is a great chef and a lovely person too!

Plans for the future?
The future we are taking day by day. We are very happy here at Bermondsey and it looks like we’ll be staying at least until the end of the year, which is super exciting for us. We are looking forward to a big summer; watch out for an outdoor kitchen popping up in our lovely sunny yard space.

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