Niki Astley is our head chef at The Church. We wanted to introduce him to you so we did a little interview to find out what influences Nick’s cooking and how he got to where he is now.
The obvious question is where the interest in these far off culinary styles comes from?
Niki said: “I lived in the US for some time and was always surprised at the quality of the cuisine available even in the smallest, unimposing places. You could have world class crab cakes for two dollars or a chimichanga bought to your front door in an awful foil tin that would blow your mind. The States has a bad rap for portion size not for poor quality.”
When did you start working in the kitchen?
“I started out as a cocktail bartender before becoming a head waiter and then a restaurant manager. I was young and it’s hard to win the respect of chefs at that age so it wasn’t the easiest of roles; I learned to cook so I wouldn’t have to worry about chefs not showing up to work or storming off in the middle of a service.”
“It was when I was younger, but apparently it’s quite normal.”
So how did you make it to becoming a chef?
“ I gravitated towards the kitchen as it posed greater challenge and more mystery; from restaurant manager to chef, I worked mostly in Italian kitchens where roles blur and everyone is used to doing a bit of everything.
I don’t come from culinary school, I learnt as a working man, which is why I’m a little unorthodox.”
Unorthodox? In what way?
“ I lean toward spice and odd combinations. And as a personal taste goes I would be much more excited about a Tagine than a fillet steak. I dislike expensive cuts and refinery, if only because most of the time I can’t afford them! That’s not to say I haven’t worked with those foods or enjoyed them I just feel more at home with hearty food, That’s my upbringing; I come from a working class background in the midlands but one thing my family has always valued is food. I think food fascinated my family because the goods available at that time were limited. Crevettes were the language of holidays and Pasta a special occasion at an expensive restaurant. People forget that the cookery fad is relatively new. I’ve just turned thirty and I can remember a security guard in Sainsbury’s talking excitedly about passionfruit. What is this? We bought them, took them home and only to split them open and be confounded by the snot inside. The foodie world seemed a much stranger place at the time. Now, Passionfruit is a staple of the dessert world, of fruit juices, you find it everywhere.“
“My personal favourite description of the U.K’s current food scene is Colonial – this implies tradition even if it is not one directly belonging to the person cooking it; it is still informed and has its antecedents. Just ignore the negative implications of colonial and eat.”