Foraging, WTF? An interview with Johnnie Collins, head chef and wild man at Light Bar & Dining.
A wild-at-heart chef with a passion for foraged plants and sustainable dining.
We caught up with our mate Johnnie, head chef of Light Bar & Dining which is located in an amazing old power station in London’s Shoreditch. Johnnie’s all about wild ingredients and everything homemade, so once the restaurant opens it will use seasonal produce from his garden and from a small network of responsible, local suppliers, as well as bits and pieces he has foraged. Sounds epic!
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in a little village near Oxford and was lucky enough to have a very food-focused upbringing. My Dad sells wine and my Mum is a garden designer so we were always growing things and had an open house where people would often drop by to drink, eat and have a natter. I started cooking at a young age - mainly sandwiches (!) - and whilst I dabbled in other things over the years, creating good food has always been my passion. I didn't train to be a chef - I just started doing pop-ups and supper clubs but now am about to open my first restaurant, Light Bar & Dining in Shoreditch, as a partner and head chef.
Its been a long road with many hours of work, and whilst we have temporarily taken a pause like everyone else, we are looking forward to getting back to finishing the build and opening soon. Follow us on social media and we’ll let you know when we’re ready to open.
We know that you love foraging, what are the main principles?
Foraging for me is basically eating things in season, which is how it should be. If something is growing in the wild then it’s on its natural cycle of when it is best to pick and eat. Growing things in a veg garden is an extension of that. Picking something wild and free and turning it into something delicious is deeply satisfying. There's so much I don't know, but a good tip is that foraged greens get bitter as they get older so pick them young when they are sweeter.
If someone’s self-isolating and can’t go too far, maybe they can find stuff in their back garden?
It depends on seasons really but there are likely lots of options in your garden. Young nettles in the spring, dandelion leaves and flowers for salad, Jack by the Hedge with its garlic mustard flavour are some of my favourites and I bet you can find them too. Crab apples too.
Photo: Wild foraged garlic.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve found foraging?
Mushrooms are a good one but you need to be with someone who knows what they are doing. Puffballs are rare and delicious. A highlight was spending a week last summer picking golden chanterelles in Scotland.
We noticed you’re into your kefir, what can you tell us about the drink?
I have two kefir cultures that have been going strong for a while now. One is milk-based and another one uses water and sugar. Kefir is a SCOBY - a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast - that feeds off sugars and if looked after well, will keep going on and on. I love that its immortal. It creates a natural probiotic drink that’s good for your gut and has a nice tangy flavour. It's similar to kombucha but caffeine-free as you don't use tea. By using sugar from soaked raisins, I’ve avoided adding any industrial ingredients as well. You can buy grains off the internet easily, or ask a funky friend to donate some.
What do you do to feel good?
Exercise is the main thing that keeps my mind and body feeling good. I like to walk places if I can and usually think through what’s going on along the way, it's the best therapy. I'm also currently obsessed with Thai boxing. I'm very greedy so I need to exercise a lot to stay in shape so I try to eat well. I love using vegetables in different ways and, if I’m cooking for myself, I like to experiment with different ingredients and different influences. Fried rice has been a lockdown favourite and fennel tea in the evening is good too.
We know you’re into plants, what’s your favourite?
It changes daily. I have spent a lot of time with my Mum recently who knows a lot about plants and flowers. It has been nice to learn a bit about plants that aren't edible. I have been trying out different uses for blossoms recently, salting and pickling them. But a favourite? Maybe Aliums as a family - onions, leeks and garlic plus the flowers too.
What is something you think people would be surprised to know you can actually consume?
Nettles are becoming more popular these days, you definitely don't grow up thinking they are edible. Preserving flowers and blossoms is very Japanese and gives great flavour. Even Magnolia flowers can be used, pick and eat responsibly though!
What are you doing to keep chill during lockdown? Any tips?
We are growing lots of produce for our restaurant in the garden. Learning to be patient, which has been a good lesson. Every morning first thing, I go to the greenhouse and water the plants, see how everything is getting on, it's very grounding.
Favourite Three Spirit drink?
I'm a purest so the Social Elixir for me. I love its richness and curious bite, it's intense and not everyone will love it but that's good for me! Bravo to you guys for all three though, I like them all.
Thanks Johnnie, stay wild! We’re looking forward to coming to Light Bar & Dining when we’re out of lockdown. We’ll let our community know when it’s open, so stay tuned folks.