I’m getting cooked lunch by Nicholas Balfe, co – owner of three of South London’s most popular restaurants: Salon in Brixton and Levan and Larry’s in Peckham. Except I’m not in London. I’m in Somerset, where Balfe has just moved in with his partner Natali, stepdaughter Frankie (nine) and daughters Ottaline (two) and newborn Marvie. “Do not move home with a four-week-old,” is his slightly traumatized advice.
The reason for the move is Holm, a new restaurant he is opening with his co-directors Mark Gurney and Matt Bushnell in the small town of South Petherton. At my visit, the place – a former bank – was still under construction, with an ATM tray entering the dining room. But the finished venue, where Balfe hopes to “bring some of the excitement and cosmopolitanism into London’s restaurants”, will include a 40-deck dining room and a 50-plus terrace / garden with seven-bedroom barbecue planned for spring 2022.
Unlike the food at Salon or Levan, where the ingredients are seasonal and largely British-grown, but the dishes can be anything from Asian-inspired to Provencal, the food at Holm will “feel more British and product-driven,” says Balfe. Our lunch is a great example: crispy bread from At The Chapel bakery in Bruton with golden butter from Longman’s Cheese in Yeovil; Black Down Ham from Somerset Charcuterie Company; ricotta from Westcombe Dairy with noritang; San Marzano tomatoes and blanched monk’s beard from Pitney Farm Market Garden; Yukon Gold Potatoes from Meadowlea Farm; and Red Ruby Devon beef from Bagnell Farm. These meatballs on the doorstep are salted and stewed with garlic and rosemary — is there anything better than steak simmering on a cast iron skillet? It’s a simple party that I absolutely like.
Among Balfe’s reasons he wanted to leave London was to escape the “rat race” and the financial burden of starting a family in the capital. But as a chef, the draw for Somerset has been the chance to create meaningful relationships with suppliers. Balfe grew up in Dorset. He has a sense of belonging to the area. But as mayor, he has mainly worked through wholesalers like Natoora, which is not comparable to meeting farmers and growers on their home turf.
A recent visit to Westcombe Dairy was crucial. Over a lunch with all their cheeses with bread from the local bakery, “he and cheesemaker Tom Calver just talked” about things, “he says.” Not really about work. But about things. Southwest, really. It felt so natural. So inviting. . ”He mentions chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, who runs the hyper-seasonal restaurant from table to table Osip in Bruton, as” living the dream, doing all the things I want to do “, including growing his own produce on a few acres he has been gifted by a local landowner. “There is a sense of opportunity and cooperation,” says Balfe about life in Western Norway. “It is open, free, easy.” What more could you ask for a product-driven chef-restaurateur like him?