Meet Florence Knight, Polpetto’s Head Chef

Meet Florence Knight, Polpetto’s Head Chef

Since reopening in February, Venetian-inspired restaurant Polpetto has taken the London restaurant scene by storm. Olivia Sharpe found out why when she met their talented head chef, Florence Knight.

​This article was originally published in Volume 9 of SUITCASE Magazine.

years, top London restaurants have been dominated by men.
But Florence Knight is swelling the ranks of a new generation of
women, who have turned up the heat in the kitchen – and proved that
they’re worth their salt. Florence first showed up on the culinary
radar in 2010, after being asked by restaurateurs Russell Norman
and her now-husband Richard Beatty to run their latest venture,
Polpetto. The 25-year-old rising star had been working as a pastry
chef at Raymond Blanc’s The Diamond Club under the instruction of
French master baker Richard Bertinet – but was still relatively
unknown. Rather than crumbling under the pressure, she ignored her
brief, which was to create a miniature version of Norman’s Polpo
serving meatballs, pizza and fried courgette. Instead, she steered
her own path, and in doing so has revolutionised the London dining

Meeting Florence at her new Soho-based restaurant, you have to
admit that she’s not what you’d expect. The image of a typically
haggard and weary-eyed head chef has been replaced by a glamorous
young woman, who – despite having just completed a hectic lunch
order – is immaculate in her white chef’s coat, with her hair tied
neatly back. She instantly comes across as someone with plenty of
dedication, determination and drive. ‘Food-wise, it was slightly
daunting to reopen Polpetto, but it was also nice to wipe the slate
clean and start afresh with totally new dishes. I knew I wanted to
take it a step further and I think it’s a lot more grown up,’ she
says confidently.

After joining Polpetto, Florence spent time travelling back and
forth between Venice and London for research purposes. She fell in
love with the city’s fish markets, fresh produce and local bacari
(wine bars) that serve simple, small dishes in unpretentious and
welcoming settings. In spite of her French classical training, it
was here that she mastered the art of baccalà mantecato (a Venetian
staple of creamed salt cod) and began channeling her own
inspiration for Polpetto. Looking around the restaurant, it is
clear that her vision has become a reality. Larger than its former
home above the French House on Dean Street – seating 60 as opposed
to 24 – the long and narrow room retains an intimate and
understated feel, with rustic and unfussy details making it seem as
though it has been around for much longer than it actually has.
Although Venetian inspired, Florence insists that her food is,
first and foremost, about seasonality. ‘It can be a bit confusing
because my food isn’t 100 per cent Venetian. I go no further than
Europe so it’s basically Italian with some French and British
produce thrown in,’ she says. To ensure its freshness and quality,
she will often source produce closer to home and has a close
working relationship with her many suppliers.

I always loved the lunchtimes when the table was filled with different cheese, ham, charcuterie and a soup mum had made; rather like rustic Italian food

Florence describes her food as traditional but always with ‘an
element of surprise’. For instance, the chef has previously
experimented with burning oranges, served candied fennel and
created a unique rhubarb dessert using a shortbread base rather
than classic stewed rhubarb. ‘It’s about having a bit of humour
with food rather than taking it too seriously. I like pushing the
boundaries while staying traditional in order for the flavour
combinations to work.’ Being a seasonal chef, Florence is at the
mercy of the elements, which can often prove daunting. But, being
naturally instinctive and versatile, she has learnt to roll with
the punches. She says: ‘It’s always a challenge because you’re
constantly chasing things, but you just have to think of new ways
to approach a dish.’

Florence studied art, textiles and home economics at the London
College of Fashion, and although passionate about food, it wasn’t
until the unexpected death of her father that she changed course to
pursue cooking at the tender age of 19. ‘I started from the bottom
washing plates, and it was then that I realised I wanted to cook,’
she explains, smiling. ‘I don’t think it matters who you are; I
think if you love it, you’ll do it, no matter how gruelling.’ To
this day, Florence says her artistic skills have helped her
enormously: ‘I learn very visually so it was quite easy for me to
pick up. I still sew and it’s a great technique to have because
when I make a dish, I’m constantly thinking about all the different
components.’ Like many creative people, she can often get caught up
in her own world and has to force herself to leave her comfort
zone. She says: ‘When I travel I become much more creative because
it gives me headspace. I recently came back from Greece where I saw
quinces, which really spurred my imagination.’

The 29-year-old finds the fast-paced and relentless world of
Soho fits her and her husband’s lifestyle perfectly: ‘It’s an
incredibly exciting place to live and it enables me to squeeze in
those little extra moments in the city.’ They love going out to eat
and Florence has a checklist of new restaurants she likes to cross
off. However, she continues to favour local haunts, such as Koya
and Vasco & Piero. Despite offering different types of cuisine,
these establishments share one thing in common: ‘They’ve all got
good food and not much fuss,’ says Florence. ‘I think there’s a
time and a place for a Michelin star but it’s not something I do
daily.’ When asked whether another cookbook is on the horizon,
Florence jokes that being on a quest for a new sous-chef has forced
her to shelve the idea for now. But whatever it is that Florence
picks as her next challenge, I’m sure she will meet it riding at
full tilt.

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