In such a frenetic city, the culinary world of New York can sometimes feel like a competition between the loudest, the fastest, the most outrageous.
Cue the arrival of King, a charming Soho bistro that’s quietly turning tables with its pared-back elegance and nod to simplicity. The spot is the first restaurant by the team of three bright young things from London – Clare de Boer, Jess Shadbolt and Annie Shi – and since opening the doors in August, chefs Jess and Clare and GM Annie have been taking purity and seasonality to new depths.
In the land of the big and the bold, the trio is breathing freshness into the city’s food scene. Their light and airy space transports you far from the daily grind of the New York hustle to the family bistros reminiscent of a Provençal village. Simultaneously straddling nostalgia and modernity, King revels in the elegance of simplicity – and with a waiting list which has reached over 100 people per night, something’s going right.
The daily changing menu takes us on a journey through the girls’ shared childhood experiences of family summers spent in southern France, to training at Ireland’s fabled Ballymaloe Cookery School and into the kitchen at London’s iconic River Café. Inspired by the slow food movement, and running straight from the bloodlines of pioneering female chefs before them, there’s a softness, an understanding of flavour, a respect for the produce that shines brightly. The girls live and breathe seasonal, ingredient-lead cooking; alluring dishes like pumpkin ravioli with marjoram butter sit harmoniously alongside whipped salt cod with grilled polenta, chilli and olives, and gratifying halibut with crushed borlotti beans.
But don’t mistake the restraint for timidness – while there’s a subtlety here that’s rare in the city, there’s also a voracious appetite and certain swagger that rivals any other kitchen in New York. We spent an afternoon with the girls to talk food memories, the family dinner table, and what it means to be a woman in the kitchen today – middles fingers at the ready.
Clare: All of my best memories as a child were made around a table – never feeling more safe than when falling asleep at the table, at my parent’s laps on the banquette while they laughed and shared a bottle of wine. And I think Jess had the same experience around the dinner table with her family. Jess: The kitchen table was very much the heart of the family. Sharing meals, the whole element of eating and preparing food inspired me – my mum was an amazing cook. As well as home cooking, we both had that introduction of a restaurant being a kind of exciting place. C: It was a treat to go out for a meal whether it be at a fancy restaurant or just a little trattoria in France where we both spent a lot of time growing up. “What’s for lunch?” or “What’s for dinner?” has always been the most pressing question on both of our families’ minds!
C: Jess and I met several years ago. We had shared footsteps to get there; our paths were always going to join. We spent our summers probably twenty minutes from one another without ever knowing! When we met at the River Cafe we had a similar guiding perspective on ‘how to eat”. The head chef used to joke that we were like Siamese twins and they couldn’t get a word in between us – we were always conjoined and laughing and tasting each other’s food. We would go on long walks around the river Thames and fantasise about the restaurants we would open one day. J: Basically, we’re just really greedy!
J: We want to celebrate simple ingredients that bring people together and get people talking. We’re not interested in foam this, mousse that – we believe the soul of a proper meal to be the people you are with and the atmosphere that surrounds you. There’s a time and a place for a very fancy tasting menu and it’s a bit ‘wow’, but you can’t eat that kind of food every week. We wanted to create an environment that could be a regular spot for people, to replicate that family dinner table that’s so close to our hearts. C: Really filling that sense of nostalgia, creating a generous environment. River Café kitchen life is a shining beacon in terms of environment. How they introduce you to food, train you, teach you how to work as a team – it gives you this curiosity. We’d be in there first with our tasting spoons – it just makes you so hungry.
J: Kitchen life is like a family. You are put through the mill and you go into battle every night, and at the end there’s camaraderie about it. You might scream and shout at each other for three and a half hours, but at the end you know you’ve gone through this massive feat, the heat dissipates and you share a family meal and a glass or three of wine together and it all goes away again. It’s this constant wave of – that’s the beauty of kitchen life – it’s this continual tide. Every day the show must go on. When you know what each other are going through that’s such a tight bond.
J: It really is a unique working environment and it can be really bloody tough. Half an hour before service it always gets a little bit quieter, people are thinking, ticking things over in their brains, “Have I got everything, do I have everything I need?” And you’re always wondering how it’s going to go – will it be busier than last night? Will it be smoother? It’s that uncertainty, excitement, the adrenaline starts pumping and before you know the first order comes in and you’re away… We were taught that a kitchen should be run by hope instead of fear; we’re both so grateful for that introduction.
J: There’s a bit of that, haha, definitely a bit of that! C: We’re probably rougher than the average chef!
C: We get spoken to a lot about women in kitchens and it’s very difficult for us to comment on it because we’ve never really felt held back by our gender. It’s something people always ask us about but we don’t have much to say. We’re like, “We’re women, it’s awesome, we’re doing our thing and we’re having a blast!” We just want people to come in and have a lovely dinner, if they’re intrigued by the fact that we’re three women that’s fine, but the food on the plate is how we want to be judged.
J: I think one of the great things of working in a three is that you’re automatically a sort of tribe. C: There’s a boldness that being in a pack allows you and we never let anyone tell us that our dreams were too big. We got that plenty of times – every time we showed up for a first meeting they were like, “Really, you’re doing this? You’re the chefs?” Everyone met us with a question mark, and if we had been lone wolves that may been hard to swallow, but we attacked it like three dogs. With the middle finger, and were like, you come and see.
J: We’ve been so lucky in all the gifts that New York has given to us. Where else in the world would three upstarts open their little corner spot and have such support from the community? This city has such a wonderful obsession with restaurants and we are so grateful. We’re so at the beginning of this journey and we’ve got a long way to go. We want this to be around for a long time.
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