The sun makes a rare breakthrough as I wander up Seymour Street and into Bernardi’s, one of Marylebone’s recent culinary hotspots. It has only been open for 18 months, but in that time the restaurant has garnered glowing reviews from critics and the local community.
I settle into a window-side booth, joined by founders Gabriel and Marcello Bernardi and head chef Sabrina Gidda. The sun streams into the room briefly, before being obscured by clouds. It’s 3pm, and customers are enjoying coffee while working on laptops; some are nibbling on pizzettas. While dinner service takes on a buzzy restaurant vibe, the Bernardi’s team want to make the day-to-day atmosphere here very relaxed.
“I’m really keen on making the restaurant accessible as kind of a drop in,” says the infectiously irreverent Marcello. “We want it to be a place where you can use your laptop, hang out.” He says that they plan to remodel the front of the restaurant to bring a lounge feel to the space. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner are our bread and butter, but the eternal challenge for any restaurant is being approachable at different times of the day.”
Sabrina agrees. “Bernardi’s is sexy enough to come here for an occasion; but similarly, you can come in with your trainers and a t-shirt.” A big influence on Bernardi’s are Italian restaurants that evoke elegance while remaining egalitarian. “Rome has these beautiful restaurants, but somehow it feels like you can just pop in. It’s Italian casual sophistication.”
Sabrina is integral to the offering at Bernardi’s. An untrained chef, her dishes exemplify the Italian ethos of letting ingredients speak for themselves. “We take the best of the Italian and British seasons, put them together, and cook in a really free way,” she says, adding: “When you have three things like single estate extra virgin olive oil, Sicilian tomatoes and burrata from Puglia, you don’t need anything else.” From the get-go, the team eschewed “foams, dots, purees and flowers”; and no dish is served on anything other than a beautiful plate. “It’s not going to come to you on a slate or in a hat or in a shoe,” she says with a wry smile.
Despite an upbringing that celebrated food, as well as her “inherent greed”, Sabrina didn’t go straight into cooking. With an interest in women’s fashion, she enrolled on a year-long course in womenswear fashion design, before studying a degree in fashion PR and marketing. While her British Asian family were supportive of a fashion career, Sabrina says they didn’t quite understand the appeal of standing up in a kitchen for 18 hours a day. “When that epiphany came to me, I realised very quickly – as did my family – that cooking was the thing that I was supposed to be doing.”
Beginning her journey in gastropubs, Sabrina later worked for corporate clients, including Freshfields law firm in the City, where she ran three kitchens overseeing 14 chefs. “Being in the corporate environment was great – but it wasn’t accessible to your family or friends, or to anyone, really. If you can’t share your food with anyone, then that’s a bit limiting.” It was while working in corporate hospitality that the budding chef entered the prestigious Roux Scholarship, becoming a finalist twice – the only woman to do so in the two years she entered. She says that the recognition helped validate her career change. “It was an incredible experience,” she says, clearly proud of her achievement. “I learnt a lot about myself as a chef. That competition is held in very high esteem, so it was lovely.”
Then, through an acquaintance, she was introduced to the Bernardi brothers. Sabrina clicked with Gabriel and Marcello – and she immediately saw potential in the site. “I remember the first time they showed me the restaurant; when I walked through the door, there was just a feeling about it, that this was the kind of project I wanted to be involved with.” Marcello agrees. “Gabriel and I developed a simple seasonal Italian menu that had a little bit of an Antipodean edge to it to begin with – a bit of playfulness, not too traditional. Sabrina absolutely got it, instantly. She nailed it.”
While the dishes at Bernardi’s are rooted in Italian tradition, there is certainly an Australian slant thanks to the brothers’ influence, namely in the reverence for the ingredient. Their upbringing in Melbourne saw Gabriel and Marcello become immersed in food from a young age. “Cooking was a big part of growing up,” says Gabriel. “Our parents were very inventive and they loved Italian food. We had something different every night of the week.”
“We were lucky enough to have a house in south western Australia, where we would go in the summer,” says Marcello. “There’s a real appreciation for growing and eating food – and we did it in a typical Italian style: growing our own olives, making olive oil – not really what a normal Australian kid does!”
Though food and drink continued to be a passion for the brothers, they cut their teeth in other industries before entering the restaurant business. Gabriel owns the interior design company Coote & Bernardi, while Marcello comes from an advertising background. Both are employing their skills to create a well-rounded business model for Bernardi’s. “Historically, we’ve used both of our skills to put together our restaurants. My focus is very much on the marketing, creative angle; Gabriel is on the interior side of things.”
Bernardi’s is not their first restaurant project. It was when they acquired the site of what would be The Thomas Cubitt in Belgravia that they realised they could unite their aesthetics-driven careers with their love of food. They helped to create a successful pub-restaurant – a process which lit a fire under the budding restaurateur duo. “It was very much learning as we go for a lot of it – but we had the skill set to back up the running of it.” After a series of openings that included The Pantechnicon Rooms and The Orange, both in Belgravia, Gabriel and Marcello reassessed. “For Bernardi’s, we had to look at the area, what we were going to do and what was going to resonate with people. We’d always wanted to do Italian food, but in the pubs, British was a natural fit.”
18 months on, and Bernardi’s’ dishes are hailed as some of the best Italian plates in London. “We’re building a collection of dishes that we know are absolute mega hits, which is really nice,” says Sabrina proudly. These include her rabbit ragu with tarragon gnocchi and pancetta pangrattato; ricotta gnudi (“now we keep the component part and rotate the garnish, because people absolutely love them”); and the pizzettas, which incorporate expertly chosen and unusual ingredients such as confit leek with Taleggio and Italian celery.
With so little time under their belt, it’s still early days for the team; but that doesn’t stop them from being ambitious, showing a desire to stand the test of time. “In the future, I hope Bernardi’s is an institution – the place people always come to as a default,” says Gabriel. As the sunlight breaks across the street and floods into the restaurant, you can picture it.
62 Seymour Street
StreetXO has been one of London’s most anticipated restaurant launches for at least two years. There were a number of reasons why the restaurant, which opened at the end of last year, has been on the tip of the food world’s salivating tongue; StreetXO is the sister restaurant to the gushingly-acclaimed Madrid hotspot, DiverXO. Opened to fanfare in 2007, DiverXO is the only three-Michelin star restaurant in the Spanish capital, and has been hailed as one of the most innovative eating experiences in the world. Its chef, creative visionary and founder, David Muñoz, was the youngest ever chef after Pierre Gagnaire to be awarded the coveted three stars, aged just 33; and to make the story even more succulent for gastronomes and the media, Muñoz appears a different breed to the old guard of Michelin chefs. Curved, tribalistic spikes twist from his earlobes and his hair is a closely buzzed mohawk; his press photos depict him as a culinary droog.
Descending from Old Burlington Street’s empty air into a clandestine cavern, StreetXO is nightclubby on first glance – angular seats, low lights and buzzing neon dominate the space. But the focal point is the open kitchen – vibrantly-lit, a cacophony of sound, smoke and sizzling pans; all tables have been positioned so diners can get a good view. The influence of Asia’s hawker markets is evident in the eye-burning neon, jam-crimson palette and the odd cart dotting the space, resting bottles and plates. A neon fish floats, suspended above the hot lights of the open kitchen, which is teeming with chefs putting spoons to their mouths – quizzical, concentrated expressions drifting across their faces. A straightjacket rests on the bar, waiting for its owner to slip into it.
StreetXO is no ordinary restaurant – and it’s certainly not typical of Mayfair. It’s a restaurant that aims to subvert expectations as to what constitutes ‘fine dining’ – now somewhat dirty words on London’s gastronomic scene, though Muñoz is happy to describe his latest venture in those terms. “This is a fine dining restaurant,” he says matter of factly, in enthusiastic English with a heavy Spanish lilt. “I wanted to make fine dining food, but redefine what ‘fine dining’ meant. Some people think that fine dining food has to be had within a comfortable experience.” He says that he wanted to challenge that idea with the decor, the music, and of course, the food. “StreetXO is aggressive – and I mean that in a good way. It’s like a rollercoaster. I thought London was missing something like that.” Muñoz realises, of course, that his penchant for irreverence and confounding norms is not to everyone’s taste. “Some people like it; some like it less. That’s normal when you’re making something unique, or something personal.”
The site was a blank canvas, which allowed the chef to let his imagination run wild when it came to the decor and atmosphere. “I want people to come here and feel like they’re not in Mayfair anymore. They are in David’s mind,” says Muñoz. Ultimately, though, the chef’s focus is on food; for Muñoz, the aesthetics are simply another way to create a fully-formed experience. “The most important thing is the food. Even if the decor is awful and the restaurant is in a bad location – if the food is amazing and unique, the people will go.” He notes that the goal is to create a totally unified offering, where each aspect of the restaurant complements the other. “Everything plays the same role. Everything is important. The food is crazy, so the decor and music have to match that – even the uniforms, with the guys in straightjackets. Everything must be on the same page.”
So what of the food, which has received such acclaim from those in the know? “My food is powerful, it’s intense, it’s aggressive; it’s like a gunshot,” he says, passion practically spewing from his lips. Muñoz says that ultimately, cooking is a form of expression, with influences from across the globe uniting to create something distinct. “The food at StreetXO is not really fusion,” he says, acknowledging the diverse ingredients and cooking methods evident on the menu. “We get inspiration from all over the world in terms of ingredients and cooking techniques – but at the end of the day, we are making something really different.”
Despite asserting that chefs are “not artists, but artisans”, it’s hard to tell the difference with Muñoz. His plates are considered, and are striking in their presentation; Pollock-esque dribbles and smears, delicately piled ingredients like miniature installations. For the chef, it’s all about playing with guests’ expectations. “Lots of these dishes will trick you, they will play with you. I love to surprise people. When something is fun, unique, a surprise and it’s delicious – that is perfection. This is the most emotion you can get out of eating.”
The menu makes you work. Names of dishes are stylised and lengthy, and descriptions of each can only hint at what will be served to you. Tandoori chicken wings, buried under a moss-like thicket of pickled red onion, trout caviar and katsuobushi are supremely tender and evoke Asian, Indian and European flavours in one bite; king crab with chipotle and paprika sauce and marinated soft-shell crab team up on a plate artfully dressed in a decadently rich butter-champagne emulsion and a long strand of spaghetti – made from sherry. Two dishes, Muñoz signatures, have been brought over from Spain: Pekinese dumplings with crunchy pig’s ear, aioli and pickles come placed on a sheet of paper liberally splattered with strawberry hoisin; and the steamed club sandwich featuring suckling pig, ricotta, quail egg and chilli mayonnaise turns a classic on its head.
Though the food offering at StreetXO is less elevated than at his original, three starred restaurant, it is this seeming fearlessness in creation that has made Muñoz one of the most celebrated chefs in Europe. Gaining those coveted three stars is the ultimate accolade and validation for a chef working at this level – but Muñoz tries to stay grounded. “When I got three Michelin stars, I was 33. I could have gone mad. Everyone was talking about DiverXO breaking rules, so the media went crazy with it,” he explains. Muñoz was wary of getting carried away with the acclaim, and remained focused on the food. “You have to be aiming for perfection all the time. But when you get there, you have to stay there,” he says, speaking like a man with first hand experience. “People’s expectations are really high.”
Muñoz acknowledges the positive impact the Michelin stars have had on his career. “It means a lot to me – the third star changed a lot of things for DiverXO, in a good way. I was never following the stars – but it was an important thing for the success of the restaurant.” Having already gained three stars, one would think there was little else to achieve for Muñoz; but above all else, he is driven by a passion for cooking, and showcasing his dishes in tailor-made environments such as DiverXO and StreetXO. For now, the focus is on Madrid and London. “We are not rushing. I want to improve London, make the restaurant better than it is now. I want people to be queueing all the time – for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. After that, I want to grow Madrid using everything that we have learnt in London.”
Currently, Muñoz is working between 14 and 18 hour days, seven days a week. “Sometimes I’m cooking in Madrid on Saturday morning, taking a plane to London for dinner service; two days in London, then back to Madrid and cooking straightaway. I don’t take any days off.” It must be an exhausting lifestyle – and Muñoz knows it won’t last forever. “I’m happy; this is my hobby, this is my passion. But I know I cannot keep going at this level forever – not with this pressure and stress.” He says that he wants to see out a number of ventures before cutting back on his professional responsibilities. “I’m 37 right now. I want to push at least six more ideas at this level. And then I want to take things easier. I don’t know what that means… but I would like to be a father at some point. You need time to have children.”
Only time will tell whether Muñoz’s cooking translates in London; but with creativity and confidence to spare, let alone the approval of the food world, you wouldn’t bet against it.
15 Old Burlington Street