Words by Florence Robson
Creating a kitchen that’s 100% plastic-free, built on sustainable ingredients and incorporates different cultures and skillsets is a challenge – but our Executive Chef, Leonardo Pereira, is up to the task. We spoke to him about recreating guilty pleasures ‘Conduit-style’, finding the beauty in irregular ingredients and his tips for cooking more consciously at home.
How would you describe the menus at The Conduit? What’s the thought process behind them?
We strive to create a menu that plays on recognisable ideas while remaining a distinctive Conduit experience, taking into consideration seasonality, provenance and culture associations. For example, we serve popcorn chicken – something usually associated with fast food chains. We take this ‘guilty pleasure’ and transform it into a wholesome, feel-good experience by using great ingredients, adding craftsmanship without removing the fun, casual aspect of the dish. For certain other dishes, our aim is to create something that’s as authentic as possible – for example with Rigatoni alla Gricia.
I believe that a successful food offering comes when quality of provenance meets quality of execution. That’s why we tend to explore culinary territories that not only work with British ingredients but that also align with the expertise of our chefs. Sushi, for example, is difficult to do really well without ingredients found outside of its country of origin and chefs who are expert in a specific skillset. We want the strength of our food offering to reflect the strengths of the people behind it, so it will evolve as our team grows, taking on people of different cultural backgrounds, beliefs and ideals.
We only work with ingredients that are in season. What does this actually mean in practice?
The simple answer is that it’s all about the freshness and flavour. We’ve all eaten ingredients off-season that simply don’t taste good – I wouldn’t dream of serving a tomato in mid-winter, for example. Aside from that, we welcome the variety and otherwise-overlooked ingredients that come to us from small farms. They may not be the prettiest and they certainly won’t all be the same size, but we use the, as an example of “wabi-sabi” – beauty in imperfection. We want to give people the opportunity to taste very high-quality produce that is often out of reach in a megalopolis like London.
When it comes to sourcing ingredients, our long-term goal is to use at least 90% British produce.
How do you choose your suppliers?
We look for a balance between quality and consistency. As I mentioned earlier, we have started using far more “irregular” produce that comes to us from small scale farmers. To me, this kind of produce is at the centre of what cooking at the Conduit is about: to have ingredients that remove cooks from a standpoint of “conveyor belt” behaviour and instead trigger in them (and hopefully in members too) a spark of curiosity, engaging them with the food they have in front of them. This is a direct contradiction to what most restaurants do, which is aim for consistent, immutable produce. I am thrilled to be able to challenge the perceptions of my chefs, as they will in turn make use of these experiences in the future, as they hone their skills.
What’s your approach to serving meat on your menus?
Our menus are always at least 60% vegetarian but when it comes to serving meat, our focus is always on the rearing and farming practices that have been used. For example, in the past we have used Welsh Mangalitza pork, sourced from a couple raring no more than 40 pigs at a time in rural Wales. Their farm is a community hotspot in an otherwise poor and undeveloped part of the country. They feed their livestock solely on organic feed, often sourced from neighbours in a system that closely resembles old “specimen trade” food cycles, and these pigs were bred in a woodland environment, effectively dispersing seeds, fertilising grounds and controlling invasive plant species.
Working with suppliers of this kind helps us to serve meat while remaining aligned with our sustainability mission. However, we also take our members’ perspectives into account, of course, to challenge us and push us in the direction of change.
How are you tackling food waste?
Food waste is a huge issue in our sector. In a business venue such as The Conduit, the learning curve is steep and the balance between our morals and operational requirements needs to be navigated thoughtfully. In my view, the best way to avoid food waste is by adding value to elements on your plate that can often be overlooked.
For example, we preserve summer berries in a low percentage of salt, resulting in two different products. Firstly, the berry itself, lightly shrivelled by the salt, will have a new acidity or savouriness (depending on the ripeness of the berry), which can then be used to flavour a root vegetable in winter, providing a solution to the lack of seasonal alternative during that season. Secondly, the berry produces a briny, tart liquid that can be used as a flavouring agent, as you might use a lemon or a shop-bought condiment. It’s all about taking a simpler approach: fewer ingredients, less handling, less waste.
What are your top tips for creating a more sustainable kitchen at home?
In my opinion, sustainability should mean shortening the chain from grower to consumer, as well as buying from smaller businesses or marketplaces. Shift your purchasing habits to focus on the community you live in; by supporting local businesses or even by buying our own neighbours’ produce, we can start to make a bigger imprint on more complex matters such as the wider economy and social inclusivity.