Talking L'Enclume, Masterchef, foam bananas and working mens club buffets with Ox Club's Josh Whitehead
After spending up to sixteen hours a day cooking for us lot, the last thing chefs, bakers, brewers, growers, and producers feel like doing is going home and doing it all over again. Kitchen Confidential talks to the people behind Leeds’ best food about their go-to meals, guilty pleasures, and the food that they actually eat in their spare time.
From cheffing his way through the Michelin guide to making powdered soup at catered functions and back again, Josh Whitehead’s career so far has been a bit of a game of snakes and ladders.
Ox Club - Headrow House's highly-acclaimed contemporary grill restaurant - is where he currently calls second-home, we met him at the bar to chat about how he ended up there, his experience on MasterChef: The Professionals, and his upcoming working mens social club-themed menu for Super Dates, as part of Leeds Indie Food 2017.
“I remember being in school and doing food tech, and thinking I were shit hot at it” - the genesis of Josh’s career starts with as much modesty as you’d expect from a Chef currently working in one of the best kitchens in the City. “But I couldn’t cook rice or anything like that…” So what was he doing, besides cooking rice badly? “Whatever I wanted really, I got away with it all the time because I was mates with the food tech teacher”
A lot of his early career seems to be down to, well, blagging. From lying about his age to get a job as a waiter at 15 (“I told my boss what I’d done on my sixteenth birthday, and we both swept it under the rug to keep each other from getting bollocked”) to getting work experience at the likes of L’enclume, Purnell’s, and with Damian Allsop while still at college (“There wasn’t a restaurant in England, France, or Spain’s Michelin guide that I didn’t email and beg for work that year”) to getting a job cooking under Anthony Flinn because he noticed somebody writing a resignation letter in the library. It’s been a mixture of being in the right place at the right time, but having the intuition and hustle to have put himself there.
What eventually made a name for him was an appearance on 2016’s Masterchef: The Professionals, which he applied for as a bet with his then-boss James from House of Koko. “He was thinking of applying for the amateurs and the applications for Professionals opened first, and he bet me I wouldn’t apply. I applied while I was on the loo and thought nothing would come of it, so I was telling all my mates as a laugh, and then I got a phone interview and I was like ‘shit, this is serious’...”
“It was hard man, you know when you see people on there crying and using words like ‘emotional’ and ‘draining’ a lot, you think what are you on about, but then I were on it and it was intense. For an hour program you’re on set for thirteen, fourteen hours, and it’s non-stop pressure”.
Despite not doing as well as he’d wanted to, he got through to the quarter-finals and made his mark. “Walking round Leeds for a space of three or four weeks I got stopped and recognised every day. I got asked for selfies twice - one time was in Angelicas!”.
“I can’t remember there being a point where I thought ‘Yeah I’m gonna be a chef’, I just can’t remember doing anything else. I just woke up one day and realised I was a chef now”
Having left House of Koko between filming and broadcasting Masterchef, he did a few brief stints around Leeds kitchens before winding up at Ox Club; a move that coincided with the restaurant’s progression away from being a grillhouse, and into being a refined restaurant that happens to powered by a formidable furness - a good fit for his experience and ambition.
“It’s massively collaborative which is really sick about this place, I’m not a head chef or sous chef or anything like that, but all of us have a lot of input on menus, we can put specials on whenever we want. We’ve just changed the menu which will be going on next week, and I’ve got a fair few dishes on there - a tartare, salmon and granita, a new lamb dish, cod collars, we’ve all put in on an Iberian pork dish with roscoff onion, apple vinegar, and hazelnuts. It’s an ace cut of meat but I don’t know if anybody wants to touch it because Man Behind The Curtain does it do well”
All that must come with some perks when it comes to staff meals? “Staff meals here? Chips and bearnaise sauce.” he jokes. “Nah we get sorted out - it’s such a cool restaurant because the menu always changes, and we have to try all the new stuff that comes in, so one day the staff meal will be wing rib of Galician dairy cow, stuff like that, it’s ace”
What about eating around shifts? “After work between finishing cleaning and getting in bed takes about forty-five minutes, but I’ll have about three or four pints. Powdered ramen - [Ox Club Head Chef] Ben Iley will kill me for saying this because he’s mad into his ramen and Japanese culture - but really shitty, MSG filled powdered ramen. I love good ramen, but I love the shit stuff as well.”
“My proper guilty pleasure is anything that’s flavoured with artificial banana - specifically off-brand ones, 50p or less per packet, they’re usually the best ones. McDonalds milkshakes when they do them wrong and put too much syrup in them, and I’ve always said that if someone could make Pringles taste like artificial bananas:” he, er, makes a noise and a facial expression at this point that can’t be translated into words.
Onto the quickfire round:
Go-to order from McDonalds?
“Banana milkshake, crispy chicken garlic-mayo wrap - because it seems healthier than a Big Mac - and then on the side mozzarella dippers and three chicken selects. Again, when they make it wrong and the garlic all gathers at the bottom” and then he makes that same facial-expression-noise-combo again. “McFlurry’s are shit hot as well - Daim bar McFlurry’s, my word”
Favourite chain restaurant?
“I’ve got a bit of a gripe with Pizza Express, I got stung with that half-calorie pizza - it’s the same price but half the pizza! How embarrassing can I go with this answer? Restaurant Bar & Grill is my favourite actual good one, but apart from that Frankie & Benny’s because the calzone is ssssick. Actually scratch that - Taco. Bell. I can’t wait for that to open in St Johns Centre”
“Salad cream”. On chips, salad when I occasionally buy it. Salad cream and cheese toasties...That or the really sweet Jack Daniels BBQ sauce you get in TGI Fridays”
Favourite crap booze?
“I’ve been known to drink a lot of Carling. I love an alcopop as well - Blue WKD for sure. And a Jagerbomb - Red Bull says on the can “do not mix with alcohol”, I think that proves we’re not a species built to last”
What do you eat when you’re hungover?
“Anything. Fried chicken from Dixie. That’s the best along that strip [New Briggate] - or Zam Zam. Zam Zam do mushroom bhajis which I’ve had when I’ve been leathered. I remember once I left North Bar, went and bought these mushroom bhajis and ate them on the way down to Call Lane, as soon as we got to Call Lane I left because I had to go and get some more of these bhajis”
Pineapple on pizza?
“I don’t care what anyone says, I think it’s right. Noone can say they’ve never smashed a Hawaiian in as a kid. That’s like saying does pineapple belong on a gammon joint? Of course it does, it’s a classic”
You’re picking a Revel out the bag, what’s the worst case scenario?
“Toffee, cause it takes too long to eat. One of my top three is the coffee - coffee, orange, and bald-minstrel”
Best cheap crisps?
“Prawn cocktail, but they’ve gotta be the same as the artificial banana, strong as fuck, and artificial - pure sugar and vinegar. I’ve tried an artisan crisp that actually tasted of prawns, marie rose sauce, and lettuce - it was shit. I want it to taste like red powder and MSG”
Top of the pops?
[He points at a bottle of Lucozade that’s been on the table throughout the whole interview] “Orange Lucozade. I love all Lucozades except the tropical fruit one - best ones are orange, original, cherry - the pineappley kiwi one’s alright”
You’re doing The Social Club, an event based on the food you grew up eating in working mens' clubs, what does that include?
“All sorts of stuff - buffet food, funeral food” What’s the difference? “Oh there’s a lot of difference - you don’t get a saveloy at a funeral. Breadsticks and the dips from the supermarket, always a white one that you can’t tell if it’s a raita or a sour cream. The pie man that would turn up, meat raffles…”
You’re at a buffet, paper plate in hand, and it’s only big enough for five items. What do you get?
“Three sticks of cheese, pickled onion, and pineapple out of the hedgehog. A dry, cold sausage roll. Cheese spread and lettuce sandwich in a triangle. Half a cold pork pie with brown sauce. Pickled egg. I’ll stick with savoury because the wedding cake’ll be getting cut later so I’ll have a slice of that.”
Miniature Heroes or Celebrations? Celebrations
Quality Street or Roses? Roses
Chilli Sauce or Garlic Mayo? Garlic Mayo
Hash browns or Potato Waffles? Hash Browns
Fish Fingers or Chicken Dippers? Ahhhh don’t do this to me! Chicken dippers