Inside the east London restaurant that doubles as a training ground for students

OKN1 created a stir when it opened this summer thanks to its novel business model. We spoke to the man behind its day-to-day operations to find out how it is preparing a new generation for the hospitality industry.

The concept

The restaurant – in spitting distance of trendy newcomers like Gloria and Adam Handling’s The Frog – is a training ground for catering students at New City College in Hackney. Every day, around 20 students come to learn how to prepare food and drinks to restaurant standard, and then do just that, and paid UK minimum wage based on their age. Mornings are spent setting up and shadowing more experienced members of staff or working as commis chefs. Evenings are spent on the front line, serving paying customers in one of east London’s hottest postcodes.

“It’s very exciting for us and them, because they’re in direct contact with paying guests from day one,” Olivier Lavigne Du Cadet, operations director at Des McDonald Associates said. He was drafted in by the owners to co-ordinate with New City College to run the restaurant.

He pointed out that OKN1, already cheaper than some of its neighbours in Hoxton Square, doesn’t take a service charge. “We don’t want to be overpriced. It’s still a learning environment,” he said, and as such not everything ran smoothly. Our side order of charred tenderstem broccoli was swapped for paprika and garlic cauliflower by mistake, and when we’re told our original order was on its way, it never arrived, but the enthusiasm from the front-of-house staff made up for this, and the restaurant was barely past its soft launch. I live locally so was able to stop in for a quick lunch two weeks later, and service was much slicker.

The look

The restaurant is spacious, airy, and surprisingly peaceful given its location. Either side of the restaurant you can find the noisy stretch of Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road, or more bars than you can get through in one night on Old Street.

Inside, the decor is kept simple, but the kitchen pass is right at the heart of the dining area. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls lining the space show off OKN1’s own serene stretch of garden, where you have the option to dine al-fresco.

The food
My hake was cooked perfectly, which is a feat in itself for a chef just starting to learn the ropes,. The delicate flavour of the fish contrasted well with smokey, perfectly singed nuggets of chorizo. My dining partner’s bacon chop with egg and devilled sauce was the kind sophisticated take on all-day breakfast you’d easily pay upwards of £20 for in some places in Shoreditch. Here, it was a more manageable £15. I advise mopping up the yolk with a side of umami-rich chicken salt chips (£3, less than half the cost of another comparable side at a higher-profile restaurant down the road).

When you read the menu at OKN1, you can tell the students have a bit of freedom to experiment and try their hand at off-beat combinations that, for the most part, hit the mark. Starters range from generous slabs of marmite butter-roasted chicken baguette to Whydham Park asparagus with a lovage aioli I was left telling distant relatives about for days after. The lunch menu also features a student daily special, which allows budding young chefs to flex their creative muscles.

As moreish and prettily decorated as our deserts were – a strawberry cheesecake adorned with edible flowers, and salted caramel pot with puffed amaranth – they were too big to manage given the size of our starters and mains.

There is also a big focus on UK-sourced ingredients, too. The potatoes for my hake hail from Cornwall, tomatoes are shipped in from the Isle of Wight, while the bacon chop is sourced from Suffolk, from a supplier the students recently paid a visit to on one of their regular field trips.

The drinks
When it comes to drinks, it’s definitely worth noting that prices start at as little as £22 per bottle of wine, and many are served by the carafe. There may not be any historic vintages, but the list is packed with decent bottles at decent prices.

It features everything from a peachy, easy-drinking Chenin Blanc from South Africa (a carafe gets you about four glasses for £16) to big and bold reds including Ramon Bilbao’s Rioja Reserve from 2014, and an English fizz courtesy of Hattingley Valley, which recently gained a listing on British Airways.

Elsewhere on the menu are carefully crafted cocktails using bespoke infusions, syrups and equally surprising combinations. “Some people are more attracted by the bar, some people are very attracted by the barista side, but you can definitely start to see the flame inside them in the restaurant,” he said.

The beer list is also impressive. Usual suspects such as Meantime’s pale ale sit alongside more out-there serves. I opted for a vegan-friendly ale from Hackney Brewery that was brewed as part of a one-off partnership with Moshi Moshi records for the latter’s 20th anniversary. Its fruity apricot notes and refreshing hop-forwardness was the perfect accompaniment to marmite-braised chicken.

Behind the scenes

Cadet said the restaurant wants its students to understand exactly where their food comes from and get butchers, farmers and drinks producers involved in “everything that we do” to give them practical lessons in supplying a restaurant.

“We recently took them to Hackney Brewery, who we work with quite a lot and they have fantastic beers, to show them the brewing process and how it all works” he said, adding that the restaurant is scheduling a trip to Sussex-based wine estate Ridgeview later in the year to get to grips with England’s burgeoning vineyard scene.

There are, naturally, a few pitfalls with running a restaurant and training students at the same time. Vocabulary is a big one, Olivier says. “You refer to certain glasses as a tumbler and you think it’s common knowledge, but sometimes they don’t know what this is, so you’re really starting from scratch.”

Another issue is staffing. The restaurant runs for 52 weeks, but the college doesn’t. “You need to think about staffing when they’re away, so we do get in recent graduates or professionals” Cadet said.

But while OKN1 has its own occasional staffing issues, Olivier hopes the business model will provide some relief to the hospitality industry’s recurring skills gap woes.

“The industry is concerned by the lack of staff and difficulty to retain staff at the moment,” he said, “especially at the start of their careers.”

And with Brexit on the horizon, UK restaurant and bar groups will need to look closer to home to find workers.

Olivier said that OKN1’s model means that budding chefs and bartenders trained to be “ready to enter the workforce and it’s not a shock to the system.”

“It’s not purely in a classroom or college. They encounter real guests, real needs and real challenges.”

Who to know: Chat to any of the students. They’re bright and enthusiastic, and it’s heartening to see young people starting to fall in love with the restaurant business.

Don’t leave without: Ordering some more chicken salt chips, another pale ale, and taking some deep breaths in the garden.

Final word: If you want to be served affordable food at a place where flavour is the top priority, staff are friendly and endearing, and the beer is very, very good, this should be on your radar.

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