In less than a decade, Will Bowlby – head chef and co-founder of Kricket – has opened three restaurants in London, and taken Indian cooking in the UK in an exciting new direction.
Good Korma has been lucky enough to eat Kricket’s food since they first opened in 2015… in a sea-container. Two of the most delicious dishes I’ve eaten this year were bowled at me by Kricket (spoiler alert… neither was tandoori goat’s nipple). Over a pint in their Brixton flagship restaurant, Mr Bowlby discusses a stunning innings…
GK: Aged 24, you launched a brand-new restaurant in Mumbai, ‘Cheval’. You were the head chef, working in a foreign city, with 20 kitchen staff. There must have been some challenging moments. How did you navigate them?
WB: The restaurant wasn’t actually built when I got there. When they rushed me out to Mumbai, they said it was finished… and it was just rubble floors. But I got my team ready in their chef’s whites. I think the most challenging aspect wasn’t the language barrier, it was probably the customers I was serving. I went to India with the idea of creating the food I knew at the time, which was seasonal French, British, small menu stuff. That all changed very fast. The tickets coming into the kitchen were completely off-menu, the whole time. The moment I got a ticket saying ‘mushroom risotto, but with no mushroom and lots of pink sauce’… I thought ‘what is this?’
GK: After your time in Mumbai, you travelled India for months. I’ve read that the cuisine in Lucknow touched you.
WB: Food in Lucknow has an amazing heritage. On my first night, I had an incredible shami kebab, and a very memorable bhang lassi!
GK: Right now, I’m doing recipes from The Lucknow Cookbook. I’m entranced by the recipe for ‘nimish’ that’s made exclusively in Lucknow… where they put the milk in a dish, outside… overnight, in winter.
WB: And it collects the dew…
WB: I put it on the menu here, minus dew.
WB: We did it with deep-fried vermicelli pastry and raspberries.
GK: Wish I’d had it! Were there any other cities in India that inspired you?
WB: Old Delhi is pretty amazing. It’s a picture of what you’d imagine India to be, with the narrow lanes and street food. Hyderabad gave me Haleem… one of my favourite dishes. Chennai… I love the spicing.
GK: Have any cookbooks inspired your journey?
WB: Eating India was an inspiration. Chitrita Banerji talks about the history of Indian food, and how far ahead they were in terms of experimentation, particularly in the royal kitchens. They were streets ahead of Heston Blumenthal! Very elaborate, exciting food – especially when you compare it to cooking in this country at that time. That book showed me that Indian food is incredibly progressive and constantly evolving… so why not try to evolve it even further?
GK: In 2015, you opened Kricket… in Brixton POP… in a sea-container. I was lucky enough to eat there, and tweet your menu. I went back to that tweet… and the philosophy of Kricket is all there on one piece of A5 paper… a marriage of seasonal British ingredients, with playful Indian flavours. Where did you get the eureka moment for Kricket?
WB: Living in India, I started to think about the concept… without knowing how to cook Indian food. I saw the incredible variety of what was brought into my kitchen in Mumbai. And they managed to make everything taste very good, no matter what the quality of the raw ingredients. I thought we could we explore the sheer variety and creativity of Indian food… and enhance it with quality ingredients. And that led naturally to the seasons.
GK: I was living in Brixton at the time. Being able to get world class curry in POP blew my mind. What was the vibe like when you launched?
WB: We were simply learning as we went. Me and my business partner – he was on the floor and I was in the kitchen. I’d had several years’ experience in kitchens, but never on my own. So the responsibility was fully on us to do the job. We paid ourselves £1000 a month and spent every minute in the restaurant. Thankfully, it was well-received.
GK: When did it feel like it might work?
WB: I think we were reviewed by every major publication. More importantly, the people who came through the door came back time and again. People seemed to like the food. And we thought, okay, maybe there’s some legs here.
GK: Before you launched in POP, you worked with Vivek Singh in London. You’ve said he gave you the confidence to cook Indian food. How?
WB: By welcoming me into his kitchen. I was always very honest with him… I said I was looking to launch my own restaurant, and wanted to learn how to use spices. Some chefs might go ‘you’re not worth my time’ but he was very generous. Vivek gave me a job, he let me learn. He’s a very good man.
GK: I’ve had the privilege of meeting Vivek Singh. He’s very generous with his time and ideas.
WB: Vivek didn’t have to help me the way he did. If someone says: ‘I want to learn lots from you, and then move on’… not everyone would be as welcoming and as generous him. I’ll always be very grateful to Vivek.
GK: Kricket seems to have a big commitment to doing the right thing: zero waste in the kitchen; low food miles; happy staff in the restaurant; sustainably-sourced ingredients. Where does that come from?
WB: I think it should all be part of every business plan. I also think Kricket should be a lot better at it. For food provenance and zero waste… like I said, provenance is part of the reason I wanted to start this business. Looking after our people is also very important to us. You want your people to be happy because you want them to do the best job they can. With happy people, it shows in your food.
GK: So, if your team isn’t happy, the customers you can taste it?
WB: You can have a bad meal and really good service… and you might go back to the restaurant. But if you have really poor service and quite a good meal, I think you’re less likely to go back.
GK: I read on Urban Junkies that two of your favourite London restaurants are Bibendum and Ganapati. Both would be in my Top Five. But they’re very different…
WB: I loved old Bibendum… the charm of the dining room, sitting in really comfortable big chairs and eating delicious French food. It’s very indulgent, and when you do it you need to go all out. Ganapati is completely the opposite. I think what they do well is very delicious South Indian food, which isn’t easy to find in London. Very good laccha parathas and malabar parathas.
GK: Cheffing can be tough. Long, antisocial hours, constant pressure. What keeps you going?
WB: Two things: the validation of the people who come into the restaurants and say they love the food; and the staff we work with. They’re the ones who drive the business every day. We employ 120 people now, so there’s always going to be a problem somewhere – but the staff make me proud.
GK: What’s the art of leading a restaurant team?
WB: You lead by example. You need to have done the jobs you’re telling other people to do. We don’t have any room in our company for ‘that’s not my job, that’s not my position’. Everyone mucks in.
GK: Are you still London’s only non-Asian owned Indian restaurant?
WB: There might be some street food vendors out there, but in terms of restaurants – perhaps.
GK: I’ve read online that you encourage your people to work for you for a bit, learn and move on. Some London restaurants do it differently, they tie people into contracts?
WB: It’s the natural progression of a chef… and it’s what I did. You learn everything you can, then you look for the next challenge. Even when it’s really hard to lose someone, I’ll always acknowledge it if they want to leave. In terms of what other restaurants do, it’s hearsay, but I think there are environments where they’re not so nurturing… and want to tie you in more.
GK: When Thomasina Myers opened Wahaca… she had some quite challenging stuff on her early menus. There was a beautiful, authentic chilli and chocolate ‘mole’ and it disappeared fast. Have you ever cooked something that the British palate wasn’t ready for?
WB: Haleem is maybe something people need to get their heads around. A savoury lamb porridge isn’t the most appealing of things… but it’s so good. I think people are generally very accepting of what we put on the menu, but it varies by location. In West London, people are a bit more conservative. But in Brixton, you can feed them anything. We had duck hearts on the menu for ages and they loved it.
GK: Did anything you ate in India challenge you… just from the novelty of the ingredients?
WB: I ate grilled, tandoori goat’s nipple. Odd, but good.
GK: You’ve got three restaurants in London… what happens next for Kricket?
WB: We’re about to finish a really challenging year. I think we all started this year with excitement… Covid was in the past, etcetera. Then other challenges came along. I’m proud of the way we navigated 2022, because that was way more challenging than Covid.
WB: The rising cost of everything. The war in Ukraine had a big, big impact on ingredients. So everything costs more and people have less disposable income. That’s been very challenging for the industry in general, and a lot tougher than navigating Covid, believe it or not.
What happens next for Kricket? I’m still keen to grow the company, but in a sustainable way. We aren’t a business that will do hundreds of restaurants across the world. But London is at the forefront of food in Europe, and if we can make it work here, I think we can make it work in Europe… or beyond. Right now, the most important thing is that I make sure the menu keeps evolving… and that it stays true to what we set out to do.
GK: Let’s talk about the menu. I was lucky enough to eat your Game Tasting Menu… in your White City restaurant. The chou farci (stuffed cabbage) was intriguing. You had trompette de mort mushrooms in it, you had summer truffles. What’s the life cycle of that dish?
WB: It’s a fairly good example of what I was taught in the beginning at the Cafe Anglais… and where I am now. I was classically trained… so I know how to make a proper sauce, which I draped over the chou farci. I asked myself what I could stuff a cabbage with… I deliberated on that a lot. The answer was a combination of in-season ingredients like the trompette and truffles. I was going to do it with offal and do a raw kebab, but then I thought a shami kebab fits the bill nicely.
GK: It’s probably the most delicious things I’ve eaten this year!
WB: Thank you. Getting that right that took time. The menu I drove up to Norfolk to shoot the game was very different to the one I came back with.
GK: Because of the game you’d shot?
WB: Yes, based on what we’d got, but on other things as well. You tend to know in your head if the menu will work.
GK: So, you’re not putting the ingredients together in the kitchen, you’re putting them together in your head?
WB: That’s how I like to work. Everything comes from the ingredients. I like to work from an ingredient… see what’s good right now, and how we can marry them together. It’s all about making the ingredients tell the story we want to tell, and making them relevant to Indian food.
GK: And if people want to cook your chou farci at home?
WB: The shami mix was made with deer shoulder… braised in whole spices and vinegar. Then fold through with cooked channa dal, ground cumin, garam masala and coriander powder. Add diced red onion and fresh chilli… coat with a reduced spiced venison sauce, and top with truffle. Form into balls and place in a pre-cooked cabbage leaf. Roll nice and tight using clingfilm, and steam to order.
GK: From your Kricket recipe book, I’ve cooked the Grilled Sea Bream with Coconut & Coriander Chutney. It’s one of the best dishes I’ve ever cooked! If people do one recipe from your book, which would you point them to?
WB: I always encourage people to try the Smoked Haddock Kichri. It’s a very comforting dish, and it covers our ethos pretty well.
GK: In 2015, you spotted a gap in the Indian restaurant scene between fine-dining and curry house. If someone’s starting out now, is there another gap to explore?
WB: Of course. Recessions tend to create new ideas, and I’m sure there’ll be interesting people opening up interesting new things. But what that is, I don’t know.