Warm, well spoken and charming, James Sharman is more than just the next generation of chefs, he’s the catalyst for the change. The young Brit is the driving force behind the world’s most adventurous dining experience: One Star House Party. Sharman and his team are spending twenty months travelling to twenty different countries to create twenty different pop-up restaurants, each inspired by the ingredients, culture and people they meet along the way. Now in its sixth month, Sharman has learned to be equally at home working in three-starred kitchens as he is cooking at Everest Base Camp, an altitude of 5,380m.
The enigmatic chef has recently joined forces with W Hong Kong hotel to create a modern banquet menu for their ‘Wed Like a Celeb’ offering, perfect for couples who want to respect tradition and fuel their bodies — fuel being one of the W’s main initiatives this year. The menu, which features classics like suckling pig and goose web, is innovatively prepared to preserve the rich flavours, but reduce the fat, giving guests the energy to party longer, stay later and still feel great the next morning. We visited Sharman at the hotel to talk about his work, celebrity feuds, and Post-it notes.
What attracted you to this collaboration with W Hong Kong?
They’re quite similar to us [One Star House Party], in the sense that they’re personable. In our restaurants, we don’t have any waiters, we serve you and we talk to you directly. You get that same kind of personal experience here, where every element in the hotel speaks to you.
Before making this ‘Wed Like a Celeb' menu did you have a background in Cantonese cooking?
Nope, I just winged it. It’s the same in our restaurants, I’ve learned to create a menu that’s pulled from experience and captures the nuance of a cuisine. It’s asking friends not just, ‘what do you eat?’ but, ‘what do you love about what you eat?’. It’s about finding those little things, and building on the elements that people love most, like the hot oil you pour over the scallions on the steamed fish.
How do you find those nuances?
We literally just meet people and live there. And get jobs, it’s so helpful. You get to know the food and the culture like nobody else ever would.
How long did it take you to come up with the recipes?
About two months, but they’ve changed a lot. I naively thought I’d just design this menu and show these guys how to do it, but since they know Cantonese food inside and out, the team here has had a big influence on the recipes.
When you’re not at W Hong Kong, you’re travelling the world with One Star House Party, any behind the scenes secrets?
I talk about this a lot and nobody agrees with me, but I really believe it’s true. It works socially because there’s a married couple at the heart of it. Kevin and Trisha are married, and they’re the social compass. You can’t become too carried away, or pushed or pulled by any force, because they know who you are.
What was the strangest moment from One Star so far?
The pop-up in Mumbai. I was doing an interview with the Times of India, and they asked me how I convinced Amitabh Bachchan to do a pop-up in his house. He is one of the most famous men to ever live in India, and I had never heard of him. The next day there were thirty articles in the papers about how to eat in his house for USD$120. It was a nightmare. We got a cease and desist letters from his attorneys, and the day before opening we had to go to court in Mumbai and represent ourselves. [Laughs] It’s just an example of what we face when we do this, it’s more than just food and menus.
You’re constantly being heralded as Tom Aiken’s protégé or described simply as ‘a Noma graduate’. How do you want to be known outside of that?
I want to be seen as doing something that no one has done before. Every menu that we’ve made, we can attribute each dish to someone who’s moved us, shaped us, or taught us; this is a true social endeavour. We’re actually writing two books about it, one is called ‘Running with Knives’.
What’s it like behind the scenes of One Star?
We pretty much have the same routine every day. Right now, in Aman, Kevin gets up every day at 6am and digs until he can’t anymore, and then he goes to bed. The other guys are out fishing, trying to see what’s out there and if it’s sustainable for us to fish ourselves. People think it's this grand adventure, but it's exhausting, gritty work.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in the past year?
When you’re a chef you become very mechanical in the way you work and cook. We’ve taken that mindset and applied it to different fields, like building a website and building a network. I love it—coding is as exciting to me as the food.
What are your travel must-haves?
Post-it notes. We map everything, like, everything. The menu I made for the W started out as about 150 notes. We go through a shitload! [laughs]
What happens when the last guest leaves the pop up on the last night?
A few cans of beer and then a mad dash to pack everything up, and sell, give away or destroy everything we’ve made. Sometimes the flight is literally four hours after we close.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
I’ve learned to live without almost everything now!
Any guilty pleasures?
I have a real habit for terrible movies, it’s my escapism.
When you’re not cooking, what’s your go-to meal?
Mexican is always good. Like, bullshit Mexican food, not the real stuff.
Poison of choice?
Whiskey, I like an Old Fashioned.
Quiet night in or mad night out?
Quiet nights in, I crave them!
And finally, what’s your goal for 2017?