Self-taught Chef Brings a Taste of Land and Sea to His York Restaurant
Self-taught chef Stephen Andrews is bringing a taste of the land and sea to his small, sustainably-focused neighbourhood restaurant, Fish & Forest. We catch up with Stephen to find out more about his York restaurant
So Stephen’s culinary journey began, and as his love for cooking developed, so did his skills and knowledge. ‘I’m self-taught, so I didn’t go to culinary school or train under Michelin-starred chefs – I taught myself the basics, and if I needed to learn something I was fortunate enough to be able to get the ingredients and have a bit of a go with trial and error,’ he explains.
After building his skills and developing his cooking style, in 2019 Stephen decided to take the leap and get other people’s opinions on his food, taking a food vendor spot in Spark and starting Fish & Forest. ‘I had been in [the industry] for a while and I wanted to open my own restaurant before I was 30 – it was always a goal I had in the back of my mind, so when I left my role as general manager I thought “what can I do now?” Fortunately, I have a wife who knows I’m capable of doing anything and she just said “if you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it now,”’ he explains.
Although Spark is dominated by street food vendors, the owners gave Stephen his own space to craft his food and see if locals took to his dishes. ‘I got a good following on Instagram and some great regulars who kept coming back,’ he says. Three months later Stephen was approached by the team at Gillygate Pub, offering him their underused front room to create a new base for Fish & Forest. ‘I was there for six months before I outgrew the space and found the property we’re in now,’ he says. Stephen and his team opened to the public in August 2020, but Covid restrictions and further lockdowns meant Fish & Forest had to temporarily close. ‘It wasn’t until May 2021 that we could open properly and without any dining restrictions in place.’
What keeps diners coming back is Stephen’s attitude towards his food, dishes and ingredients. Menus at Fish & Forest are created with inspiration taken from the sea, the forest and the Yorkshire countryside, and Stephen is able to create a small and regularly evolving à la carte menu which focuses on seasonal plates, allowing his ingredients to shine. ‘Originally I wanted to do just game and meat dishes, but my wife asked me what York was missing and that was a decent fish restaurant. I then started looking at day boats and a more sustainable supply source [for fish]. Game is also sustainable as a meat source because it’s all seasonal,’ Stephen explains.
Within the restaurant, Stephen uses fish which is wild, native or ethically farmed, as well as sustainably caught, whilst the game comes from local farms and estates which have less intense and smaller shoots to maintain a balance in population control. ‘I think sustainable ingredients are a lot fresher too, and they’re better tasting so that all ends up creating an all round better restaurant,’ he says.
Committing to sustainability and seasonality means the menu at Fish & Forest is always evolving. However, when Stephen begins to create a new menu, it’s the vegetables which form the basis of his culinary process. ‘I’ll start all my menus with what’s in season for veg and I’ll try and keep the same for the garnish. From there, I choose the protein to go alongside, but it’s really all about the seasonality and what’s available to me at the time.’
Although Stephen readily admits that sustainability is an ongoing effort, and something he works hard at daily, within a year of opening Fish & Forest was recognised in the Michelin Guide for its commitment to sustainable gastronomy. ‘Obviously the goal for any chef or restaurateur in this style of food is to be recognised by Michelin. We’re a higher-end bistro who do really good, quality food in a sustainable way and I’d like to think we were aiming for it, but I didn’t think [recognition] would come that quickly,’ Stephen admits. His efforts and skills are clearly commendable, but he does say he often suffers from imposter syndrome. ‘Because I’ve not trained underneath anyone and because I’m self-taught, I’m always doubting myself – but I think it can be quite a good thing because it keeps me pushing to make sure that I’m doing better and staying on top of everything.’
Whilst Stephen may have doubts from time to time, it’s clear to those who sample his food (and from the awards he has already achieved) just how good he is at what he does. ‘We’re a neighbourhood bistro and I didn’t want fussy food, I want people to come away happy and full,’ he says. ‘For now I want to make sure my restaurant stays where it is and ensure it’s a fantastic place – that’s where my focus is.’
Are there any chefs you admire?
I really struggle with this question because I wouldn’t say I look up to or admire any particular chefs. I do however take inspiration from a few – Josh Niland in Sydney is doing amazing stuff and Tom Brown’s restaurant Cornerstone in Hackney is amazing. Anthony Bourdain too, although he has passed away now, his ethos to food and how it brought people together has always been an inspiration.
Favourite ingredient to use?
I really like celeriac which is a bit of a random one, and it’s an ugly vegetable, but when it’s in season it’s incredible and so versatile – you can have it on its own, you can manipulate it in different ways and it’s fantastic.
Best place to dine out locally?
I don’t get much time to dine out but if I’ve got the choice, in York, it’s probably Skosh because the food is incredible. But there are loads of little places and I actually go out more for brunch because I don’t have time on an evening, so I’d say Mannion & Co – that’s a pretty great place to go.