Category: This Space of Mine — Published:

Inspired by our current season of exhibitions, we’ve been visiting the studios of artists, designers, choreographers and more to shed light on the environments that inspire creative work. 

Here we speak with the head chef of Townsend Restaurant, Chris Shaw, who reflects on the necessities for a creative kitchen: a heat source, a solid team and fresh, seasonal produce from any one of his trusted local suppliers.

Go behind-the-scenes with Chris and book your tickets for A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020, offering a glimpse into more than 80 creatives’ studios from around the world. #ThisSpaceOfMine.

Where do you create/make?

I start by creating a lot of the dishes in my head. That can be a lengthy process; I sometimes think about it while cycling home or when I go to bed as I’m falling asleep. When it comes to the kitchen, I work with the sous chef, usually in the morning when I’m feeling a bit fresher. That’s when we actually bring the dishes to life.

How has your creative space evolved over time? 

I’ve worked in a variety of different restaurants and used a lot of different creative spaces. I used to work in a restaurant that had a garden outside where we could go and pick our own herbs for service. I found that to be a good creative space. 

When it comes to Townsend, I would say I’m predominantly in the kitchen, but always surrounded by other people. I’m now a head chef, but used to be a sous chef, and I’d have to present ideas to a head chef. Now it’s kind of the other way around. These days I’ll have ideas presented to me, and then I can fine tune them towards the restaurant’s style.  

What unusual environments have you used as a studio or creative space? 

I’ve had to set up kitchens in some funny spaces, I set one up in the Copeland Gallery one day – just me and a friend. And we served almost 100 people out of an art gallery with just tabletop ovens. 

I’ve also done a few festivals here and there, so have had to cook in the wilderness using tents and stuff. In that case you obviously have less equipment with you, so it can be a bit more tricky. That being said, the ‘creation’ of those dishes would, for the most part, take place beforehand. I wouldn’t want to be creating outdoors, just cooking. When working outdoors, you always need to have your basics: you need heat in some form, whether that’s a fire or an oven. And then of course a chopping board, some good equipment and a good team.

What are the elements that you require in a space to access your imagination?

I always have my notebook with me because the initial idea [for a dish] never comes to me in the kitchen. I have a very good friend who’s a head chef just around the corner [from Whitechapel Gallery] and sometimes we’ll be having a beer and come up with ideas together. Chances are an idea for a new dish will come to you first thing in the morning, so I always jot things down. Sometimes I’ll even just text or email myself so I don’t forget. And then above all, it’s nice to have people around to challenge your ideas. That usually creates a better dish or refines your idea and helps when you’re working with a couple of like-minded people. 

I have seen some people sketch [their dishes] first, but I’m so bad at drawing! However, I will try to mentally sketch/picture them first and try to envision what everything will look like on the plate first. I’d say 8 times out of 10, though, when it’s all there, it’s completely different to what you thought. I will always try to think of colour combinations throughout the process; you always want to have a bit of green in there, or sometimes bit of red to add a little bit of contrast. 

So when a dish goes on [the menu], we tend to make it for about three weeks. That dish on the first day might be different to its last, but always in a good way. Sometimes I don’t think chefs leave their dishes on long enough; it can be lovely when you make it the first time, but sometimes you need to spend a few days refining the plating or tweaking the seasoning. 

What one object from your space would you not be able to live without?

The thing I couldn’t live without in this kitchen would be the team around me; that’s so important to everything we do here. As I mentioned, I’ve got a very strong Sous Chef, and we’ve got a great front of house team. I need them around me to be challenged sometimes. I mean, the sous chef and I come up with a lot of the dishes together. So that’s so important. 

In terms of a physical object, I would just refer back to the chopping board and my notebook. I also think that social media is great for inspiration and also eating out. It’s not like it’s about stealing other people’s ideas, but to eat and experience something new. 

Then, I suppose, the easiest way to be creative in this space is to go with the seasons. You’ll have things that arrive into season together, like wild garlic and asparagus or peas and broad beans – they go very well together. It can be easy to be creative with the seasons and keep things fresh because these ingredients naturally work well together. 

#ThisSpaceOfMine is inspired by A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020, on view until 5 June 2022. From kitchens, to classrooms and trusty nightstand sketchbooks, inspiration can and does strike anywhere. And while rising costs are making provisions for artists more and more difficult to come by, we’re here to make a case for creative space of all shapes and sizes. Click here to access a list of resources and local organisations who provide studio support for artists at all stages of their careers.