Since it opened in April last year, Kumquat has become a popular all-day dining destination courtesy of its proprietor-chef Alex Boyd’s ‘modern Asian’ dishes. Eileen Leahy met him to chat about his impressive culinary CV and to discover what’s new on the menu for 2023…
It’s not every day you get to meet a talented local chef whose culinary CV boasts the names of some of London’s top restaurants, including L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Scott’s of Mayfair and who’s also cooked for members of the Royal Family and celebrities including Sir Richard Branson and Robbie Williams. But over the past 28 years of his career that’s exactly what Alex Boyd of Kumquat, on The Pantiles, has done and he’s quite rightly very proud about it.
“I’ve had a privileged career,” he smiles as we sit down to chat over a coffee in the restaurant he and his wife Virginia, who hails from Hong Kong, opened last April.
“Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of hard work and long hours involved in being a chef, especially when you are working for some of the best in the business but it’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” explains Alex.
“I knew from about the age of ten I wanted to be a chef. I’d always loved cooking with my dad and at 15 I got a job working in a local pub in Aldershot, Hampshire which is where I’m from.”
His dedication to cooking led to him training at the prestigious Westminster Catering College whose alumni includes the likes of Jamie Oliver and Ainsley Harriott.
“During my time there I had a classic French training which was further enhanced with placements such as at Scott’s of Mayfair. I did mornings at college and evenings in the restaurant so everything I learnt I got to apply in the kitchen. It was fantastic training. The hours were long but it was such an amazing experience.”
This was in the mid-90s when chefs such as Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and the late Gary Rhodes were becoming superstars in their own right thanks to their revolutionary cooking and new-found celebrity status.
Another top chef of the time was Pierre Koffmann of La Tante Claire, a three-Michelin starred restaurant in Chelsea, where Alex started working after he graduated from Westminster.
“I was a commis chef there for about a year and it was like going to another level. I thought this is what I want to do.”
Alex bolstered his chef ’s CV by working in other prestigious kitchens in the capital including The Montcalm Hotel, where he was sous chef under the late Steve Whitney – known for being Anton Mosimann’s right-hand man at The Dorchester
“The time I spent with Steve and also Pierre really set my standard,” reveals Alex who also worked at Sir Terence Conran’s Bluebird Café on the Kings Road and The Halcyon Hotel in Holland Park.
“It was an amazing time, but there was a part of me that wanted to go to France to work for Alain Ducasse,” says Alex referring to the legendary French chef.
Sadly because he only had ‘kitchen French’ Alex says that dream wasn’t to be, but when a friend returned to London after being in Hong Kong for a while he urged Alex to go too.
“He said to me ‘what do you want to go to France for when you could be having a fantastic time in Hong Kong?’ So I decided to go for it. I went out on a whim in 2003 and absolutely loved it. I had a brilliant time and met loads of lovely people and also had the opportunity to run a restaurant out there. I got involved with the Hong Kong Rugby 7s, so went from haute cuisine to mass banqueting, feeding 10,000 people over three days! I’d never done anything on that level before but I just thought yes I can do that.”
Alex was in Hong Kong for three years and during that time he met his now wife Virginia and developed a full-on passion for Asian food.
“They love food in Hong Kong and it’s not just Chinese. There’s all sorts of Thai, Korean and Vietnamese cuisine to enjoy too. I love it all!”
On returning to London in 2006 with Virginia, Alex got a job at the two Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in the West End and thankfully was still able to indulge in his passion for Asian cooking thanks to Robuchon’s signature style.
“Working for him was just incredible. He had a lot of Japanese influence in his cooking, so there were things like a Teppanyaki grill to work on. There were no pans and no butter so I managed to acquire lots of new skills and knowledge.”
Alex admits that the hours were long though and so started looking for a more nine-to-five role.
That came in the role of running the catering arm of the National Tennis Centre for the Lawn Tennis Association in Roehampton.
“We did lots of events there, it was great fun. That’s where I met The Queen,” Alex confides before saying that he’s been ‘fortunate enough to cook for most members of the Royal Family.’
“I even did Prince William’s 18th birthday party in Chelsea,” he states. “Harry was also present. My little claim to fame is Prince William came into the kitchen and asked if he could buy me a drink. I said ‘yes please, I’ll have a White Russian.’ I’ll never forget that!
“I’ve been lucky to work for some really big names and been in the right place at the right time. When I was at Mansion House in 2014 I was doing purely banqueting, which was a fabulous experience. I cooked for the likes of Bill Clinton, the King of Spain and the Premier of China. I’ve also cooked for lots of celebrities over the years too like Sir Richard Branson and Robbie Williams.”
Having had enough of mass banqueting Alex’s next appointment was as Executive Chef at St Ermin’s Hotel in St James where he was tasked with turning things around in the kitchen.
“I went in to stablise it all and three years later in 2019 we were on the cusp of getting our third AA Rosette and then Covid hit! When I returned things had changed so much. The team was cut in half and I guess I just wasn’t enjoying it. The momentum wasn’t there.
“Virginia and I had always toyed with the idea of opening something ourselves over the years but nothing was ever quite right. But this time it was like Covid forced our hand. We’d always loved coming to Tunbridge Wells as it’s such a great town. We thought it would be the perfect place to open somewhere people would appreciate what we wanted to do, which was to bring Virginia’s Hong Kong foodie heritage alongside my classic training to develop a really exciting menu.”
The couple got in touch with TargetFollow – who own The Pantiles – at the end of 2021 after seeing a site that interested them.
“They informed us the one we wanted was gone but asked if we’d like to see this site instead. We came in and thought it was just perfect. It had everything we needed for a small start-up.”
They got the keys in January 2022 and opened the following April.
“It’s been a mad year and a half,” admits Alex. “The Pantiles is fantastic but it’s very seasonal and I guess we hadn’t realised just how seasonal it is! Originally we opened up as a ‘fusion café’, serving all day and open at the weekends.
“The plan wasn’t for me to be here full-time, but as we couldn’t find any chefs we realised I would have to be here all the time, so we decided at the end of last summer to make it more of a restaurant. We’re now open from Tuesday to Saturday evenings and we’re working on making the menu more skewed towards ‘modern Asian’.
“This means that there will be influences from Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea and China. I want to take traditional Asian dishes people already know and give them a modern twist. We did this with our recent Chinese New Year menu which was a sell-out and will be doing it with our upcoming Blind Dining Menu where you won’t know what you’re eating until you’re served! This will run on selected dates this month, so have a look at our website for more info, but it will be in keeping with our new, modern Asian approach.”
As our interview time wraps up, Kumquat has filled up nicely over the past hour, with many customers coming in for morning coffee and brunch. It looks like they are developing a loyal clientele I say.
“Oh yes we are,” agrees Alex. “But instead of coming here for smashed avocado on sourdough, I’ll be putting things like Japanese omelettes, Buddha bowls and bao buns on the menu. We want to offer something different to everywhere else and our goal for 2023 is to become a destination restaurant. Hopefully things are going in the right direction already!”