Florence Knight worked as a baker, pastry chef and head canapé chef before opening the legendary Venetian restaurant Polpetto in Soho in 2013, aged 26. There, her subtle treatment of flavour and texture – and mastery of the intensely difficult baccalà mantecato – poached salt cod emulsified by hand with milk and olive oil – saw her become one of the city’s most dynamic young chefs. That same year, Knight wrote her first cookbook, ONE: A Cook and Her Cupboard, and next year will open a new restaurant. This year, Knight has been selected by Ruinart, the world’s oldest champagne house and patron of contemporary art, to create a gastronomic response to PROMENADE(S), Eva Jospin’s Carte Blanche commission and artistic reinterpretation of its heritage. Jospin’s intricate sculptures, each revealing her vision of the terroir of Maison Ruinart and carved from cardboard, will be expressed in a “Food For Art” tasting menu that takes as its inspiration the medium’s culinary equivalent, the humble potato.
Interview by Nell Whittaker
Portrait by Beth Evans
NELL WHITAKER Tell me about the concept you’ve developed for your Ruinart “Food for Art” menu.
FLORENCE KNIGHT It’s been quite a journey, from visiting the vines and going to the chalk caves and then seeing Eva’s studio, which was just mind-blowing. Spending some time with her, understanding her work and how it all comes together – it started from there. With the brief, we have the restriction of working primarily with the potato, which represents – in its colour, its simplicity – the cardboard that Eva uses in her work. What I’m doing is adding technique and flavour and I’m still testing and trialling dishes as we speak. But collaboration is a funny one with cooking: I often work on a brief, but with this one I had to lower my chef’s ego. I feel like it’s really important for me to do Eva justice within my dishes, and not just make a dish that works for me. Eva’s work on the surface is quite subtle, but there’s so much detail, and that’s what I’m trying to reflect in the dishes. I’m taking a “less is more” approach.
NW The potato brings together this subterranean principle in yours and Eva’s work, the products of ecosystems that are often invisible.
FK Yes, and that’s reflected throughout – with Ruinart, they start with a grape. All of us have the same ethos that we’re trying to convey.
NW In David Shrigley’s Carte Blanche work in 2021, he drew pictures of the worms onsite that help fertilise the soil that grows the vines. Is your work about elevating the lowly for you, too?
FK I elevate the essential ingredients through balance and drawing out flavour; for instance, experimenting with how to make a delicate stock with potato skin. I’m finding potatoes with complex flavours, whether that’s a Wilja that’s more nutty, a Pink Fir, or a Piper which is more waxy. It’s working out the different principles of what I’m going to get from a potato, and what I’m using it for, and the other ingredients that bring out the best of it.
NW Your background is in French cooking, for whom potato dishes tend to involve a lot of cream, a lot of cheese; they use the potato as a vehicle for unctuousness. You’re describing something a lot more responsive and subtle.
FK I feel very privileged to have that grounding in French cooking. It’s your toolbox; you’re always reaching into it, you know what works and what doesn’t. But my food’s a lot lighter and less rich. I find starters and desserts much more exciting because there’s no old-fashioned structure. For a main dish, people expect to have carbs, protein and a sauce. I feel like chefs are able to express themselves a lot more through starters, through not having the constraints of what people expect. For the Ruinart dishes, I like the element of not having too much detail. One dish is just titled “halibut, potato and onion”, and though that sounds incredibly vague I’ve come up with about twenty different dishes with only three words. You can play with textures, whether that’s burning the onions, making an oil, or making a broth or a sauce with cream and the skins.
NW What will that dish look like in the end?
FK The halibut will be lightly cured, so it’ll be raw. It’s incredibly milky, lightly blush pink with this amazing glisten – just beautiful. I love the idea of having the halibut lie on top of a roasted shallot so it almost looks like sushi. This beautiful piece of fish, this lovely potato sauce coming off the side, and then the little petal of onion, just breaking the sauce on the corner. With the dessert too, everyone said, “Oh my God, how are you going to make a potato dessert?” But I love desserts and I haven’t been fazed by it at all. I made a potato tuile yesterday, which was delicious, although some people said it tasted like a Pom-Bear. It does not taste like a Pom-Bear! It goes like lace in the pan and it has a sweetness, and once it’s balanced with cream and pear, it’s delicious. Sometimes it’s almost like fabric – lots of draping, and keeping things clean.
NW Does that come from your training in textiles?
FK I started studying womenswear at the London College of Fashion, but I was working in textiles by the end of the year. It was a great year, but I wasn’t happy, and once I found cheffing, it was perfect for me because of my energy, and because I learn so visually. With my textiles background, once I’d learnt technique and flavour, I was away. I see the dishes visually, before I’ve even made them. The chefs laugh at me because I’ll often just put two words on the menu and then we work backwards into the dish. It can be a bit challenging for everyone, because I know exactly what I want, and sometimes things don’t work and you have to think again.
NW People love to say that cooking brings people together, something they don’t say so much about visual art, even though thousands of people pass through the Tate Modern every day. In other forms of art, there isn’t a sense that it’s as much a collective experience.
FK We don’t have a choice but to experience food collectively, because of the nature of eating. There’s not the same element of choice – when you’re sitting on a bus and someone’s eating a McDonald’s, you’re participating in the sensory experience. You might think, “Oh my god, that smells disgusting,” but you’re trapped. Food is all around us, whether we like it or not. Some of those experiences are beautiful and some of them aren’t. It might be a horrible egg sandwich in a closed public space, or it might be an amazing meal with people you love.
NW On the subject of feelings, chefs tend to be adrenaline junkies, and the kitchen is a place of extreme emotion and high pressure. What kind of feelings went into these dishes, and how has that influenced what they are?
FK I like to think of it like swans – we’re flapping around underwater, but on top it looks effortless. There’s always got to be beauty in the kitchen, and there is beauty in my kitchen as well, because I love who I work with. Of course, there are moments when emotions are heightened, and things go wrong under immense pressure. It’s a mad industry, because we’re reliant on so many ecosystems and so many people, from the way the fish comes in in the morning to the way the delivery driver delivers the vegetables. Does he dump a box on top and squash them? Is the fridge at the right temperature or is it going to wilt the leaves? Are the chefs going to put everything away properly? It’s so many hands and people to achieve one thing, but our kitchen is a happy one and we all love what we’re doing – hopefully that comes across in our food.
NW What are you interested in eating at the moment? What’s exciting you?
FK Currently, we’re working on new dishes for autumn so it feels like I’m chasing what’s coming in and going out. We’ve just made a rosehip cordial for our crème caramel, which will cut through its acidity and give it a beautiful caramel colour. We’ve been working with fragola, which are strawberry grapes, to make a granita syrup, with a raw cane sugar cream. On the savoury side, there’s not been as much movement of ingredients, but shortly we’re going to be into bitter leaves season, and winter brings lots of Violina squash. I try hard not to do the obvious things, which probably makes my life a lot harder, but I pay more attention to the ingredients that potentially people aren’t so interested in, like salsify. It looks like a dirty brown stick, but pairing it right brings out interesting flavours. When you’ve been open for two years, you have dishes that you could fall back on but for me and my team, it’s about creating something new for all of us. It’s good to reset and start again.
NW In Jane Grigson’s book English Food , there’s so much salsify mentioned in older English recipes. I’d never even heard of it before then.
FK I know, and no one really uses it, though it is such a beautiful ingredient. It’s got that lovely shape and a subtle nuttiness to it, which I really love. ◉