I’m being cooked lunch by Nicholas Balfe, co-owner of three of south London’s most popular restaurants: Salon in Brixton and Levan and Larry’s in Peckham. Except I’m not in London. I’m in Somerset, where Balfe has just relocated with his partner Natali, stepdaughter Frankie (nine) and daughters Ottaline (two) and newborn Marvie. “Don’t move house with a four-week-old”, is his slightly traumatised advice.
The reason for the move is Holm, a new restaurant he’s opening with his co-directors Mark Gurney and Matt Bushnell in the small town of South Petherton. On my visit, the site – a former bank – was still under construction, with an ATM backing into the dining room. But the finished venue, where Balfe hopes to “bring some of the excitement and cosmopolitanism of London restaurants”, will include a 40-cover dining room and 50-plus-cover terrace/garden with grill, with seven bedrooms planned for spring 2022.
Unlike the food at Salon or Levan, where the produce is seasonal and largely British-grown but the dishes can be anything from Asian-inspired to Provençal, the food at Holm will “feel more British and produce-driven”, says Balfe. Our lunch is a case in point: crusty bread from At The Chapel bakery in Bruton with golden butter from Longman’s Cheese in Yeovil; Black Down ham from Somerset Charcuterie Company; ricotta from Westcombe Dairy with nori seaweed; San Marzano tomatoes and blanched monk’s beard from Pitney Farm Market Garden; Yukon Gold potatoes from Meadowlea Farm; and Red Ruby Devon beef from Bagnell Farm. These doorstop slabs of meat are salted and pan-cooked with garlic and rosemary – is there anything better than steak sizzling on a cast-iron skillet? It’s a simple feast that I absolutely relish.
Among Balfe’s reasons for wanting to leave London were escaping the “rat race” and the financial strain of raising a family in the capital. But as a chef, the draw of Somerset has been the chance to forge meaningful relationships with suppliers. Balfe grew up in Dorset. He has an affinity for the area. But as a city chef, he’s mainly worked through wholesalers such as Natoora, which doesn’t compare with meeting farmers and growers on their home turf.
A recent visit to Westcombe Dairy was pivotal. Over a lunch of all their cheeses with bread from the local bakery, he and cheesemaker Tom Calver just “chatted about stuff”, he says. “Not really about work. But about stuff. The south-west, really. It felt so natural. So welcoming.” He cites chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, who runs hyper-seasonal farm-to-table restaurant Osip in Bruton, as “living the dream, doing all the things I want to be doing”, including growing his own produce on a couple of acres he has been gifted by a local landowner. “There’s a sense of possibility and collaboration,” Balfe says of life in the West Country. “It’s open, free, easy.” For a produce-driven chef-restaurateur like him, what more could you ask?