Q&A: Alex Craciun of Sosharu on winning the AA Award for London Restaurant of the Year
Jason Atherton's latest addition to his stable may have only been open seven months, but that hasn't stopped its team scooping London Restaurant of the Year at this year's AA Hospitality Awards. We meet its executive chef, Alex Craciun
In a city with thousands of restaurants, how do you make sure you have the edge? It's a million-dollar question, but what it ultimately boils down to is using the best produce and the best cooking techniques. And winning awards like the AA's London Restaurant of the Year certainly helps – especially when the restaurant in question has been open less than a year.
Sosharu, Jason Atherton's latest outpost, in Clerkenwell, has gone from strength to strength since its launch seven months ago, and that's in no small part due to the efforts of its executive chef Alex Craciun. We speak to the Romanian former mechanical engineer about coping with the pressure of awards, Japanese cooking techniques and the importance of eating out.
How does it feel to have won?
You never think you're going to get it, to be honest, as there are so many restaurants in London. But we worked hard for it and we tried different things and I think that's the reason we are where we are. Just to get out of our comfort zone and get create different Japanese flavours. We've only been open seven months, so to achieve this in that time is pretty interesting.
How would you describe the food and dining experience at Sosharu?
The food is quite simple, it's quite a relaxed service – nothing too crazy. The food concentrates more on local produce and that's the most important thing. No crazy techniques, no crazy foams. It's just all about the best ingredients that you can get on the market, the best meat, the best fish, and then just cooking it simply using Japanese inspiration.
The Japanese cooking technique is quite different. Everything is cooked on charcoal and wood, and that's another different thing that adds flavour. The food is really quite simple. Some of the dishes are complex, but the majority of the stuff is quite simple, just flavour. Flavour, flavour, flavour.
How would you differentiate between Sosharu and the other Japanese restaurants in London?
I think we're different because we stay very close to Japanese cuisine rather than trying to westernise it. We stay away from butter. All the Japanese restaurants that there are in London, I think they are amazing restaurants and they are amazing places to compete with. I think we just have a different palate. We try to create something a bit more clean and fresh. The dishes are quite new for London.
Sosharu – in pictures:
What is it about Japanese food that inspires you so much?
I think it's just the respect of the produce and then ingredients and how you treat them. That's what I get inspiration from. I worked in Japan, in Kyoto, at a couple of three-Michelin-starred restaurants and a couple of family-run businesses.
I think the most inspiration I got was at the family-run business, where it was just me and the chefs, cooking for ten or fifteen people a night. That was quite interesting. You start to understand the produce and you understand the respect that they have for their ingredients. It's talking different tastes of the same ingredients of different qualities.
Working in a small, family-run place like that, you learn everything from scratch, from cleaning the restaurant to closing the restaurant to opening the restaurant and serving the guests, getting in touch with the guests. That conversation with the customers, you get the feedback straight away. It's so interesting when you do that for fifteen people.
How do you feel about awards generally? How important do you think they are to a restaurant's reputation?
I think they are the best thing that can happen to us and the best thing that can happen to any restaurant to get amazing awards, particularly something as big as the AA. We're so happy and it'll give us more strength to work hard, and more strength to be more creative.
From now on we're going to work harder and we're going to get better and better. And that's so important for a restaurant and a team in a restaurant to achieve something. And it's really important for business too, it helps to get more customers.
Do you feel pressure to win awards?
I think it's a challenge I enjoy, but it is also a pressure. Now people come to the restaurant with expectations. It's like when you buy a BMW, you expect it to be an amazing car, you expect it to have an amazing interior and be amazingly designed and be powerful. If you have a name, people will expect things from you. It's definitely a pressure. But it's something that we live with and something that we work to make better.
To create good food, you need to eat good food
Where do you like to eat in London when you have time to eat out?
It really depends on my mood. Sometimes you want to eat dumplings and you go to Brixton market. Sometimes you feel like you want to eat two-star Michelin and that's what you do instead. I don't think you're always going to feel like going to a certain place.
As human beings, we like to try something new all the time. And it's important. To create good food, you need to eat good food. I try to eat good food as much as I can. It's important to have a good meal. It's important to go to new restaurants and classic restaurants to understand what's going on.
I love Asian food so I try to eat as much of it as possible and try new Japanese restaurants. I don't have such a strong background in Japanese cuisine – I've only been interested in it for the past five years – I tried as much as I could to work in Japan. Five years ago, I was working for Jason Atherton at Pollen Street, seven or eight years ago I was working in Romania.
That's another thing: it's interesting to see the difference between Japanese techniques and new Western techniques. I think that's what's helping us a bit here at Sosharu, because we have this mix.
How do you think different cuisines are influencing each other?
These days, it's more about what produce you use than how you use them. For example, if you use 90% of you produce from France probably you can call it French, but if you're in Britain and you use British veg and British fish, it's a British restaurant, really. Every restaurant takes so much from influence from everywhere these days that it's hard to put a label on things.