Megan Abbott

an afternoon with Brad McDonald

Megan Abbott
an afternoon with Brad McDonald

We often pass by the small front doors of Columbia Road, which are painted in pastels and primary colours like paper garlands, and wonder who lives behind them. On weekdays, this cobbled stretch of road is whisper-quiet. The low rise Victorian shop fronts are shut, and the only sounds come from the local school’s playground or the hum of traffic floating up from nearby Shoreditch. But come Sunday, the scene is marvellously different. Columbia Road Flower Market is one of London’s oldest and best-loved institutions. Once a week, the street explodes into a froth of colour, with East-End stall owners crying out over each other. “Roses for a fiver! Roses for a fiver!”, “Lilies, a quid each! Only a quid!”, “Bunch o’ lilac, lasts a lifetime!” they call out, while thousands of visitors jostle by clutching sweet peas, orchards and cloud-like hydrangeas wrapped up in brown paper.

It is here that the Mississippi-born chef Brad McDonald lives with his family. Some Sundays, they can be found selling homemade doughnuts from their daffodil-yellow front door. Behind it, Brad’s two-hundred-year-old house is just as we’d hoped – narrow and creaky, like a countryside cottage. We go through to the kitchen and take a seat at the tiny table, while Brad stands over a deep butler’s sink which looks out over a tiny garden. Molly, Brad’s wife – the travel writer and marketing guru who has been by his side since they met in a French class at college – comes in and sets down a huge jar of wild flowers. They almost touch the brick ceiling, which is lined with thick timber beams. 

Brad grew up in Yazoo City, a hillside town on the edge of the blistering Mississippi Delta. On the other side of the Yazoo River, the flatlands rolled out towards Louisiana. “If you head five minutes out of the centre, you’re looking at cotton and corn fields.” Brad explains. “It’s suburban. It’s very country, very Southern. I loved it and I hated it. In the end, there wasn’t enough to keep me interested.”

After enrolling at college at his parents’ will, Brad began working at City Grocery, an acclaimed fine dining restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi. “I was attending college, but I was always preoccupied with cooking.” He says, twisting open a bottle of bone-dry Chenin Blanc. The food at City Grocery was Southern, peppered with French influences. Studying French Gastronomy books and throwing himself into serious kitchens replaced any formal training. He soon landed a position in the kitchens of legendary French chef Alain Ducasse’s eponymous restaurant. After that, he landed a key position in the kitchen of Per Se, before spending six months at Noma in Copenhagen. A stint in Westchester followed, but Brad and Molly were quickly lured back to Brooklyn’s DUMBO district, where he joined the team at Colonie and Gran Electrica.

It is this restless spirit that brought Molly and Brad to London. After Hurricane Sandy swept through and left his last restaurant, Governer, in 4ft of water, it felt like time for a change. “That was tough.” He remembers. “It was time for a new adventure.” 

Brad’s first lessons in cooking came during his childhood. He learned to bake from observing his mother’s simple, classical Southern baking. He and his father would go out hunting for dove, deer, turkey, squirrel and wild boar baited with seed and beer, which they would eat with the corn and butterbeans grown in their garden. “Hunting certainly sparked an interest in cooking.” Brad tells us. “It was always very simple, traditional food. It was always about quality – we would hunt, and we would cook. But for a lot of my parents’ generation, cooking was purely functional. It wasn’t an art form. I guess that’s what I went looking for.”

Despite all of this, Brad’s focus had been entirely on fine dining until his move to London. It was only then that he began cooking Southern food professionally. Brad took over The Lockhart, the ‘American Restaurant’ in Maylebone which was relaunched in 2014. He reimagined the menu, replacing comfortable ideas of American cooking with inventive takes on Southern dishes like gumbo, liver mousse and shrimp and grits. More recently he launched Shotgun, a pocket of the Deep South in London’s Soho, where guests feast on a simple menu of eight pit-barbecued meats, pig’s ear with sour pancakes, shrimp and grits, clams with potato dumplings, freshly shucked oysters and cornbread. This is not food that Londoners are used to. Like its wood-panelled walls and slow-turning ceiling fans, Shotgun recalls a subtler, more soulful America than the one of ‘dirty burgers’ and cheese-soaked fries found in other parts of the city. “Many people didn’t find The Lockhart ‘American’ enough at first because we didn’t have a burger with an American flag toothpick on top.” Molly tells us. “We didn’t want to create a caricature of American food. Brad’s version was too subtle for the average diner. But it was the most honest representation of what we eat at home.” 

Our vision of Brad McDonald has been coloured by his two restaurants, which we hungrily visit as often as we can. His first cookbook, Deep South: New Southern Cooking, sits in our kitchen, its pages filled with images of dusty open roads and flaming barbecue pits. It explores the culinary heritage of the country’s southern tips, from its Creole roots to the ritualistic cooking of its rural communities. It promises comfort and restoration in the form of hot pepper vinegar, rabbit with green garlic, buttermilk biscuits and pecan pie. To us, he is the quintessential Southern cook. Yet in a single afternoon, our minds are changed entirely.

“Because of the Lockhart and Shotgun, I guess people don’t expect different things from me.” Brad explains. “The burgers topped with short rib and macaroni; that’s not American to me, but it’s what the public want. I sometimes feel that I’ve run a little bit of a professional risk of getting too close to that fire.” We listen with one eye on the sourdough in front of us, which we cover in butter the colour of dawn sunlight. “I make my own butter.” He says. “I think that’s…cool. When you make something from scratch you fully appreciate it. You take care of it and you don’t waste it.” He pushes a dish of thick, meaty ceps towards us. They have been preserved with oil and roasted garlic. “When you let them sit for a week, they take on this whole different meaning.” He explains. The mushrooms are slick with oil, their sheer earthiness heady. We open another bottle of wine, discussing travel and food while the radio sings ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in the background. As the light drops and the trees outside shiver, Molly lights a few candles. They flicker against the ceiling as Brad pinches together the truffled egg ravioli which we eat standing up at the kitchen counter. He shaves the truffle over each perfectly domed piece, leaving the plate covered in a blanket of fine, nutty coils. Bright orange yolk rushes out of the ravioli at the slice of our knives.

Next comes the main course; though we would have gone home after the ravioli completely satisfied, with the taste and scent of black truffle in every pore. From his small corner of the kitchen, he produces a dish of jugged hare – served with a dark, unctuous sauce thickened with its own blood. He spoons chopped nuts and two-year-preserved sour cherries onto the plate, before dressing it all in a coat of frothy chestnut mousse. It is a classic British dish that reeks of winter. The afternoon light lowers as the candles glimmer against the windowpane. It would all feel a little Dickensian, if we weren’t eating like kings. “This is my favourite time of year to cook.” Brad remarks. “You finally have a reason to get into deep, indulgent flavours. It’s not summer time, it’s not about freshness and lightness. It’s about comfort.”

Since moving here, Brad has found his cooking informed by British produce. This is another small surprise. When we think of his restaurants, we see hearty plates of dirty rice, collard greens, sticky buns, peppercorn lamb and golden fried chicken – dishes that stretch across the seasons. But Brad set about to learn about the ingredients native to this new place, and has found his cooking bending to the shape of it. Just a few months ago, he travelled up to the Scottish Highlands to hunt grouse and duck. And when it comes to shopping for their family, he and Molly visit nearby farmer’s markets and greengrocers. “As I chef I want to be surrounded by this kind of indigenous produce.” He says. “There is a bounty of incredible ingredients on your doorstep. That’s what keeps me excited about cooking here.” He jumps up and returns to the counter. “Shall we have something sweet?” He asks. Of course, the answer at this time of year is always yes.

A few minutes later, Brad pulls a tray of scallop-shaped madeleines from the oven. They are delicate and spongey, the colour of warm honey. He introduces us to his father’s ‘ghetto icing’. We stand up and take turns to dip the madeleines into the bowl of silky raw batter, abandoning the fine wine and food to recall those childhood moments of scooping up leftover cake mixture straight from the bowl.

We leave Brad McDonald’s house warm and content, stepping out onto Columbia Road in the dusky blue light. It’s safe to say he surprised us, both with his insurmountable knowledge of food and his cooking skills. The food was classic yet creative, meticulous yet comforting, and utterly effortless. Though Brad is neatly slotted into the category of ‘American chef’ in London for now, he has the kind of irrepressible energy of someone for whom change is never far from the horizon. “I guess my natural progression is something more focused. Smaller, more focused food.” He says, perhaps alluding to a new chapter. “The concept needs to be accessible. It’s about writing a menu driven by pure creativity. It’s about creating food that people want to return to. Wherever it is.”