Nicholas Balfe is a busy man.
Co-founder of Levan London, founder of the recently closed Salon in Brixton - he now finds himself in Somerset as chef director and owner of Holm; the Condé Nast-approved boutique hotel and restaurant based in South Petherton.
We found the opportunity to catch up with Nicholas to learn about his journey and talk about the grounding and soul-nourishing power of food.
He also shares his top tips for the home chef - and tells us why Holm is well worth a visit.
TOG: Can you remember when you first fell in love with food?
Food was a big part of my family life, my mum cooked from scratch every day and my dad made more intricate meals and baked bread at the weekend. I remember my parents growing rhubarb, gooseberries and artichokes (amongst many other things) in our back garden when I was a child. I can remember dipping the cut ends of the rhubarb into brown sugar with my mum. It feels like a bit of a cliché to say, but it must be one of those things that parents of a certain generation did with their kids.
I actually have loads of food memories from when I was a kid. In fact, even as I’m telling you, little snippets are flooding into my head. I guess that shows my brain was hard-wired to think about food from a very young age.
TOG: How would you describe your style of cooking?
Simple, seasonal, ingredient-led.
At work, my style of food is very much rooted in modern British cuisine. My restaurant, Holm in South Petherton, has a strong sense of place in its surroundings and is very much connected to Somerset produce.
At home, the brief is a bit more open. I love to cook all types of food - especially Mediterranean, Asian, and Middle Eastern - but as a rule, we generally stick to seasonal ingredients where possible. My wife cooks this really delicious Persian upside-down vegetable rice dish from an excellent cookbook called Veggestan. It’s a celebratory dish of layered vegetables, with fragrant rice on top. When it’s cooked, you flip it over and top with toasted almonds and herbs. It’s become something of a signature dish in our house.
"Food is very emotive and full of symbolism and meaning."
TOG: Who are the people you most love to prepare food for?
My family. We recently had some bad news in our family and the best way I was able to respond was through food. I rescheduled my commitments and made a lamb hotpot, which spent four or five hours on the stove whilst we spent time together as a family. It was deeply grounding and nourishing, warming to the bone. It didn’t change what had happened but it did give us time to start processing things, mentally and emotionally.
TOG: Where is the most memorable place you've prepared food?
I’ve cooked at Glastonbury festival a couple of times in different circumstances. That was pretty memorable. The most recent time was a few years ago now, running a pop-up restaurant hidden behind one of the main stages. We cleaned down after service, and headed out into the festival around 10pm, just as Radiohead were starting their headline show, then spent the rest of the night bouncing between Silverhayes, Shangri La and Block 9. The next morning, prepping for lunch, wasn’t quite as much fun!
TOG: What is one thing you can't live without in the kitchen?
This is where I’m gonna sound like such an old man… but peppermint tea! I drink it throughout service. It helps cleanse my palate as I spend all day tasting rich food and flavoursome sauces.
TOG: What one song is always on when you're preparing food?
As well as food, my other love is house music. So something with a 4/4 beat! There’s a track called Energy by an artist called Ron Trent. It’s got this really throbbing, percussive rhythm which just drives forward. It’s a great track for when you need to get stuff done.
TOG: What is a piece of advice you'd give a home cook?
Plan ahead, be organised and keep your work surface clean and uncluttered. These three things are all pretty fundamental to professional cookery, and something I am always coaching Junior members of the team on. They are the cornerstones of mise en place, really.
TOG: Tell us a little about Holm and what the TOG family are missing out on.
Outgrowing the city and moving to greener pastures is a right of passage for many, especially post-pandemic. I have family in Dorset and spent some time growing up in Somerset, so the South West was always high on the list when we started to outgrow our life in London.
My wife and I had been eyeing up a potential move away from London, when out of the blue, the opportunity to open Holm landed in my lap. We visited the site, hit it off with the landlord, loved the village and surrounding area and - possibly slightly gung ho - just jumped into it two feet first!
The restaurant itself is bright, airy and welcoming. We knew we wanted the restaurant to stand out from a more typical ‘country’ restaurant and I think we’ve done that. The design is quite raw and minimalist, giving it a calm feeling. The food is unfussy but full of attention to detail. The rooms are spacious yet comfy and cosy. I’m biassed of course, but I think it’s the perfect place to escape to for a leisurely lunch, indulgent dinner or luxurious weekend away!
Nicholas uses the TOG Santoku.
Follow Nicholas on Instagram.