Rising sun: the story of Kurobuta

by Tom Shingler 16 November 2015

Tom Shingler talks to Scott Hallsworth at the top of Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge and finds out how far his Kurobuta restaurants have come.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

‘My mate Mark was homeless and I was probably on the verge of losing my house,’ Scott Hallsworth tells me amongst the busy waiters and workmen around us. We’re on the Fifth Floor of Harvey Nichols where he’s about to open the third instalment of his Kurobuta restaurant concept. It seems like the combination of a great idea, buckets of elbow grease and the fear of not having a roof over your head is a recipe for success – Scott is now known for introducing the UK to fun, fast and fashionable Japanese food against a punk rock backdrop.

Growing up in Australia meant Scott experienced the first imported food from Asia when he was still doing his apprenticeship twenty-five years ago. ‘I remember Dave, a senior apprentice came into the kitchen and asked me to smell these green leaves,’ he recalls. ‘I asked what it was and he said ‘coriander, I think it’s rotten or something’. We had no idea what it was as we’d never seen it before! But all these new ingredients started flooding in and it affected me as a chef for sure.’

Scott left Australia to work in Canada, Switzerland and France before arriving in London, wanting to build on his experience. He heard there was a job going at Nobu and did a trial shift. ‘It was the first time in my life that I thought I couldn’t do something,’ he says. ‘I can’t cook for 500 people a night! I was on the sauté section, which is one of the hardest positions in the kitchen. I thought I’d screwed it up but they asked me to come back. I learnt quickly and eventually worked my way up to head chef.’

This is certainly where Scott picked up his knack for Japanese cooking, and he stayed for seven years, even helping to open a Nobu in Melbourne. But he grew tired of creating recipes for the restaurant empire and wanted to be known for his cooking. After a stint working in Dubai, he came back to the UK to start out on his own. A few disasters involving shady investors and broken promises later, Scott started to put together the plan for Kurobuta.

Scott Hallsworth
Scott has been a highly accomplished chef for years, but Kurobuta was his first serious solo venture after Nobu
Some of the edamame beans at Kurobuta are grown in Sussex

East meets west

‘I’d been thinking about the concept for years, wanting to capture the excitement of Nobu from back in the day,’ says Scott. ‘There were plenty of Japanese restaurants at the top end, and lots at the lower end like Yo! Sushi, but no one was trying anything in the middle.’ He wanted to open something similar to the izakayas of Japan – informal bars which also serve plates of food. ‘If you want sushi in Japan you go to a sushi restaurant; if you want tempura you go to a tempura restaurant,’ he explains. ‘Izakayas serve a bit of everything usually, but they vary – you can find family businesses serving good food with a minimal, barebones interior, or you can go down a back alley and find yourself in a rock and roll bar with food coming out until three in the morning.’

Funding fell through for Scott’s first site, which was around the time his friend was living out of his car and Scott wasn’t too far behind. ‘We’d already told everyone we were opening a restaurant so we couldn’t lose the momentum,’ he says. ‘We decided to scrape all our cash together and open a pop-up to try and make some money – after all, everyone else seemed to be doing it. Our agent found a place on King’s Road in Chelsea which wasn’t really the area we were looking to open in, but we fell in love with the place when we saw it; dingy, shabby and with a tiny kitchen. We decked it out, worked twenty-four hours a day and by the second week of opening we were making a profit – it all blew up overnight and just went crazy. We only had thirty-eight seats – most of which we’d borrowed from another restaurant – and were doing 110 covers a night.’

This success was what led to a permanent site in Chelsea, a second restaurant in Marble Arch and then Harvey Nichols knocking on the door, but Scott still fondly remembers the chaos during those first few months. ‘After working at Nobu we were used to nice bespoke kitchens – in this one you could barely work,’ he says. ‘One of our guys even had to run down the street with a tray of pork belly buns so he could steam them at another restaurant. It was tough, but the sense of pride that came out of those guys after we made it happen was unbelievable.’

It all blew up overnight and just went crazy. We only had thirty-eight seats – most of which we’d borrowed from another restaurant – and were doing 110 covers a night.

Scott Hallsworth

Japanese food
Kurobuta serves a little bit of everything, from sushi to Japanese junk food
Kurobuta dish
The restaurant was massively popular just a few weeks after opening

The fifth degree

The journey from dingy pop-up to having a restaurant at Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor has been a bit of a whirlwind for Scott, but it seems he works best when things are hectic. The kitchen in his new venue is certainly a step up from what he’s been used to lately, and he’s particularly excited about the sushi bar he’s installed. ‘The sushi menu is going to be a lot bigger here,’ he says. ‘The core dishes are the same, but we’ve got just under ten new ones that are only going to be available at Harvey Nichols.’ He seems particularly proud of a slow-cooked octopus dish from the sushi bar, and a king crab tempura which he expects to be very popular.

From just looking around the restaurant, you can tell a lot of Scott’s personality has gone into the design and feel of the place. His older brothers worked in the Australian music industry, and Scott always wanted to be a rock star. ‘We actually started using flight cases in the kitchen for all sorts of things and they turned out to be really practical, but I just did it for a bit of image at first,’ he explains. ‘I’m a big music fan and live for it in a huge way – I think Kurobuta looks more like a gig venue than a restaurant, which is great.’

The Fifth Floor Kurobuta has only been open a few weeks now, but Scott is already looking to the future. ‘We’re open Kurobuta Canteen in Soho next year, which will be a bit more accessible pricewise, and I’m thinking about doing something Southeast Asian in the future, too,’ he says. In the space of just two years, Scott’s profile as a solo chef has grown massively – let’s just hope his kitchen space can keep up.