The Avant Garde Blue Mountain School's New Michelin-Starred Restaurant
Receiving a Michelin star within 6 months of opening, Blue Mountain School’s second restaurant presents a transformative experience led by culinary artistry, innovative ideas and curated craftsmanship.
Led by chef Theo Clench and Blue Mountain School’s founders James and Christie Brown, their joint vision has resulted in a one-of-a-kind dining experience.
Cycene – meaning kitchen in Old English – is an intimate dinner-only dining experience where well-selected ingredients, and the creativity combining them into various courses, is well and truly ignited. It’s an art form after all, a type of performance made through well-curated elements coming together to inspire and delight.
In the Cycene way, guests are invited to contribute through their presence, as they engage through the flow of the scheduled dinner. From arrival and entry to the ground floor bar, the tone and pace is set for an experience unlike any other.
The first floor restaurant and dining space has been re-envisioned and altered from its previous life as Blue Mountain School’s first restaurant Maõs created together with renowned Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes (of game-changing Viajante and the in-demand Chiltern Firehouse restaurant) and chef Edoardo Pellicano. Although closing in 2022, it also received a Michelin star in its first year of opening, Maõs was visionary, driven by expertise and emotion.
In the same visionary way, Cycene has been able to change existing perspectives on the traditional dining experience and more. With an approach as if guests are dining in a private home, some dishes are served at the kitchen table by the chef, where the heart of the experience lies. Here, personal interaction and exchange with Executive Chef Theo Clench and his team is greeted wholeheartedly, nourishing and enriching everyones time in the building – be it work or pleasure.
Theo Clench, formerly Executive Chef of Akoko and Head Chef of Portland, met Christie and James serendipitously through a dining experience where conversation began and ideas formed. Through mutual perseverance, they’ve created an elegant and refined dining experience with traditional elements all driven by the seasons and the best quality ingredients produced at their peak. An important point to note is, most members of Theo’s team have worked with him in some guise before, which says a lot about the young chef’s magnetism and their harmony working as a team at Cycene.
With a 10-course menu (for 15 covers) made through classic techniques and subtle influences from Theo’s travels in Eastern Asia and Australasia, the chef’s passion lies in highlighting Britain’s best seafood and game.
Nutrient-rich ingredients are selected for the menu, with the first aperitif of bone broth (served in potter Steve Harrison’s artisanal clay cups), house-made bread accompanied by three types of butter. Traditional indigenous diets also utilised fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients found in these small starters, which certainly warmed the heart and the belly. Moving on from the bar, a private seating in the Cycene Hearth Room enabled us to overlook the kitchen, with myself and our Champ Architecture Editor Melodie Leung able to observe the delights to come.
Unafraid to challenge the senses, Theo’s Duck Liver and Red Pepper bites set the tone to expect the unexpected. Nutrient-dense ingredients such as seaweed and sea buckthorn are found throughout the menu, along with fermented foods playing a large role in the construction of mind-blowing dishes and drinks (created by chef Caitlin Jones). A state-of-the-art kitchen includes a specialised ageing chamber allowing for ageing a whole animal or fish in-house, ensuring nothing goes to waste. Crab, scallop, turbot and wagyu are all elevated in their chosen dishes throughout the menu, but it was the Pouched Oyster with Cucumber and Oscietra that blew us away. Served around the kitchen counter, the larger-than-life Irish oysters are poached, then sliced generously into 5 pieces – with everything constructed in front of diners. Consumed this way, textures from soft to dense can be tasted one by one, changing the overall flavour profile in multiples.
Hand-selected and handmade tableware does not go unnoticed, specially designed by Christie Brown and made by potter Elise Gettliffe of Atelier 14 amongst other artisans. Textured and delicate, they highlight intricately-designed dishes in the most elegant way.
Fermented elixirs make up soft pairings, which are stand-outs in their own right (such as the Verbena and Fermented Tomato drink). We found equal amounts of discovery in the wine list that is curated by James Brown, who selects from coveted estates practising minimalist, terroir driven winemaking practices (such as producer Tanca Nica in Sicily, utilising volcanic-rich soil of the region or Mullineau from Swartland, South Africa), also introducing rare and unique bottles rotated from an offsite cellar.
Taking months to perfect, the Chocolate slice with Crème Crue cannot be faulted, its silken texture melting on the tongue with each bite. The chocolate recipe is first placed in a tray, then carefully cut in slices for individual plating along with naturally cultured crème crue. Keeping the surprises coming, Petit Fours are presented in a handcrafted wooden box with 3 layers, each better than the next. Our evening wraps up with a stellar selection of digestifs, coffee and Chinese teas from rare and centuries-old trees (we opted for the Wild Schisandra tea from Chang Bai mountain and the Ancient Artisan Moonlight White Tea from 400 year old trees in the high mountains of Yunnan).
Harnessing their learnings from their previous culinary journey, James and Christie Brown have conceived a project ambitious in more ways than one. Champ Editor-in-Chief Monique Kawecki speaks to the founders about their collaborative work with Theo Clench and key curation driven by their values and intuition.
CHAMP: Your first restaurant held within the Blue Mountain School building, Mãos, recently closed. Can you tell us why, and how it made way for your new vision with Cycene?
James Brown: We closed Mãos on our own terms, we had over 2000 people on the waiting list in its last month. It was an incredible journey and we achieved all that was possible with it. It was never designed or built as a space or a restaurant that could cope with the demand that was placed on it. Cycene is built for longevity; in many ways its aims are more ambitious than those of Mãos.
Can you expand on your evolution and updated vision for dining at Blue Mountain School?
Christie Brown: James and I have a really good understanding of what we like, and what we don’t. We put enormous pressure on ourselves to deliver an environment and experience at Blue Mountain School that stands up to the best in the world, regardless of the format or discipline. We evolve our product, whether it be Blue Mountain School or Cycene, as we grow and learn more. We started working together in 2013, and have traveled and visited places that have inspired us, as well as places that have let us down. The latter is probably more important, we’re always asking ourselves why, and feel propelled to do better. The only way this can happen is by working with meaning and authenticity; nothing contrived. Our projects are deeply personal to us, our touch is everywhere on every detail and it’s these – often unseen – nuances that make what we do feel different. It can’t be copied because what we deliver is a direct reflection of James, myself and those whose work we believe in. That’s changing all the time.
Does Cycene follow the same format or is it something entirely different? What did you learn from the iterations of Mãos that changed your approach to Cycene?
JB: We learned a lot from our time with Mãos. The spirit of how we feel a restaurant should be remains. Intimate, otherworldly, sincere, chef and ingredient-led. However we’ve worked closely with Theo Clench to build upon the overall experience. We added another floor – a standalone bar area open to diners only. We are very fortunate that we have an incredible team in place who have all worked with Theo in previous restaurants so there is a real sense of family that shines through which of course again is a key factor for me – harmony!
What was it about Theo’s ideas and approach that resonated with you?
CB: We met Theo at quite a serendipitous time. We had closed Mãos and weren’t planning on opening a restaurant anytime soon, largely owing to the limitations of the space. He was no longer at Akoko, and was hoping to find an investor to fund his own project when we were introduced. He jumped at the opportunity to prepare a lunch menu for myself and James, to illustrate his style of cooking to us. He had only a few hours’ notice that I have a shellfish allergy so I didn’t expect the full menu, but he took the service extremely seriously, developing incredible substitutes and bringing Rachel, our now Restaurant Manager, and Erik, our now Head Chef, to assist.
We understand working with people, and the fact that so many individuals who had worked with Theo previously were willing to leave their current positions to follow whatever he did, spoke volumes to us. Every member of our team has worked with Theo in some guise before. We loved his classic style, the bravery in the simplicity of some of his dishes, that were all executed with such precision. It felt like an amazing twist, to do something more traditional, elegant and refined. There’s nowhere to hide with Theo’s cooking, the ingredient takes centre stage and produce is selected at the peak of its season. It’s how we love to eat.
Neither of your backgrounds are in food. What was your thinking in introducing restaurants at Blue Mountain School?
JB: Food, wine and restaurants have been core to our existence and a huge source of inspiration. A lot of our good friends are restaurateurs or chefs and I always wanted to bring together food, music and design. Creating a cross-creative space that also incorporates fine dining was a natural progression for us.
Cycene’s Executive Chef, Theo Clench, previously worked at Akoko, a west African restaurant, Portland, a British restaurant, and the now-closed Bonham’s, which was French-European. How did the collaboration with him come about?
JB: Meeting Theo really came around by chance. After Mãos our plan was to take some time and reset. We were also considering the possibility of opening something outside of London, however Edoardo – who was the Exec Chef at Mãos – introduced me to Theo and there was an instant connection and alignment in thinking. He had just left Akoko and was looking to do his own project. He asked if he could cook for us which was a very personal gesture. He created an incredible 9-course menu from scratch the following day in a kitchen that he had never cooked in before and I was just blown away by the refinement, purity and elegance of what he did that day. It felt the stars had aligned and for whatever reason the project that is now Cycene was meant to be…Both myself and my wife Christie work very much on instinct and timing; often it’s how so much of Blue Mountain School happens.
Dishes are very evidently driven by the produce of the seasons, their flavour and form reflects this easily. With meat and seafood also playing major parts in the menu, how much thought is going into sustainability and keeping your carbon footprint low? Are you making anything in-house?
JB: 95% of the ingredients we use are sourced from the UK, which contributes to a low carbon footprint. The majority of our processes are based in-house. We have specialist aging chambers allowing for meat and fish, as well as fermentation lockers for the development of the bespoke soft pairing of drinking vinegars and elixirs, to be offered alongside the meal itself.
The ageing chambers and fermentation lockers were part of extensive remodelling within Blue Mountain School to facilitate Cycene’s practices. What else did you have to allow additional space for?
JB: We doubled the footprint of the kitchen giving more room and space to push things even harder than before. There is no back of house to the Cycene kitchen and every element is on view. We also converted the ground floor into a new bar area for Cycene where guests spend the first part of their meal before heading up to the main dining room. The bar has direct views into the Blue Mountain School Archive, and houses a vintage sound system which plays throughout the space whilst a drink is made for guests to take a minute to pause and relax.
Tell me more about the course dedicated entirely to bread.
JB: The first course is served downstairs in the bar – house-made bread and broth served in Steve Harrison’s artisanal clay beakers sets the tone of the meal, before guests move upstairs to the dining room. Something ritualistic, elemental and warming to start the evening.
The course sets a homely feel that’s continued throughout, how exactly is that achieved?
JB: In the truest sense, the building is our home, we have owned this building for over 10 years and evolved together with the projects within it. The dining room and kitchen are located on the first floor with only 6 tables total and one service. It’s not about making it feel “like or home”, it is our home.
You curate the wine list. Is this a passion of yours and if so, how did you get into it?
JB: It’s purely a passion of mine, I have been collecting wine for the last 10 years. I don’t believe that wine should be alienating, the list at Cycene doesn’t conform to what is expected, instead it focuses on different regions, producers and processes that we really admire, showcasing them in a focused and concise way, whilst evolving regularly.
We also tried the Two Orchards ‘Traditional Method’ cider from West Sussex, which is made from apples from your very own orchard?
CB: Our dearest friend and Sussex neighbour Ted, started making traditional method cider a few years ago, their first release being 2020. We have several varieties of ancient apple trees in our orchard which are dedicated solely to Ted’s cider making but certainly aren’t the only apples in his cider! Knowing that some of our land has been captured in Two Orchards cider is something really special we are able to offer our guests. It’s a taste of our home.
With the number of great tasting menus in London, what do you feel makes Cycene particularly special?
JB: Our aim with Cycene is far more than just another tasting menu – yes it’s a key and foundational element but the overall experience is just as equal. My background is in art, design, and culture, and combining this with food is really what we feel gives Cycene unique elements to other tasting menus in London. We believe that there is still a demand for tasting menus in London, as shown by our regulars at Maos & the bookings that have already come through for Cycene.
The aim of BMS is to give context, integrity and a platform to a myriad of different artists, makers, artisans and to give their work the respect that it deserves. Cycene, also embodies these values. It’s a platform for an incredibly talented group of chefs and FOH spearheaded by Executive Chef Theo Clench which is a team of 10 for only a max of 20 covers per service. The suppliers, farmers and growers that we work with also hold this integrity. We aim to showcase Theo’s cooking with the very best ingredients available to us whilst providing exceptional service in an extremely unique environment which hopefully leaves our guests whirling and inspired – for me that has never had more value than right now during this time. We do it because we are passionate, and believe in it, not because of any financial motivation.
9 Chance Street, Shoreditch
London, E2 7JB
Text: Champ Editor-in-Chief Monique Kawecki
Images: As credited, Champ Magazine© and courtesy Blue Mountain School