Earlier in the year, when the UK was beginning to emerge from Covid lockdown, a London food PR company was looking to move to a smaller office. They found one and gained a neighbour – fortuitously, a millionaire music producer named Nigel Frieda, brother of celebrity hairdresser John Frieda. They got chatting and discovered he owned a tiny, scarcely populated island in the Blackwater River estuary in Essex, around 50 miles to the northeast of the city, called Osea. He was looking to set-up a food offering on the island. “We know just the people,” said the PR company.
Photo courtesy of Native
Fast forward to autumn, and London wild-food pioneers Ivan Tisdall-Downes and Imogen Davis are about to open the third iteration of their restaurant, Native, on Osea. What originally started as just an oyster and sparkling wine shack on the island – they’re still doing that – has ended up with the pair relocating their flagship restaurant from foodie Borough to the English east coast. And get this: it’s going to be a truly seasonal restaurant, dictated by the tides and only reachable by ancient Roman causeway or boat. In fact, if the tide isn’t right, they won’t be able to host a sitting at all. “I always imagined having a small smallholding or farm restaurant in the countryside,” says chef Tisdall-Downes. “To have a place that is this in-tune with nature is beyond what I imagined. It's an absolute dream come true.”
Native's mackerel, cucumber, fishbone caramel, samphire and whey - photo credit Nic Crilly-Hargrave
Making the move
Tisdall-Downes and Davis (front of house) first met at university in Brighton. They shared a dream to, in the former's words, “Give a Native experience of feeding from the land,” through a restaurant. Starting with markets and pop-ups, the pair soon found themselves with a tiny, but acclaimed, tasting menu restaurant in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden. In 2018 they moved to Borough, after having their application for a permanent lease denied and turning to Kickstarter to fund something bigger and better. The crowdfunding was a success, but the step up and the addition of an à la carte left them feeling overstretched. “Because we make everything from scratch ourselves in the restaurant, it was a hard slog. We felt like neither the à la carte or the tasting menu were going to their full potential,” says Tisdall-Downes.
So, even before Covid struck, they were planning to make the move from London. But then Frieda came along and the opportunity fell into their laps. And it fits with their ultimate plan for a closed-loop restaurant system: a tasting menu restaurant in the countryside, and an à la carte spot and bakery in London (they won’t be reopening in Borough though). It’s just, it was supposed to be a 10-year plan. “You can get lucky sometimes, I guess,” says Tisdall-Downes.
Photo courtesy of Osea Island
Idyllic setting for foraging and dining
The way Tisdall-Downes describes it, Osea really is a slightly eccentric English dream. The surrounding waters are teeming with life: the Maldon oyster bed is nearby, plus the bounty of the North Sea, and abundant sea herbs and vegetables. He’ll be able to slash his foraging bill, he says. “If you stand in the water for five minutes, you're swamped in about £100 worth of seaweed, and samphire too. It's mad to see the money I was having to pay foragers to try and get this produce.” Plus, the team, who’ll be living and working there four days a week, will have plenty of wholesome, outdoorsy-things to do with their former commute time – cycling, fishing, swimming when it’s warm enough.
Most importantly, a meal there sounds utterly idyllic. Guests will be greeted by Tisdall-Downes and the team when they arrive, and taken on a snack-laden tour of the island – including the orchard and a campfire on the shore (swoon) – before settling down for a tasting menu in the island’s converted World War 1 torpedo store. New dishes that make use of Essex’s “wonderful” producers will sit alongside Native classics, such as chocolate bone-marrow caramel and maybe even the restaurant’s famous wood pigeon kebab. And of course, anything else he and Davis manage to forage or grow themselves. “We are starting to build a small kitchen garden, we'll get some polytunnels for the winter and try and grow as much as we can ourselves, which is an exciting new adventure for us as well,” he says.
Native's fermented potato waffle, duck liver parfait, and Braeburn apple jelly - photo credit William Tisdall Downes
Think local bass with fennel and lavender, desserts made with foraged sea buckthorn, and a palate cleanser of apple and seaweed sorbet with kombucha, all washed down with Davis’ pick of organic, biodynamic and low-intervention wines, and house-made cocktails. Oh, and “a lot” of oysters, initially at least, jokes Tidsall-Downes. Guests can even pay extra for a two-hour, pre-dinner foraging tour with the darlings of British wild food.
All sounds great, doesn’t it? Now, according to Tisdall-Downes, they’ve got to “Get on with the work and make it happen,” and fine-tune the logistics of getting produce (and people) on and off the island. For some restaurants this uncertainty would be unsettling. But for Native, you get the feeling they thrive on it, at being at the mercy of nature. And it’s all thanks to a chance meeting. Yes, Ivan, you really can get lucky sometimes.