Chef Jackson Boxer on tallying success with sobriety

The restaurateur opens up about his rapid yet rough rise to the top of the food world – and why even today he has a point to prove.
Jackson Boxer 16x9 hero

‘I'm a very bad boss and I'm a very bad father,’ says Jackson Boxer. ‘But I'm prepared to admit that now, and to try to be better, which is relatively new for me. So, that's a start. Maybe.’ 

The 36-year-old is one of London's most important and divisive culinary figures. When he started making a name for himself more than a decade ago, he wasn't a boss, nor was he a father. Then, he was a shit-hot chef serving carefully crafted plates of food, working a huge number of hours fueled by what many have confirmed to be a huge amount of drugs. 

Today, he's a father of three, having swapped Tsingtao-soaked appearances on VICE's Chef's Night Out series for paid partnerships with the upper-middle class British department store John Lewis. He's the chef-patron of London restaurants Brunswick House and Orasay – as well as the co-owner of the newly opened Below Stone Nest bar in central London with his brother, Frank – where he serves British(ish) plates of food with a strong seasonal bent. Restaurant critic Marina O'Loughlin tells Courier that Jackson ‘marries ingredients in a madcap way, while never losing sight of the all-important deliciousness’. 

Following his fast rise to the top, Jackson has become something of a role model in the hospitality industry in recent years – albeit reticently. ‘I still feel immensely ill-equipped to deal with any kind of role of spokesperson,’ he says, ‘I barely know what I think about things, let alone feel I have the position to speak for anyone else.’ 

After years of chaotic services and a frenzied relationship with drugs and alcohol, it's natural to wonder whether the kitchen has lost any of its anarchic side. ‘I still relish it,’ says Jackson, ‘but for very different reasons than I did when I was young. In your early 20s, you have a huge amount to prove. You have a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about your place in the world… The thing that's kept me cooking and kept me devoted to what is, ultimately, a very demanding job is that it seems to be a fairly honest way to give people pleasure.’ 

In the early days, Jackson says he faced the ‘anxiety of inheritance’. His grandmother is a respected food writer, Arabella Boxer. His father, Charlie, runs Italo Deli in Vauxhall. His brother, Frank, is the founder of Frank's Cafe and the proprietor of the Camberwell Arms. An appreciation for good food is obviously sewn into the Boxer DNA. But that didn't make the acquisition of culinary celebrity at such a young age (Jackson was just 23 when his first pop-up started gaining serious traction) any less intoxicating.

‘Any small modicum of success that you can claw, any recognition of your name and anything that you can do to receive affirmation that you're somehow capable of standing on your own two feet is enormously exciting and empowering at that stage of your life,’ says Jackson. ‘It can also be incredibly addictive.’

Although Jackson has been sober for more than three years now, he's open about his experiences with ‘periods of depression and mania and near-suicidal consumption of drugs and alcohol’. Drew Snaith is the current head chef at acclaimed east London restaurant Pidgin, and a former sous chef at Brunswick House. He started working with Jackson around seven years ago, seeing him through those ‘darker days’. 

‘I've seen how Brunswick [House] has developed over the years and how Jackson's come along,’ says Drew. ‘While I worked there, we weren't the closest of people. I was still quite young – I was the sous chef at 21, so I was a bit of an asshole at the time myself. Over the years, though, he's become a good friend of mine. The past year or so, I've been trying to stop drinking as much, and he's been really good for that and a really good person to lean on… I think it took him a long time to understand what he was going through, but now he's at a place where he's managing himself better, he's open and willing to talk to people.’

Jackson regularly encourages people suffering from addiction to reach out to him on social media. He says he finds the opportunity to help incredibly rewarding, if somewhat belated. ‘One of the reasons that I took so long to address my own problems is that I didn't see how I would still be able to enjoy my job, or enjoy my world, if I gave up the thing that underpinned a lot of my pleasure in it,’ he says. The restaurant industry is plagued by drug and alcohol abuse – an unsurprising consequence of the brutal hours and demands placed on chefs. 

Jackson's journey to where he is today, in a ‘peaceful and sober position’, wasn't without obstacles. Friendships, relationships and businesses were damaged. Some almost irreparably, in the case of St Leonards – a joint venture with chef Andrew Clarke that Jackson exited in 2019, due to what he referred to at the time as ‘a difference of opinion on operational practices’. 

On top of the ruthless working environment, the hospitality sector has been hit hard by the pandemic. Figures from trade association UKHospitality reveal up to a quarter of restaurants, hotels and pubs in the UK have been forced to close for at least part of the week due to staff shortages. Restaurants trade on very tight margins as it is, and many owners have struggled to maintain staff while also tackling the backlash to the toxic workplace cultures malignant in most professional kitchens. 

He's been described as a rock star in the kitchen (‘Alex Turner with an AGA’) and been asked to model for luxury brand Hermès, so it's unsurprising if Jackson has developed an ego. ‘Developing a taste for seeing your words in quotation marks in publications often means saying rather bullish or antagonistic things,’ he admits. ‘There's a great danger, when you're told that what you're doing is very exciting and new and radical, to start believing your own hype, when actually all you're doing is cooking nice food for people.’

Although Jackson has rubbed people up the wrong way, says Drew, ‘he does care about people deeply. There are obviously flip sides to that. He's very particular and he has his specific ways of doing things.’

Another former employee of Jackson's says, ‘He wasn't a great role model, especially for the younger cooks. I disagreed fundamentally with his glamorization of being overworked. He'd post on social media about relishing feeling like a corpse and to bring on the next 100-hour week. As soon as he started doing that, I switched off from him. If he'd been there or talked in a more real way to us, it might not have been quite so easy to hand my notice in.’ 

Jackson admits that he's ‘always been really happy working ridiculous hours. I always, on principle, work more hours than anyone else. But I now see that that's not helpful or healthy. Regardless of whether I'm trying to show [people] that I'm happy to put the hours in to help them, I'm more alert to the fact that what I thought to be supportive and encouraging behavior in the past sometimes [wasn't] totally helpful.’

‘Not totally helpful’ is putting it lightly. ‘People in the kitchen joked about how shit he was in service,’ says another former employee. ‘I think he's a great cook, and has really good ideas, but he would make service quite challenging for the rest of the team.’ Drew says ‘it's almost like Jackson's trying to compensate’ for his former behavior. ‘Like he's got a point to prove. I can fully understand that being the case.’ 

It may breed success, but the truth is that a challenging workplace is the last thing anybody needs right now. Business and restaurant owners, increasingly desperate to fill vacancies as a result of ongoing staffing shortages, have been forced to finally increase salaries and improve working conditions for their employees. Jackson is one of many who has had to think of new means of attracting people into the kitchen. One of the ways he's done that is by offering competitive wages, as well as throwing in a generous £2,000 signing-on fee for any full-time hires. 

‘People have refused to return to London into the jobs that they had before lockdown and, honestly, the fact we've had to put up wages massively in order to attract them back is massively overdue,’ says Jackson. 

Why didn't he do this sooner? ‘It wasn't something that had occurred to me to do, I suppose, if I'm completely honest. And, considering that our businesses have never been particularly profitable, I never felt like I was exploiting anyone, you know? But it's almost a relief, the way in which wages have shot up over the past few months, and the way in which people now seem happy to come back to work.’ 

Whether you believe the hype or not, Jackson's restaurants are critically and commercially successful, and every move he makes comes with a bankable buzz. ‘I wouldn't have got where I was by worrying too much about what other people say,’ he says. ‘But, if anyone has any legitimate criticism of me, it would probably do me a world of good to hear it.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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