Ana Gonçalves is one half of TĀ TĀ Eatery, a creative cooking team that have developed cult-like status in the London food scene. Originally a graphic designer from Portugal, the world of food came calling and ten years later, along with partner Zijun Meng, the duo have rocketed to the forefront of the city’s dining scene, opening up their second permanent restaurant project in as many months.
Tayēr + Elementary, their first project with the world-class drinks team of Monica Berg and Alex Kratena, opened earlier in 2019 to critical acclaim, establishing itself on the strength of an innovative cocktail program, a widely coveted chef’s counter, and an exhilarating food menu that drew from the pair’s Sino-Portuguese background.
Later, Tou opened up in the Arcade food hall, at the base of Centre Point, offering Japanese-style sandos (including the famous Iberian katsu sando) and rice bowls in July 2019. This venture is primarily run by Gonçalves, whilst Meng leads TĀ TĀ Eatery’s counter-top dining experience at Tayēr + Elementary.
What made you decide to go back to school, and study cooking?
I have always been the one in my group of friends that cooked when we were together, and the one in my family that helped my grandma make the Christmas feasts. But, on New Year’s Eve 2008 I was discussing what to do with my life as I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, with my friend Claudia, and she said, “why don’t you just change career?”. In that moment it just clicked for me what I wanted to do.
I started to look up schools that I could get the basics. In Portugal I was overqualified for the state schools so I looked outside of the country. I came across what Nuno Mendes was doing with the Loft Project, which sounded inspiring, therefore decided that London would be an interesting space to go to. I enrolled at the Cordon Bleu in London.
What was it about Nuno that appealed to you?
When I was researching restaurants and chefs everything felt very similar—the same kind of food, presentation and technique; it was all very French.
When I read about what Nuno was doing, the food he was creating in his house for just 17 people, I really wanted to experience that. It was a new and exciting project that I wanted to be part of.
After a lot of emails, I was offered the chance to stage there, and I would go after class and on the days off. It was a 3-month experience that really marked my trajectory.
It was informal and had a very homely feeling, with Nuno’s partner Clarisse and the manager Vadim hosting, whilst we cooked 15 dishes for each guest. Guests came in the kitchen to ask questions, try the food, offer us drinks. By this time Nuno was already planning Viajante and the majority of the crew were going to move there too.
How has Nuno influenced you?
Viajante was unique for that time [10 years ago]—there was a real freedom of thought.
Nuno is not your typical kitchen leader who tells you what to do—he lets you think and make decisions, and he feeds off other people’s energy and ideas. It was a big family where everyone was helping and encouraging each other to evolve.
Nuno was always a strong source of inspiration and we were his source of inspiration.
How long did you work for Nuno?
In total, I was with him for over five years. Those first months as a stagier at The Loft Project, and then two years at Viajante, where I started as a commis chef and worked my way up to a chef de partie.
Viajante was the first restaurant at The Town Hall Hotel in Shoreditch and it received a Michelin star. It was tough in the beginning, a lot of hours for an inexperienced person like me and I was still finishing the Cordon Bleu. But I managed to get used to it and get in the rhythm of things!
I then opened the Corner Room, the more casual dining space in the hotel, where I was for two years working my way up to junior sous chef. I left Corner Room to have a baby, but came back into the fold at Chiltern Firehouse, where I was kitchen manager. It was such a big operation that I was able to work from 9am to 5pm, and I was there for a year.
How did TĀ TĀ Eatery come about?
Meng was supposed to start a new job after Chiltern Firehouse, but it fell through and so we thought, why not start our own project? TĀ means he or she/male or female (in Chinese), and so ‘TĀ TĀ’ is he and she. That was In autumn 2015.
We then did a season at Druid Street market; it was important for us to experience the street food scene, to see how that could work. What we realised is that we couldn’t do the food we wanted to do, for the masses, which is what street food needs to be. But it was a really interesting process to go through.
You have had a number of residencies, and pop-ups, which have included Portugal, Italy, Paris and of course London. What has been the drive for that and the challenges you have faced?
We have had to grow organically as we are entirely self-funded, and going into already established sites is a good way to develop your project. We’ve had one-off pop up events, and residencies in London that have lasted 1 month to 1 year.
In the beginning it was very challenging. After a few we got into a Bear Grylls mode of adapting to your surroundings and really embraced the different opportunities and challenges that the next kitchen/ space would give us, and explore different styles of cooking.
What are the plans for the future?
As our project has developed slowly, it’s hard to plan too far into the future. We’re a family-run business that is still about learning and developing organically. I balance being a chef and looking after my six-year-old daughter—she wants to be involved, and comes to the kitchen a lot!
It would be great to be able to expand the Tou concept, particularly into Asia. This was a concept that I was really keen on and wanted to push; although it came about sooner than expected, but the site came up and we couldn’t refuse!
We would like to always have a destination restaurant—similar to what we are doing at Tayēr + Elementary, 15 covers a day, with three chefs—and one day it would be nice to do that in Portugal. Meng and I work really well together, so there are a lot of possibilities around what can happen.