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Chef Interview with Tim Anderson

Photo by Laura Edwards

Tim Anderson is a professional chef and the owner of Nanban restaurant in Brixton. Winner of Masterchef in 2011, Tim's food is daring, creative and strongly influenced by Japanese cuisine - but with a twist. Think spicy goat curry ramen and Korean-style beef tartare. In his restaurant, the decor is reminiscent of a Japanese ramen bar or Izakaya and the upstairs lends itself perfectly to group dining within the carriage shaped booths. Originally from Wisconsin, Tim's early influences came from the food he ate & the cooking shows he would watch in the US. We were keen to find out more about Tim and his journey through food...

Tell us a bit about yourself - what is your first food memory and how did you get into cooking?

I have a lot of fond early food memories, but don’t know what the very first one is. I do distinctly recall when I was first able to make macaroni and cheese from a box. I think I was about 10 years old. I don’t know if you can even call it cooking, but I remember the satisfaction of having made something myself – and then the additional satisfaction of devouring the whole thing. I’ve always loved eating, so I suppose it was only natural that I got into cooking. When I was 11 or 12 I started watching a lot of cooking shows in the US, with people like Emeril Lagasse, Martin Yan, Ming Tsai and Giada de Laurentiis. I didn’t actually start cooking until years later, but I picked up a lot from those shows.

Wafu salad, Nanban

How would you describe your cooking style?

Mainly I cook what in Japan would be categorised as ‘B-kyū gurume,’ literally ‘B-grade gourmet’ food. This refers to casual, hearty Japanese dishes that often overlap with yōshoku (so-called ‘Western’ Japanese food): things like yakisoba, beef bowls, ramen, karaage, wafū pasta, and Japanese curry rice. But most of my food is not ‘classical’ Japanese, as it incorporates influences from my American upbringing, multicultural London gastronomy, and regional Japanese specialities, especially from Kyushu and Hokkaido.

Ackee and saltfish fried rice, Nanban

What is your daily routine and how important is this for you in your busy life?

To be honest, the only time in the past ten years that I’ve had anything like a daily routine was during the first lockdown, when I was looking after my daughter Tig full time for four days a week and working one day a week. I don’t think of myself as a creature of routine but this was actually really good for me, as I think it helped impose some structure onto what otherwise would have been a very confusing and shapeless time.

How did you come to compete on Masterchef in 2011 & what opportunities came from being Masterchef champion?

I was a fan of the show since I moved to the UK in 2008, and at the end of the 2010 series I just applied online. I thought it looked fun and never thought anything would come of it. The first couple of years after winning MasterChef were basically just taking all of the odd jobs and opportunities that come your way simply because you’re in the public eye – this included some seriously cool and unusual gigs, like working for a toothpaste company and being invited to speak at the Japanese embassy. But it’s not really a sustainable career. Luckily, MasterChef also gave me enough of a profile to get my pop-up off the ground, which would lead to a permanent restaurant in 2015, and it led to my first book deal.

Nanban Restaurant, Brixton

The cuisine at Nanban is centred around Japanese cooking. How did you come to fall in love with Japan, its food and what are your favourite Japanese dishes?

One of the shows that I watched as a food-obsessed teenager was Iron Chef, a Japanese cooking competition show that came on the air in the US when I was 14. It was an incredible show – I’d never seen anything like it, and this was around the time that I was also starting to get interested in other elements of Japanese pop culture, like video games, J-pop, and animé. I started to try all the Japanese food that I could find in Wisconsin, which was fairly limited, but we had one great restaurant in Milwaukee called Izumi’s that I would visit regularly, and it provided a good understanding of dozens of classic Japanese dishes. When I graduated high school I went to college in Los Angeles, specifically to study Japanese and learn more about the food, because there’s a very big Japanese diaspora community there. In 2005 I was awarded a research grant to study the phenomenon of local food museums in Japan, and in 2006 I moved there to teach English (and learn more about the food) for two years. Even though I’ve been studying Japanese food in some way for more than two decades, it still surprises me on a regular basis, and I know that I’ve truly only scratched the surface. For example, I’ve recently done a deep-dive on oden - a really humble hotpot dish of simmered fish cakes, tofu, eggs, root vegetables, etc. I’ve realised it has a huge amount of variation in terms of ingredients, methods, seasonings, and local influences. Just this one, simple dish contains so many lessons on technique, history, flavour, and regionality. A lot of Japanese food is like that, and if you’re a nerd like me, then that means it never gets boring. It’s hard to choose favourite Japanese dishes because I love so many of them, but I would say Kumamoto-style ramen and chicken karaage.

Left to right: KFJ, Karaage Fried Jackfruit | Kumamoto Tonkotsu Ramen

Can you tell us a bit about Nanban’s Brixton location and how the area’s Afro-Caribbean influences come into play?

I originally wanted to open Nanban in East London, but I’m so glad we didn’t because Brixton itself has been what’s informed our identity most strongly. I didn’t know very much about Brixton until I did a pop-up there in 2014, but of course I did know that gentrification and redevelopment was threatening the cultural fabric of the area and the people who had lived there for decades in a very real way. I knew that opening Nanban in Brixton would potentially contribute to that, so I figured the least I could do was engage with Brixton Market, buy ingredients there to support the local traders, and incorporate elements of the local food culture into our dishes as a statement of intent and to remind customers where they are. We started off making dishes with Afro-Caribbean elements – ingredients like dried smoked prawns, Scotch bonnets, or ackee and saltfish – because that’s what the market is known for, but that’s actually just one of dozens of different global food cultures that are well represented there. Over the years our menu has been influenced by flavours from Latin America, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and I should say it’s also been influenced by our staff, who have introduced ingredients and ideas from their own cultures onto the menu. One of our most popular dishes, for example is our jackfruit karaage, which was made by our former Indian-South African head chef, who grew up eating jackfruit.

Photo by Luke Forsythes - from left to right: Korean Beef Tartare | Oden Hotpot

What are your favourite restaurants in London / globally ?

I am somewhat obsessed with Sichuanese food, and so quite a few of my favourite restaurants fall into this category. The Docklands has a lot of good ones for some reason, like Shanshuijian in Limehouse, Si Chuan in North Greenwich, and JinJiang, which is my local, in Deptford. I also love Fischer’s for Austrian comfort food, Mei Mei for excellent Singaporean dishes, Juma right around the corner for Iraqi dumplings, and La Chingada for tacos. Globally, the places I am always dying to return to are El Pique, my favourite taco truck in Los Angeles; Kewpee, a burger joint in my hometown that’s been going for nearly 100 years; Lou Malnati’s for Chicago pizza; and Keyaki for Sapporo miso ramen.

Imagine it’s your first visit to Nanban. What should you order?

Definitely the curry goat! It’s our signature and with good reason. The karaage is also always a winner. Also you must order sake. We have a short list but I genuinely think it might the best in South London.

What are your three favourite ingredients, and why?

It changes all the time, but currently I am loving bergamot, kalettes, and nduja. Bergamot I actually mainly put in drinks, but I also put it in my ponzu, which then ends up on a lot of things – salads, gyoza, fish, etc. Kalettes are just perfect little tiny kales, like the Brussels sprout version of kale, I guess, but they have no bitterness and a really perfect toothsome texture. I like them simply steamed with something salty, like bacon or soy sauce. Nduja I always love, but I’ve recently realised it can be used as a delicious substitute for chilli pastes like gochujang or tobanjian, and it makes a really good mapo tofu.

What advice would you give to the home cook who wants to try their hand at Japanese cuisine?

Don’t be intimidated but also don't expect to make anything amazing on your first go. There are some Japanese dishes that are basically inherently delicious and require very little in terms of technique, like tonkatsu or yaki-udon, but others take a bit of practice. The first time you make gyoza they’ll probably be misshapen and slightly burnt. That’s okay! They’ll still be delicious, and you can keep trying. The same goes for sushi – you may mess up the rice and the rolling, but after a few goes you’ll get the hang of it. You won’t be able to make sushi like a Japanese master, but you’ll definitely be able to make sushi that’s better than what you find at supermarkets or on the high street. So have a go and have fun!

What are the favourite aspects of your job? In which role / area of your job do you thrive?

I enjoy collaborating with talented people the most, whether that is at the restaurant or on a cookbook. Running the restaurant was always horrendously stressful to me, but after a while I just realised I needed to trust my team and let them do their thing so I could step back. It’s nice to walk into the kitchen and know that the place and the food are being looked after. Similarly, on cookbooks, it’s been a real joy to be able to work with such great photographers, editors, and designers, who really do make these books what they are.

When you’re not playing with food, what do you like to get up to?

I enjoy movies. One of the worst things about the lockdown for me is not being able to go to the cinema, specifically the Prince Charles, the best cinema in London. But at least I can still watch them at home. One I would like to recommend in particular is Ainu Mosir, a really rare film about the Ainu, an indigenous ethnic group in Hokkaido. It’s on Netflix and it’s great.

During the quieter moments this past year has provided, what have you been up to creatively?

I have been cooking like mad. Luckily I have been working on two different books this past year, which has kept me very busy with recipe testing. But even when I’m not cooking for work it has been great fun to make dishes I don’t usually get to make, mainly due to lack of time. This has included a lot of tacos.

Left to Right: Tim's travels in Japan - OmuRice, loach hotpot from East Tokyo

What do you believe makes a successful restauranteur?

I’ll ask a successful restauranteur and let you know! In all seriousness, I don’t consider Nanban a success just yet. We are doing okay but we are still in debt. It’s a struggle. I guess my advice would be very practical and boring: you just have to make sure the numbers add up. We have always been a busy restaurant, but that didn’t automatically translate into profit. We had to make cuts, change operations, and also raise prices, which I hate doing, but it’s the only way we have been able to survive. Having a good concept and good food and being fully booked every weekend isn’t enough. The math is where it counts.

What do you think has been the secret to the success of your business?

No secret, really. It’s the same as any business. We’ve been able to survive this long because we make a decent product, show people a good time, and make sure the books are balanced every month.

What’s coming up for Nanban in the next few months?

We’re going to get back to our roots a bit more, which will see the return of some dishes that were never very popular, but that tell people who we are. There are dozens of restaurants in London now that will give you a decent bowl of tonkotsu ramen. But there aren’t many that will give you mentaiko pasta or pig tripe stir-fried with miso. That’s what we’re all about. One customer described us as ‘like Wagamama on acid.’ This is one of the best compliments I’ve ever received, and I just want to live up to it.

Thanks to Chef Tim Anderson

for taking part in this interview!

If you would like to stay up to date with Tim and the restaurant,

you can follow Tim Anderson @cheftimanderson

Tim has also published four recipe books, full of delicious and easy recipes. His aim is to share his vast knowledge of Japanese cuisine with the western world, in the form of easy to follow recipes.

Available on Amazon, Blackwells & Waterstones



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