This 23-year-old chef is changing the face of Jewish food in London – we named him the one to watch

Written by Travel Adventures

Ruben Dawnay’s hand-smoked meats have gained him tens of thousands of Instagram followers, a bricks-and-mortar Brixton restaurant and spawned pop-ups at some of London’s favourite restaurants – all before his 24th birthday. After the panel of The UK’s Top New Restaurant Awards named him the one to watch, judge, cook and food writer Gizzi Erskine meets the young man who has been honing his skills in front of our very eyes

Ruben bounds up to me with a hug. Brixton born-and-raised, he’s taller than I expect, sparkly-eyed with the sort of luminous skin I’ve long said goodbye to. The envy-inducing skin of a bright 23-year-old who is untarnished by the industry and full of hope.

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Sophie Knight

I’ve been following Ruben’s journey for the last few years, so feel equipped to give a brief history of his stratospheric journey to being named The One To Watch in the Condé Nast Traveller UK’s Top New Restaurant Awards. It goes a little something like this: during his A-levels, as he studied computer science, Ruben worked as a server at a pizza restaurant in Brixton Village. Unknowingly, the world was on the precipice of the pandemic. This was just as the best Jewish food London has ever seen – the incomparable Monti’s Deli – announced its heartbreaking closure. Ruben (his real name) decided to fill a gap and began learning to make real salt beef and pastrami.

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Sophie Knight

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Sophie Knight

Like me, Ruben is second-generation Polish-Jewish from his mother’s side. He wasn’t bought up on Jewish food, he tells me, but on Polish food, with a real curiosity and intrinsic connection towards both cuisines. That curiosity meant it didn’t take long for Ruben to get real nerdy about everything from pastrami to cold-smoking smoked salmon and whipping up his famous latke (the latter proved hot with the viewers of Mob Kitchen). A competition by Brixton Market allowed him to show off his new skills. The podium, interestingly, placed names that would go on to become London’s restaurant elite: Chishuru’s Adejoké Bakare, Sarap’s Budgie Montoya and boyish duo Jack Croft and William Murray of Fallow all placed. In Ruben’s section, he came close runner-up to Adejoké (who this year became the first Black woman in the UK and only the second Black woman in the world to win a Michelin star, and we named the UK’s Best New Chef). He went on to open his first pop-up in Brixton, which morphed into meal kits during lockdown and then became a weekly delivery service, cooked on his dad’s BBQ. After a crash in trade as life resumed post-pandemic, he decided to get a more formal education and set to work at Naughty Piglet, where mentor Joe Sharatt – a Michelin-trained chef – shared his expertise. Here, Ruben met the seminal Irish, London-based chef Robin Gill, who quickly gave Ruben space in his Brentford Bakery to work out of. From spring to autumn, Ruben honed his craft and continued building his social media following. Then, last year, he put his money where his mouth it and spent every penny he’d ever made on a huge smoker to go it alone.

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Sophie Knight

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Sophie Knight

Today, I am sitting in Ruben’s first restaurant, back where he cut his teeth in Brixton Village. It’s something between a South Western smokery and a traditional Jewish deli, all inspired by the multiculturalism of South London. I order a Bloody Mary (very nice), but am a little cross that I didn’t order the Café Con Leche Martini. I am, more importantly, full of anticipation for this meal I’ve waited years to have. I’m dining with a friend, and we order all of the small plates and a Reuben Bagel, served in a bagel Ruben still makes at Robin’s bakery.

A girthy spiced lamb sausage – a juicy bastard that’s got all the fattiness of lamb, the piquancy of a demi-fermented sausage, round spiciness and a touch of smoke – sits beside pink-pickled onions, chopped red chillis and a creamy, smoked aubergine sauce. It’s as on the money as it could possibly be and a strong start for Ruben.

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Sophie Knight

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Sophie Knight

Next, potato skins layered with a herbed pomme purée and a hint of good-quality cheddar melted throughout, barbecue brisket, pink pickled onions, jalapeño, chives, and crispy shallots. I scoff mine in two bites. Bite one ends with half of it up my nose, but I’m immediately drawn back to a great memory of London’s iconic Eighties spot Coconut Grove. These are slightly cold, which is annoying as they are really very good.

Now we have the burnt ends, which, if I was getting technical, weren’t actually burnt ends, more a dish of its own, a lightly brined, well-ratioed meat-to-fat pork belly that’s been slowly smoked until it just gives back enough bite to push your teeth through, with a delicate honey glaze. Smoked chicken wings come out with a huge whack of smoke deep into the bones. My guest is a little put off by the waxy and not crisp texture, but that’s a smoked chicken wing and personally, I love the texture, although I might prefer mine with a little less salt. It’s my first date with an Alabama white barbecue sauce, which is creamy and tangy and has the warmth of garlic and spice. It’s good and comforting but, like my men, I prefer my sauces a bit more lairy.

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Sophie Knight

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Sophie Knight

By the time we got to the main event – the eponymous Ruben’s Reubens – our palates had taken on so much flavour that I had to really concentrate on his best-selling dish. The meat was juicy and smokey, and the Russian dressing was well-balanced. Was it the best pastrami I’ve ever had? No. Has it got the potential to be? Yes. This is how I feel about Ruben, full stop. The thousands of diners going through his door are right to be hailing him as something important and exciting in London’s food scene. And for his age – remember, five years ago he was an A-Level student – good grief, he is leaps and bounds above the rest. Ruben could fast become one of the greats. He really is one to watch.

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