A food hall stall that sells everyman British dishes like fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and chicken tikka masala opens in Union Market this weekend. The recipes for those pub standards come with an unusual origin story; chef Nicholas Martino says he learned them after a chance encounter with famous chef and author Marco Pierre White led to a long working relationship.
“I’ve had this concept and idea to showcase what I learned in England for a long time,” Martino says. “It is working class food that a Michelin-starred chef taught me how to prepare.”
The kiosk, located near the entrance of the Northeast food hall, officially opens Saturday, July 10, a day before England faces Italy in the Euro 2020 final. The menu includes sausage rolls, sides of mushy peas, and a chicken-and-leek pie that features a pastry lid, short crust, and dijon cream. Caroline Johnson of D.C.’s GreenIsland Bakery is contributing classic strawberry and chocolate chip short breads for the stall. Imported U.K. chips, or “crisps,” are available in funky flavors like Worcestershire sauce and prawn shrimp cocktail. There are also crunchy bars and a Scottish soda Martino swears is great for hangovers. Aboveground will eventually add bangers and mash, homemade puddings, and more pies.
Nods to the cuisine’s home turf are packed across a compact space framed with white subway tiles and a life-size cutout of the queen. The logo replicates the look of the London Underground. Once a liquor license is in place, the stall will start serving English lagers and canned cocktails such as a Pimm’s Cup, rose gin and tonic, and elderflower spritzer.
Aboveground is an “easily replicable” business, Martino says, and he’s hoping to add more locations in the future.
“I think I can be the authority on British food, I just haven’t had the platform to put it out there yet,” he says. “I’m not reinventing the wheel. [White] taught me how to cook British food expertly.”
Martino says he first met his legendary mentor a decade ago. At the time, Martino was a 23-year-old head waiter at a seafood restaurant in Hersey, Pennsylvania. White, who famously became the youngest chef to win three Michelin stars, at age 33, was in town for a high-level Unilever conference. Martino was also in culinary school, and he says he made such an impression on the star chef as a knowledgable server that White asked him what he wanted to do with his career.
“I said, ‘I want to show my food to the world,’” Martino says. “He said, ‘I think you should.’” Martino says. White then wrote him a note instructing the young server to give the celebrity chef a call. The next day Martino got an invite to a private tasting and had to sign a nondisclosure agreement covering the multimillion dollar campaign White was set to endorse. “We smoked a whole pack of cigarettes together before we walked in the front door,” Martino says. Two months later, Martino took a flight to West London, beginning a journey from potato peeler to sous chef. Visa issues kept him from staying there longer, but seven years later, he reunited with White in Singapore to help open his first Asian restaurant and a flagship location of the English House, where he worked his way up to chef de cuisine.
Martino says he returned to the U.S. last March on the same day the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the U.S. He’s been working on opening his own project for the past 11 months.
“Everything we do pays homage to Marco and his recipes,” Martino says. “It’s my love letter to British culture and food and everything that makes me happy about the U.K. I’m not British, but I may be the biggest British Francophile you’ve ever met.”
Martino provided Eater with text he says he transcribed from a verbal testimonial White gave on his behalf to Edens, the developer behind Union Market. “You’ll never meet a chef more kind than Nicholas,” it reads. “His presentation is in his generosity on the plate, generosity from his heart and quality of food. We live in a world of small plates and he gives a you real food at a great value, not tiny bits that only a rabbit could eat.”
The Aboveground owner also provided Eater with a U.K. telephone number for White. When Eater called to verify Martino’s story, White provided a brief response saying he was unavailable but would be happy to talk later. “I can’t speak right now. I’m in service. Please respect that,” he said.