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Q&A: David Carter

The restaurateur behind Borough’s new Omá and Agora restaurants on the food cultures of Greece, the unique atmosphere of markets and the appeal of cooking over fire


Interview: Mark Riddaway / Images: Anton Rodriguez, Gilles Draps

There can’t be many restaurateurs who’ve travelled as many miles as David Carter. Born and raised in Barbados, he learnt his trade in Canada and California before moving to London in 2008, and while he’s very much at home here it’s his constant urge to span the world that keeps his creative juices flowing. By David’s rough calculation, he made 15 trips last year – to Japan, the US, Israel, Turkey and Greece (several times). And it’s on these trips that his ideas take form.   

Inspired by a pilgrimage around the southern United States, his barbecue restaurant, Smokestak, started out as a street food stand before finding a permanent home in Shoreditch in 2016. This was followed five years later by the Italian-inflected Manteca, feted for its handmade pasta and in-house butchery. His latest venture (or ventures, plural, if we’re splitting hairs) has arrived at Borough Market by way of the Ionian and Mediterranean seas.

Split across two floors of a large building tucked beneath the railway viaduct on Bedale Street are a pair of sibling restaurants: the quiet, refined Omá upstairs and the more boisterous Agora at street level. Both serve food rooted in the culinary cultures of Greece, both take the same meticulous, no-corners-cut approach to sourcing and preparing ingredients, both share an onsite bakery turning out breads developed by Eyal Schwartz of E5 Bakehouse. But each has its own distinct menu and atmosphere.

In the hectic weeks before their phased opening, David took the time to answer our questions.

David Carter, the restaurateur behind Omá and Agora

How would you summarise your approach as a restaurateur? What unifying characteristics do your various venues share?

We create the kind of places we would want to go to. We really believe in accessibility, in everything from the price point to the offering. We want it to be a relatively easy format to read – not intimidating punters with the menu or wine list. We try to be best in class, whatever that means. Manteca is as good as any Italian in London. With Smokestak, we were quite late to the party, and everybody was like: “Why are you doing a barbecue restaurant? They’re so overdone.” But we just want to do things for the sake of excellence, and whether it’s overdone or not is irrelevant to us.

It always starts with the food, but a restaurant is about all your senses, so it’s much more than just that. It’s the team who made the food, it’s the plate it’s on, it’s the music in the background, it’s the apron the team’s wearing, it’s the entire package. We invest in creating an environment that’s impossible to replicate. So, you can take all the recipes if you want to, but we’re pretty confident you can never replicate the concept, because a restaurant isn’t just a recipe book.

A selection of dishes at Omá

What drew you to this spot on Bedale Street?

We’d never really done anything in a destination area. Our other sites are a little bit off the beaten track, a little bit harder to find. But I saw this building and loved it – the light is amazing, the visuals are amazing. I thought, there’s this amazing opportunity, this amazing site, somebody could do something amazing with it – it may as well be me. I can’t tell you how many days and nights I spent walking through Borough Market trying to figure out what we’d do. Working in this industry may not be good in terms of lifestyle, but the creativity – that’s the bit I love. It’s bit like an artist, right? They’ll put their heart and soul into a painting. I think it’s the same with this job: we put our heart and soul into these buildings. There’s so much that has to be invested on an emotional level – forget financial, forget time: on a pure emotional level, this is an expression of ourselves.  

What led you to a concept inspired by the food cultures of Greece?

Travel has inspired a lot of what I’ve done in my career. I was on a trip to the Greek islands and just fell in love – with the land and the people, the colour palette, the hills, the water, the overall balance of life on the islands. I came back and was like: “What was that all about? That was absolutely amazing.” The simplicity of the food, the open fires, the communal way of eating. I started to think about how we could interpret that here. I went to Greece eight times last year – to the islands, the north, Athens – just mining knowledge. These things don’t come straight away: you go, you scratch the surface, you go back again, you dig a bit more and you dig a bit more. From there, you start to formulate a narrative, a story. Ours is about Greece, but in the very broadest of brushstrokes. Some of the flavours we’re using at Omá and Agora are a lot bolder than you’d get in Greece, but in the romance and the integrity and the grit, it seems very Greek in many ways.

The name Omá is taken from the Greek word for ‘raw’. What can we infer from that?

At the end of the summer, I did another trip through the Greek islands, and it was just one of those holidays that felt too good to be true. I was absolutely blown away by it. On one of the last days of our trip we went to a restaurant that had a section on the menu called ‘omá’. When I found out it meant ‘raw’, I said: “Right, that’s it, we’re going to name our restaurant Omá.” There’s the raw fish, and the menu’s quite light and vibrant, but it’s more than that. It’s the raw simplicity of what we do, raw interiors, raw in terms of its honesty, purity and integrity. There’s no faffing around. We just do simple things incredibly well.

Meat from the souvla at Agora

Downstairs at Agora, you’re not taking bookings. What’s the thinking there?

Well, I think Borough is a unique place, right? A market is a transient place – people pass through. You don’t need a reservation to visit a market. So, I don’t want somebody to come in the door and be told: “No, sorry, we’re fully booked.” That’s my idea of hell. Omá is on the first floor so it’s out of sight, at least when walking by, so it’s more destinational and it takes bookings. The downstairs, we just want to make part of the market. On all three sides of the building, we’ve put this amazing shopfront that retracts the entire way. When you look at the building during the day, the doors are open, you see straight through, and it has this whole sense of accessibility and welcome. It feels like you can just walk right through it and grab something on your way.

How does the menu at Agora differ from the food upstairs?

In Greece, seafood is quite expensive, but what’s reasonable are breads, pulses, grains and the animals that roam the land – pigs, lamb, chicken. We said: “What can we take from this book?” Upstairs, Omá is a bit more fish and cured vegetables, a bit more romantic, a bit more elevated. Agora is designed to be a restaurant by the people for the people – so it’s everyday, it’s quite low spend. At its heart is a souvla, with these 1.6m spits on a 2m wood-fired grill. The chickens we’ll leave whole, and we’re going to butcher the large animals, the pigs and the lambs. They’re two very different offerings but the same Mediterranean DNA.

Cooking over fire is a strand that runs through all your restaurants. What is it that appeals to you so much?

I mean, I grew up in Barbados, right? It’s 27 degrees all year round, you have a barbecue every weekend. I grew up around it. I think the idea of cooking over fire, there’s some quite primal. It’s variable, it’s not automatic, and it needs a lot more fiddling and tempering and care. Also, the flavours are incredible – all the meat or fish or veggies caramelising over charcoal as it spits up heat and smoke and flavour. It creates warmth and it draws you towards it. A fire literally draws people in. There’s something beautiful about cooking with fire, and just very raw – that word again!

Is there an appeal to running a restaurant surrounded by the Market’s produce traders? The energy at Borough is pretty electric. It’s the hustle and bustle. When we were thinking about this, we got so inspired by walking through the markets in Athens, and I think being amongst that here, being part of it, being in it, is huge – for Agora especially. We want it to feel like you’re in the market. We could have done the exact same concept elsewhere, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact it’s going to have at Borough simply because of where it is.