Whether it is because of its controversial name (more on that later) or because of the delicious creations served there, Zona N16 is revolutionising Hackney’s dining scene.
Despite opening only eight weeks ago, the restaurant has already managed to secure some regular clients.
Zona N16 is the first restaurant to be opened by Chris Goulbourne who is half English half Jamaican and he was happy to tell Eastlondonlines how it all started.
Born and raised in London, Chris moved to Sardinia when he was 19 to work between restaurants and cocktail bars. “My dad’s passport had stamps on every page, he went all around the world so I guess this passion for travelling was always in my DNA.”
The wanderlust was not the only thing Chris inherited from his parents. The food was also the centre of all the family gatherings. “My earliest memories would be from my mum in the kitchen baking food and of my dad always roasting the meat.”
After falling in love with Italy and living there for a few years, Chris came back to the UK and trained at formal catering school. “It was a very nice way of developing my career but eventually I got to a point where I really wanted to have something of my own. That was when a letting agent let us know about this place and after a fair bit of work we are very proud of what we achieved.”
With a massive window on to Stoke Newington’s High Street, Zona does not go unnoticed in such a ‘food-centric’ area. From the outside, you can see the pastel tiles and the open kitchen, but it is only when you go inside that customers can appreciate the interior’s bare brick and wood floors.
“When you look around, every single thing in here was hand chosen by my wife,” explained Chris, whose wife studied at Central Saint Martins and also worked for fashion designer John Galliano. “The lamps, the table tops, the chairs, the boards… except for the coffee machine, that was me!”
But the furniture is not the only thing that was handpicked; every product was carefully chosen as well. Coffee comes from the Gentleman Baristas; teas come from Chash, The Fine Tea Co; fruit and vegetables are from the local greengrocer. “We want the product to stand out,” said Chris, “and we’re working with entrepreneurial young businesses because we want to grow together.”
Right after opening the restaurant, Chris learned that the name he had chosen for his ‘baby’ translated into something rather controversial in another language. In Hebrew, zona means prostitute. “I remember thinking there were a lot of people taking pictures and now I know why! People actually find it funny! Thankfully, no one is offended.”
Despite the name (Zona also means ‘area’ in Italian), this is not an Italian restaurant. “There are some influences, because of the several Mediterranean ingredients, but food is global! We didn’t want to make it a specific restaurant so we’re not restricted.”
The chef is Jamaican and Chris says that finding someone who matched his own enthusiasm and dedication was the “biggest challenge”.
“You need people who can live up to your expectations. The hardest thing so far was to find a chef with the passion and ability to deliver good food because when people go away they don’t review the aesthetics; they care more about what arrived on the plate.”
Now that he has found ‘the one’, Chris has “the energy to go and focus on other aspects of the business.”
Anyone who talks to Chris can tell by the sparkle in his eyes that his biggest passion is the kitchen. “I’m so passionate about it. I just love to get in there, to cook, to learn new recipes.”
He has always been fascinated with the seasonings, the spices, the aromas and what you can create with them, but confesses that his favourite food will always be a good steak. “I was vegetarian for a while but when we went on our honeymoon to Brazil the vegetarianism lasted for five minutes. I am a big meat lover.”
Despite having a lot to take care of, he is always up for a chat with the clients. “We already have some regular clients. Some people come and work their way through the menu, some come for their favourites. Knowing that someone loves something that we have created gives me an amazing feeling of satisfaction and achievement.”
There is something for everyone, from the health conscious to those of heartier appetites. The classics have been given a twist, but not too much, because sometimes “people don’t understand or they get upset.” Smokey Bacon Sloppy Joes or Salt Beef Benedict served on a croissant are the unexpected yet mouth-watering combinations that have been winning customers’ heart.
“When people tell you they love your food it’s great because everyone likes to get the feedback. But when I see them taking it beyond that, taking pictures and sharing it on social media, it touches me. For me it’s not so much the spoken word, it’s the actions. That is definitely the best thing about this whole thing.”
The music not too loud, the decor not too in your face, the terrace in the back, the baby changing facilities – everything adds up to making Zona N16 a hit with the locals. “When we set up the place we didn’t want any boundaries. Having two young children ourselves we made sure it was family friendly.
“There is also space for people to work, we have loads of plugs available and a quiet room in the back if the front window is too much of a distraction. We really wanted to have a broad appeal, a place that people could simultaneously use as a creative, family and party space.”
As the very down-to-earth person he is, Chris is now focused on making the most out of the present, living day by day, with no rushes and crazy dreams. For him, this is much more than a job. “I’ve got a big task on my hands now and I just want to focus on it and make this baby grow. I’m grateful for what I have and I’m happy to work hard to make it happen.”
Zona N16 has started to open during the evenings too. Check their website for details.