Chef family trees: Every chef needs a mentor to nurture their talent. Try the recipes that inspired top chefs Sam Clark, Jonathan Jones, Jacob Kenedy and April Bloomfield ...
Her mentors Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray at the River Café were literally her alma maters, giving her the building blocks of great food and the skills to do her own thing.
In 1993, I met my future husband and business partner Samuel Clark while cooking at The Eagle pub on Farringdon Road, London – my first chef job. It was a great start, but I was eager to learn. Sam helped me get a trial at the River Café, where he had worked before. Ruthie Rogers and Rose Gray were, literally, my “alma maters”: inspirational, nourishing mother figures who guided me throughout. I loved every minute. I had studied Italian at university and lived in Italy for two years prior to returning to London, so cooking River Café food felt natural.
It was a steep learning curve going from River Café novice to running shifts in six months, during which the philosophy of good ingredients, seasonality and regionality got into my blood (and later became the building blocks behind Moro – I just adapted the principles to Spain, north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean).
Two women at the helm of a restaurant was a rare and special thing, and I felt blessed to be in the right place at the right time. Rose and Ruthie taught me how to run a restaurant with calmness, respect and intelligence. There was no old-school macho shouting or aggressiveness, just pure focus on the quality of the ingredients, flavour and a sense of pride in one’s cooking; from Ruthie’s lightness of touch to Rose’s integrity and passion. There were always a lot of female chefs in the kitchen too, as at Moro, where at times women outnumber men by 2:1.
I still remember Rose teaching me how to make this Tuscan summer ribollita, building up the layers of vegetables, first with the base of onion, celery and garlic, followed by the fresh tomato, then borlotti beans, chard, basil and bread, and to finish, copious amounts of Capezzana extra virgin olive oil – a thick, syrupy green nectar with a peppery finish. I often cook it at home too.
I helped test the recipes for the second River Café book, which gave me some confidence and experience when I came to write the first Moro cookbook with Samuel in 2001. I also felt spoilt being taken on two inspirational food and wine trips around Italy in the late autumn. These trips are so educational, and for us travelling is an essential part of what we do to keep fresh and creative. Next year we are planning a couple more trips: Georgia and Uzbekistan with some of the Moro team.
Rose and Ruthie’s love of people and family always meant a varied and bright team, some of whom are still great friends. I had the privilege of cooking with many wonderful chefs: Lucy Boyd, Rose’s daughter, Theo Randall, Jamie Oliver, Allegra McEvedy and Jane Baxter. These were the alumni just from my short stint at the River Café, but it seems that it never ceases to produce extraordinarily talented chefs. The training at the River Café is second to none and I often encourage my chefs to work there when they want to move on. Wandering down to the river during breaks or picking herbs in the garden are pretty special moments in the chef’s day too.
I left in the autumn of 1996, but would have stayed much longer if it hadn’t been for the fact we were already setting up Moro, which opened the following April, in 1997. Moro owes a lot to Rose and Ruthie and the River Café – and my husband Sam is just as proud of it as I am.
300g borlotti beans, preferably fresh (or dried ones soaked overnight)
100ml extra virgin olive oil, plus a generous glug at the end
2 medium red onions, finely diced
1 head of celery, finely diced (keep the bright yellow leaves aside)
1 medium carrot, finely diced
600g swiss chard: stems finely chopped, leaves roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 fresh red chilli, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1.5kg sweet cherry or heirloom tomatoes, blanched, peeled
2 handfuls flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1 handful fresh oregano or marjoram, finely chopped
2 handfuls basil, roughly chopped
1 loaf of stale Italian ciabatta, crusts off – enough to cover the cooking pot in one even layer when sliced about 1cm thick
1 Rinse the beans, then transfer to a pot and just cover with water. Add half as much water again. Bring to the boil, then gently simmer until tender, but not mushy. Season and set aside.
2 Warm the olive oil until hot, but not smoking. Add the onion, celery, carrot, chard (stalks only), garlic, chilli and bay leaves. Season generously, then fry for 20 minutes, stirring every so often, until lightly caramelised.
3 Meanwhile, cut the tomatoes in half and discard the seeds. Squeeze over a bowl to release the juice. Set aside.
4 Add the parsley and oregano (or marjoram), basil and celery leaves, then fry for another 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their liquid, and break them up with a spoon. Cook for about 20 minutes over a low heat. The tomato liquid should be absorbed by the other vegetables. Add the beans and their cooking liquid. Simmer over a low heat for about 20 minutes, or until the soup comes together. Stir in the chard leaves and simmer for a couple more minutes. Adjust the seasoning.
5 Cover the soup with bread. Pour just enough boiling water over it all to moisten the bread. Generously drizzle with oil and remove the pot from the heat. Set aside for 10 minutes, then stir to combine. It should be thick and delicious. Season again, if needed. Drizzle with oil, then serve.
My first encounter with St John was in 1994. I had a startling dinner there: skate, chicory and anchovy, followed by smoked eel, bacon and mash. I left desperate to work there: Fergus Henderson was cooking original, delicious food and was someone I felt good being around.
So in 1995 I arrived, a relatively seasoned chef. I loved it from the start and soon found myself opening native oysters – clumsily – while Fergus stood alongside, smiling reassuringly. He would always give gentle instruction and corrective guidance to his “flock” of cooks.
St John was civilised. As staff we felt appreciated, reflected in a team that was dedicated, happy and proud to work there. We’d be given a sit-down meal both in the morning and afternoon, which was unusual at the time. Fergus might even furnish us with the odd “steadying glass” if he felt it might benefit.
He wasn’t so relaxed that things went awry, though. He ate at St John most days and if something was amiss, you would be quietly told. It certainly beat being berated by an overheating thug. Fergus is not only a massive influence how I cook, but on how I treat my team at the Anchor and Hope.
To think Fergus’s cooking is just about simplicity is deceptive. It has nuance, thought and understanding, and the produce was beautiful: Hebridean lambs, Aylesbury dry-plucked ducks, live Dorset langoustines and crabs. Seasonal treats that I’d only read about – wild sea kale or gulls’ eggs – all a pleasure to prepare and cook, famously using, with equal reverence, each part of the animal.
Fergus’s food is deemed British by some people, and the produce almost exclusively is. But, actually, the cooking has a continental European sensibility: artichoke and vinaigrette, pork chop and prunes, roast pigeon and peas, or kohlrabi salad.
I always loved how un-restauranty his fare was – no dull fillet-and-puree-plus-reduction, so prevalent at the time. It was real cooking. Boiled belly and lentils; roast grouse; whole brill served on green and white vegetables for five or six; pheasant pies that served four, not one – because that way you get the best ratio of filling to pastry. Everything was delicious, generous and homely. Exactly what I aim for now, 20 years later.
To show it’s not all meat and offal at St John, here is something that we still serve that I learned from Fergus. It opened my eyes to what a restaurant could do.
As much an assembly as a recipe – and only worth making to eat with really fresh vegetables. This makes a good summer lunch with some bread and wine, even better with a 7-hour lamb shoulder to follow. The anchoiade recipe is a St John one that I have embellished a little.
For the dressing
7 garlic cloves, peeled
A pinch of black pepper
1 tin of anchovies in oil
285ml extra virgin olive oil
A splash of red wine vinegar
1 diced long red chilli
1 tsp thyme leaves
A handful of basil leaves
For the vegetables
Whatever veg looks lovely – radishes, peas in their pods, carrots, little gem lettuce, spring onions, fennel, chicory, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, broad beans, cucumber ...
1 First make the dressing. Put the garlic and pepper into a food processor or mortar and crush to a fine puree, then add the anchovies and allow them to break down. Start to add the oil, then the vinegar to taste – check the flavour for seasoning. You will be left with a thick emulsion. Then fold in the chilli and herbs.
2 Perhaps with the exception of the beetroot, you can choose to cook or serve your veg raw as you like. If you are cooking, say, your carrots or broccoli, do so in boiling salted water until only just tender. Trim, wash well and dry your veg.
3 Assemble in a pleasing way. Dip and crunch.
Moro’s founders Sam and Sam Clark nurtured a boy fresh from school into the chef he is today. Kenedy’s first dish was emblematic of their food ethos.
Moro threw a tidal wave across London’s culinary scene 20 years ago, and it buoyed me up as a chef in the flotsam. I first ate there a month after it opened, while still a schoolboy. I loved the food (still do, always will), so mum and a dear friend Zaki Elia encouraged me to speak with the Sams to ask if I could spend a week in their kitchen. For all their brilliance, they were momentarily foolish enough to let me in – the day I left school. A week became six months, and since then I have been a chef. The Sams’ food is at once comforting and exotic – exciting and wholesome.
The first dish I ever made at Moro, was their salad of seared beef with white grapes, barley, sumac and parsley, which seems so mad, utterly delicious and typical of the feeling behind their cuisine.
Samuel taught me to relish chaos and Samantha to relish order: both taught me to relish food. They taught me how little I knew by showing me so many new things, by building up rather than breaking down. They taught me to like cheese, to love fat, to work in a team, to make a family at work, to go out, to have fun, to hold my liquor, to love cooking, to love life, and to express those loves through food.
Sam and Sam taught me to be a chef. I may never forgive them, and can never repay them, but will love them for it, forever.
50g pearl barley
2 sirloin steaks (about 500g in total)
A drizzle of olive oil
2-3 bunches fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked
350g white grapes, halved and seeded
Sea salt and black pepper
For the marinade
½ onion, grated
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp sumac
1 tsp coriander seeds, freshly ground
A pinch of freshly ground allspice
A pinch of freshly ground black pepper
For the dressing
1 small garlic clove, crushed to a paste with salt
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp sumac
A pinch freshly ground allspice
A pinch freshly ground coriander seeds
1 Simmer the barley in 1 litre water for 45 minutes, or until tender. Drain and set aside to cool.
2 Combine all the marinade ingredients and rub evenly over the steaks. Leave to marinate for 1-2 hours.
3 Blend all the dressing ingredients together and season.
4 When the steak is ready, get a griddle pan smoking hot. Rub the steaks with oil and lay on the griddle. The meat only needs about 30 seconds on each side. Season with salt as the sirloin is turned. Set aside to rest for a minute.
5 Meanwhile, put the barley, parsley leaves and grapes in a bowl, add the dressing and mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Slice the steak into 1cm thick slices across the grain. Toss half with the salad and lay the rest of the strips on top. Serve immediately.
The Michelin-star chef is another alumnus of The River Café , where she learned to focus on detail and quality and discovered the food that was important to her.
My time at the River Café was incredibly special to me. I learned how to refine and elevate flavours from produce, to stick to the seasons and focus on quality and details in food. Most importantly though, I discovered the food that I really wanted to cook, and I connected with the food and the people there. It felt like I was in the right place, that I was meant to be there. I learned to be open and flexible. I discovered what was important to me, and it is something I try to bring to all my restaurants now.
The ingredients that matter most to me are vegetables. Although the meat was amazing and perfectly sourced at River Café, the vegetables blew me away; the way they sourced them, how they were prepped, the execution and refinement, the way Rose and Ruthie developed their flavours. They made vegetables – anything, really – dance around the palate.
I went there for Rose and Ruthie. I had watched them on TV, and once I had eaten their food I knew there was something incredibly special about them. I was drawn to them and hung on to their every word.
I had an epiphany on my trial period. It was like a bolt of lightning: it was so earth-moving that I knew it was right; the food was like nothing I ever had tasted before. I knew in an instant that I wanted to cook like Rose and Ruthie.
I think what makes the River Café such a great incubator for chefs is that it’s a warm and inviting place to work. It is a group of like-minded people with similar views on food, where people want to go and know what they want to do. It’s like a family, and that is what makes it so successful. When you have two great and passionate leaders it makes everything worthwhile.
As a young cook, I can remember seeing Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers cooking simple Italian food on Channel 4. From then on, I dreamt of working at the River Cafe. When I first ate their food it was like a lightning bolt, earth-moving, and unlike anything I had tasted before.
So I went there for Rose and Ruthie, and grew to love them for different reasons. Ruthie was the mother figure, Rose the more matter-of-fact and firm, with the occasional flicker of mischief. What I especially loved was that they didn’t come from a culinary background, like I did. They brought ease to their kitchen: it wasn’t militant or stuffy like others I’d worked in. Everything was approachable, inspiring, and wholly new to the establishment of London’s dining scene.
I try to bring the values I picked up at the River Cafe to my restaurants now. I learnt how to refine and elevate flavours from produce, the importance of sticking to seasons and paying attention to detail, how to be open and flexible ... and I found the food I really wanted to cook.
Looking back, it’s the vegetables that really stand out in my memory. From how they sourced and prepped them to the development and refinement of flavour. Celeriac, fennel and fresh shelling beans, like borlotti and cannellini – they made ordinary things awesome and did so simply but strategically, which was made possible by getting the absolute best ingredients – produce that comes alive and dances around on the palate.
My cooks have coined the term “anal rustic” for my style of cooking! That means that when you see one of our dishes plated – like the one below – it can look simple and home-style, when in fact an awful lot of precision and thought has gone into it. It is the elegance of that simplicity that I learned at the River Café.
1 large red pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 small dried red chillies, crumbled
4 large ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped
Flaky salt and black pepper
3 large waxy potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 large, firm aubergine, cubed, salted and set aside to drain for one hour
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
3 tbsp fresh marjoram leaves
1 Preheat the grill. When hot, grill the pepper until the skin is blackened on all sides. Put in a plastic bag to cool. Remove the skin, stalk and any seeds, and cut into 2cm strips.
2 Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan, add the onion and let it soften and colour. Add the garlic and chilli, and cook for 3-4 minutes.
3 Add the tomato and 1 tsp salt, and simmer gently for 35 minutes.
4 Boil the potato in a small saucepan of salted water until al dente. Drain. Meanwhile, in a separate large saucepan, heat 4 tbsp olive oil. When hot, add the aubergine cubes and brown all over. Cook until tender. Remove and drain.
5 In a separate bowl, combine the tomato sauce with the aubergine, potato and pepper. Sprinkle with the vinegar, salt and pepper, and stir together. Add the marjoram.
6 Serve drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, warm or at room temperature.