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Chefs behind the chefs: Anna Hansen and Rob Mcleary

10 October 2014
Chefs behind the chefs: Anna Hansen and Rob Mcleary

Soon after opening the Modern Pantry, Anna Hansen encountered Rob Mcleary, and the pair have never looked back. Janie Manzoori-Stamford asks about a partnership seemingly made in heaven

Anna Hansen
We'd just opened and our investor, D&D, would send chefs over to help us out. Shaun Searley, who is now at Quality Chop House, was one
of them. He did a few shifts and, knowing that I was looking to fill a senior position, told me he knew a guy. Rob and I were introduced and he came out and did a shift about a week later.

He was just a breath of fresh air. He came and got on with it. He was fast and a grafter; responsible and forward-thinking. He pre-empted everything and asked all the right questions. We sat down at the end and I offered him the job. I knew that Rob would be a great asset to the business. With some people you automatically fall into working with them. You don't even really have to talk; you just know what they're doing and move around each other really easily. It was like that immediately. We connected and worked well together and I was so relieved.

Rob has been the head chef for the last two years. We'd been to the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and while we were there we started to talk about the development of the business. The idea of having more Modern Pantries was part of my original business plan and it became clear to me that I needed to give Rob the responsibility of running the kitchen.

I was basically doing this restaurant on my own, so it was really cool to have a confidante at work who was actually a really good friend as well.

But Rob has never, in all the six years we've worked together, answered back in the way that most of the other chefs in the kitchen will try to and have an argument with me.

I've never, ever had even a suggestion of that from Rob, which is phenomenal considering how intensely we've worked together and the opportunities there are for that kind of stuff to go on. Our relationship has been so successful because there's a respect for each other as
human beings and in our roles.

Rob is so important to the business that he is now a part-owner of it and that's something that I realised was a requirement for me if we were going to expand. It's great that Rob loves his job but he needed a stake in the business because that's ultimately what it's all about.

Robert Mcleary
The trial shift was really interesting and exciting because it was a style and flavour of cooking that I'd never done before. I'd worked in British and French Michelin-starred restaurants but this was a whole new way of approaching food and ingredients that I'd never experienced.

I remember Anna asking me to run upstairs and get something like hijiki seaweed and I'd be like, yeah, sure. I ran up and then realised I had no idea where to look for it.

Is it in the walk-in or the dry store or is it in the freezer? I'd never used tamarind in my cooking before either, or things like miso, and I'd have to think, which one does she want now? The white? The moromi? I just wanted to help her.

But almost immediately I felt that I got an understanding of what Anna wanted and needed. The other guys would be great; they'd come in and they'd do their job, but they weren't always willing to go that extra mile. I could see when Anna was tired and I'd tell her to get home and get that extra hour in bed.

Christmas was the first time that Anna took a day off and that was four months in. It wasn't sustainable, for us as a restaurant or for Anna.

Before taking the job at the Modern Pantry I'd spent two years running an event catering company in Berkshire. I'd made a bit of money for myself and was living a fairly comfortable life and I made it clear to Anna that I was taking a massive step down in order to come back to London, but I wanted to do it and to be there for her in whatever she planned to do. I could see that Anna was driven to not just having the one restaurant. I thought there would be massive opportunities and reward. When we met, we just clicked. It was fun then and it still is now. I always say to people, the day you wake up and think 'I could really do with not going to work today' is the day you have to look for another job. And I've never had that feeling in all the years I've been here.

My thought process about food and where I want to go with it has totally changed since we met. I never thought about cooking this style of food and she has shown me where food and cooking can take you. You don't just stand behind that pass and work 80 hours a week - there's more to it.

I know I could speak to Anna about anything. Not just as my boss but with whatever personal issues are going on in my life, I knowthat I could come to her and literally just let off steam before getting back in the kitchen.

It really helps.

Robert Mcleary: a background Rob Mcleary's career began when he spent school holidays helping out in the kitchens of his uncle's event catering business, Catering
Options. After school he went on to further education at South Downs College, where he gained work experience with a number of organisations, notably the royal household.

A stint at Loch Fyne after graduation was followed by the opportunity to work alongside Peter Weeden, who was head chef at the Paternoster Chop House at the time. Mcleary later moved on to one-Michelinstarred restaurant JSW in Petersfield, Hampshire, owned by Jake Watkins, before returning to Catering Options and eventually taking a stake in the company.

A desire to return to cooking in the capital, helped by an introduction from college friend and head chef of the Quality Chop House in Farringdon, Shaun Searley, led to Mcleary joining Hansen at the Modern Pantry shortly after it opened in August 2008.

Anna Hansen: a background Born in Canada and raised in New Zealand, Anna Hansen first trained as a chef under Fergus Henderson in 1992 at the French House Dining Room, before joining Peter Gordon in 1994 at Green Street and again in 1998 at the Sugar Club, Soho.

In 2001, Hansen, Gordon and partners opened The Providores, which won the Newcomer of the Year title at the 2003 Catey Awards and two AA rosettes.

She left The Providores in 2005 to focus on developing the Modern Pantry, which opened its doors to critical acclaim in August 2008. The fusion restaurant went on to be awarded two AA rosettes and Bib Gourmand status in the Michelin Guide 2009 and 2010.

In 2011, a year after being named among the world's top 100 up-and-coming chefs in Phaidon book Coco, Hansen published the Modern Pantry Cookbook before being awarded an MBE in 2012 for her services to the restaurant industry.

The Modern Pantry

Opened 2008
Chefs 13 full-time plus one shop chef and two assistants
Front of house staff 27
Average spend per head £22 at lunch, £33 at dinner
Capacity 120 in winter across three floors, 150 in summer including the terrace
Weekly covers 1,900

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