Roast story

24 November 2005
Roast story

If customers who book to eat at the newly opened Roast restaurant, near London Bridge, choose their time right, they will be in for a treat. To reach the first-floor restaurant they have to walk through what many people regard as foodie heaven.

Borough Market, where the 120-seat restaurant is located, is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays. Here, about 70 specialist high-quality food suppliers, selling everything from sourdough bread to smoked meats, can be found alongside a selection of wholesale fruit and vegetable suppliers who are open all week. So, by the time diners arrive at Roast, their culinary senses are well and truly tickled.

It is the same for the team of 12 chefs who work here, led by head chef Lawrence Keogh. "There are so many interesting people on our doorstep that we can't fail to be inspired," says Paul Robinson, who, along with Alex Perkins, is one of Keogh's two sous chefs.

"We are talking to the guys in the market all the time, and our menu is very much based on what we can get each day," he says. "As well as the traditional seasonal produce, we're also discovering some wonderful new produce, too, such as Amethyst Deceiver mushrooms, which look like purple chanterelles, and crinkly lime leaf chard."

For Wahhab, there has never been a better time to launch this restaurant, which is set in a building with a stunning glass frontage encased in the portico from the old Covent Garden flower market, with views of St Paul's Cathedral one way and the bustle of Borough Market the other.

"Availability is more than half the battle when it comes to cooking British food," he says. "We're working very closely with small, specialist producers who really seem to understand what our chefs want. It makes the process of buying food supplies for Roast very exciting."

The suppliers' names, including the Forager, which provides wild herbs and leaves, Andrew Sharp (mutton), Turnips (fruit and vegetables), Pugh's Piglets and Sillfield Farm (pork), are given a prominent mention on the menu in the form of Roast's Roll of Honour. "As well as giving a plug to the producers, it also provides reassurance to customers that we are buying the best products," says Wahhab. "It is a badge of quality that encourages people to order specific dishes. The British public have never been more keen to support British produce - the 10,000 customers who visit Borough Market every week is a clear indication of this."

British produce He expresses surprise at the still small number of British chefs who are taking British produce and turning it into the kind of dishes that now appear on the Roast menu. Dishes like Yorkshire game broth with pearl barley (£6.50), home-potted Dorset shrimps with country toast (£6.50), roast pheasant with sherry-glazed parsnips and chestnuts (£16), and quince, pear and hazelnut crumble with custard.

"British chefs are generally trained to cook French cuisine. Therefore it is outside their mind-set to cook British food," says Wahhab. "I found exactly the same thing when I was trying to recruit staff for the Cinnamon Club and talking to chefs in five-star hotels in India. Most of them had been trained to produce international cuisine, so they had limited real knowledge or ability when it came to cooking local Indian dishes."

Although Wahhab retains a shareholding in the Cinnamon Club - the stylish 120-seat Indian restaurant which has proved a hit with MPs in Westminster - he is no longer involved in its management.

With so many chefs seemingly lacking the experience of a solid British repertoire, Wahhab had difficulty in recruiting the right chef to head up the kitchen at Roast. But find him he did in the guise of Keogh, previously head chef at the Avenue in London.

Keogh underwent a classical French training, but learnt to cook traditional British dishes such as ham and pea soup and steak and kidney pudding during stints at the Ritz club and the Goring hotel. "British food is so much more than just roast beef and Yorkshire pudding," he says. "We're using cobnuts from Kent to make a rosemary and cobnut butter that we serve with grilled spatchcock partridge and braised red cabbage, and rock samphire, which grows wild on the cliffs and we pickle to serve with monkfish cheeks and mussels."

Keogh and his sous chefs have done extensive research in sourcing old British recipes. Robinson says that he has bought at least 30 cookbooks and is particularly keen on the works of Mrs Beeton, Eliza Acton and Elizabeth David. Salad cream - used in place of mayonnaise - is made from white wine vinegar, English mustard, corn flour, eggs, cream, lemon juice, salt and pepper; while dittander, an ancient herb with a taste similar to horseradish, is used to add punch to a dish of grilled rare ox heart with Worcestershire onions and bone marrow.

The menus, which change at both lunch and dinner to take account of market supplies, feature a selection of dishes from the spit-roast grill, such as roast suckling pig with apple and black pudding, as well as daily changing salads, like Inverawe smoked eel and Ayrshire bacon or duck breast with carrots and Baby Gem lettuce.

Puddings include sticky date pudding with butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice-cream, rice pudding and mulled plums, and English custard and nutmeg tart with rhubarb, while a selection of British cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy are proving particularly popular.
Average spend is £40 at lunch and £60 at dinner, both with wine.

The British Restaurant Scene

Given the dramatic increase in the number of British chefs now working alongside their mainly European counterparts in leading kitchens throughout the country, is it not surprising that there are still only a minority of restaurants serving truly authentic British cuisine?

In the Good Food Guide 2006 there are only nine restaurants in London listed as serving British food, compared with 57 French, 33 Italian and 38 Indian. In no other European capital city would you find the leading chefs cooking anything other than their indigenous cuisine.

Iqbal Wahhab says that he struggles to name many chefs who cook British food at a high level. The ones that impress him most are Jeremy Lee at the Blueprint Café, Fergus Henderson at St John and Mark Broadbent at Bluebird - all in London.

There are others, of course. Gary Rhodes, perhaps more than anyone, has given British food a sexier edge, while around the country there are the likes of Nigel Haworth at Northcote Manor and the Three Fishes in Lancashire; Andrew Pern at the Star in Harome, North Yorkshire; Richard Guest at the Castle hotel, Taunton; and Dominic Chapman at the Hinds Head in Bray, Berkshire, who are all cooking wonderful examples of traditional British dishes.

Wahhab claims that too many British chefs are focused on achieving Michelin stars, which often leads them to believe that they need to produce food based on French culinary traditions. Even when food is labelled modern British, it tends to be derivative of French cuisine.
A champion of British cooking for more than 20 years, Kit Chapman, proprietor of the Castle hotel, Taunton, and father of Dominic, says that it is all down to fashion.

"In spite of the efforts of Gary Rhodes and the efforts he has made on television to promote British cooking, everyone still wants to cook French, Italian or Thai food - or even some bizarre fusion cooking, which totally lacks any kind of integrity.

"We have always liked the exotic in this country, which is why Asian food has always done so well here. We live in a global market, and the idea of seasonality, upon which British food is based, has become corrupted."

It is, perhaps, ironic that a man of Asian heritage - Wahhab was born in Bangledesh, although he has lived in the UK for 41 years - is the person behind a restaurant that serves the best of British produce in a style that so proudly reflects its setting. "I'm not here on a mission, but I would love to see more restaurants offering good British cooking," he says.

Who's cooking British

Dominic Chapman
Head chef, Hinds Head, Bray, Berkshire

"I like the simplicity of British food: it is full of flavour and interesting. The beauty of it is that you have to use seasonal ingredients. It is also the kind of food that people really want to eat.

"Here we have a core menu of favourites like pea and ham soup, steak and kidney pudding and treacle tart; then we offer seasonal specials, which change every week. At the moment we are serving slow-cooked pork belly with Scotch broth, roast partridge with Savoy cabbage, bacon and chestnuts, and lemon posset.

"We're currently working with Hampton Court in reviving old English dishes like quaking pudding, which is a kind of hot milk jelly made from milk and cream flavoured with nutmeg and cinnamon and set with egg yolks."

Jeremy Lee
Head chef, Blueprint Café, London

"British food is proper grub. The flavours are clean and pure, and it is enormously satisfying.

"Some people say it is too simple and just the kind of food you get at home. But how many people eat a properly cooked steak and kidney pudding at home these days? To produce these kinds of dishes well is actually quite challenging.

"British cooking is all about the seasons and wonderful produce like Arbroath smokies, which is one of the world's greatest foods.

"Favourite dishes on our menu at the moment include salt mallard served with home-made damson cheese, roast goose with redcurrant jelly and watercress, and steamed prune suet pudding."

Nigel Haworth
Chef-proprietor, Northcote Manor, Langho, Lancashire, and the Three Fishes, Mitton, Lancashire

"To me, cooking and serving food that originates in the local area is the logical thing to do. We have more heritage in this country than almost anywhere else in the world, yet we have lost our food heritage.

"It's just barmy that so many British pubs take dishes from other countries and then bastardise them, when instead they should be respecting the regional produce and dishes around the country.

"We're currently serving around 2,500 covers per week at the Three Fishes, and that's because we are serving good, local British food that people are interested in eating - dishes like potted shrimps, braised mutton with barley dumplings and roasted root vegetables, and Lancashire curd tart with organic lemon cream.

"Concepts I'm currently working on including good dishes using tripe, and a traditional cheese and onion pie."

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