Margot Henderson (co-owner) and Anna Tobias (head chef), Rochelle Canteen
Margot, you've been running Rochelle Canteen for eight years and Anna, you've been there for a year, after working at the River Cafe. How did you end up in the same kitchen together?
Margot: I was looking for chefs, so I put the word out and Anna heard that we were looking. She called up and then she became second for a while, then somebody else left and we offered her the head chef job. We met each other through Jeremy Lee [head chef, Quo Vadis] as well, he was the first person to hire me and he’s also a really good friend of both of ours so we hung out a bit in Shoreditch and in Soho.
What's the ethos behind the menu at Rochelle Canteen?
M: Melanie [Arnold - her partner in Arnold & Henderson catering] and I met at the French House then started the Rochelle Canteen together. We try to keep a consistency with the head chefs, the food I love to eat and that suits us. It’s seasonal and straightforward and I think the food suits our personality as much as it suits the time of year and where it comes from and the place - as it would be a bit weird if we were doing Michelin starred restaurant in a canteen. But it’s also very serious food and well thought out.
How does it work between you and Anna in terms of creating the menu?
M: Anna came and she has a lot of ideas, and she's learned the way I like things and it’s really balanced. She has a huge input now, she writes the menu, and then I say, "let’s do this", or "let’s do that". She looks at the menus we’ve done before, she looks at our book [You’re All Invited] she knows about St John and Fergus [Henderson, Margot's husband and founder of St John] as obviously Fergus is a big influence for all of us.
Anna: There are things we always like to have on the menu like a terrine or a rillettes, which is always on and often a smoked fish like a smoked cod’s roe or a smoked mackerel as that’s a really British product. I try to express myself within Margot’s vision. For example, we put on a new tart yesterday, which is leeks and chard and Cardo, which is a nice British cheese...
M: ...and it was great!
A: So it’s not from Margot’s book, but it’s within what I hope she’d like.
M: We try not to have too many rules.
So, your one rule is not too many rules?
M: Yes. I think sometimes if you just have a load of vegetables, put vegetables on. We always have five starters and five mains - but we’re relaxed. We don’t have to stick to a rule. I’m always encouraging offal as offal always seems to disappear off the menu, then it comes back.
What would you say Rochelle Canteen's signature dish is?
A: I’d say something like rillettes or brandard, or even things like braised rabbit and fennel, we do them quite a lot.
M: Lemon sole, too. We have things that we love and we repeat, as it's good to repeat dishes as people get to know you for them.
A: We do a great green salad which might sound like a really weird thing to say, but it's the hardest thing to get a compliment and I think we do it well.
What’s the secret of a great green salad?
A: It’s everything, a good selection of leaves, generous...
M:...toss and drop - not mush!
"Toss and drop"? What's that all about?
M: Well, so many chefs just end up sort of mushing it, you need to be gentle and air it, a good action. Anna does it very well - you need to toss it and pick it, then you should place it by falling onto the plate and then you should leave it. The more you start fiddling around with it, then it goes wrong.
You need to patent method that, quick! What's the best thing to order in the restaurant?
M: I like when people order exactly the same thing. People say: “Oh I must have this...” but it’s actually all really nice when everyone has an artichoke or you all have lemon sole. Then the table looks really cool.
A: There are times when I might subconsciously make a menu that’s a little too more Italian, because of where I worked before, so sometimes it just happens without thinking.
Sort of like Italian autopilot.
M: But sometimes it’s worked, as she’s brought peppers on to the menu. I never allowed peppers on the menu before, but Anna cooks them so beautifully. We don’t grill them and peel them and slice them. A pepper is good, it’s a great thing, but there have been times like in the '90s when coriander and red peppers were everywhere, it was like “oh my God!”. But it’s about using ingredients properly.
This might be an obvious question, but why does Rochelle Canteen only serve lunch?
M: Well, it’s an easy answer. We’re not allowed. Or the weekend either. It focuses you! We would eventually like to move to somewhere where we could serve dinner - you never know what might happen.
It's cool that with Margot and Melanie running Arnold & Henderson and Anna being head chef, that you're all female. Was it planned that way?
M: No, it's sort of an accident.
I wondered if it was sort of response-through-practise against last year's Time Magazine article, where they declared the "God of Food" list, without a single women, then the editor explained it by saying: "The women really need someone—if not men, themselves actually—to sort of take care of each other." Margot, you were quite vocal about this at the time, does this influence you when running the restaurant, like for hiring staff?
M: Well, I'd just take the best person who was right for the job, I wouldn't ever say: "I've got to have a woman". We love men! My gosh, where would we be without gorgeous men about the place!
A: For me, I enjoy working for women, as a young women I find it something to look up to, I worked for Rose and Ruth [Gray and Rogers, from River Cafe] then for Mel and Margot, so it's nice to be able to work for women who run businesses so I can learn from them how they manage their life and work.
Cooking can still seem like a bit of a boys club, have you found it difficult rising to a head chef as a women?
A: You have to be sensible about what restaurants you want to work for. I worked for Jeremy, who's lovely and very open-minded, then I worked for Rose and Ruth, then Mel and Margot, so I've only ever worked for kitchens that are always going to encourage people to do well. And never in a macho or aggressive manner, so for me, I've never encountered any problems as I've only ever worked in really lovely kitchens, so there hasn't been any power struggle.
Since that article last year, do you think things are changing at all? Margot, are you seeing more women like Anna coming through kitchens?
M: I think the point of that article was that the editor said it, and that was annoying. But those guys are all amazing and wonderful and they have incredible restaurants and are all absolutely fanatics. I love Rene [Redzepi, from Noma] and everyone...But the editor said: "I wouldn't put a women in there just for the sake of it...there aren't any women out there doing it" and made the point of saying it, and that was what was incredible annoying. A lot of women are behind the scenes - they may not be running in those positions, but a lot of them are running the businesses, having those guys' children - it's a hard balance to have partnerships and run businesses. There are reasons why there aren't so many women in restaurants, but it's just that he made that point. But did you see the Beard awards [dubbed the "Oscars of the food world"]?
No - what happened?
M: Well there were five women that won - there was April Bloomfield, a woman from San Francisco and others, which was just fantastic.
Margot, your book, You're All Invited, gives recipes to cover all sorts of gatherings and parties. What's the best party you've thrown recently?
M: I'd say mine was in the South of France for Anselm Kiefer, who's an artist, it was in Barjac. We cooked braised kid, and we took salt cod down from England and they were like: "eez zis from England?" And I said "Yes, isn't a great product? We're very proud of it." It was a huge success and they all had a great meal.
A: We did one last year in Vienna for Sarah Lucas which was great as everyone got their own individual poussin - so 300 hundred poussins - and she does a lot of art with chickens in her piece, which we knew beforehand so sort of referenced that. We had soft boiled eggs with mayonnaise - as she also uses a lot of eggs too - so that was quite fun.
M: And everyone sat in this beautiful gallery with her artwork around us - which never happens - you don't often do the meals in the gallery. It's fun to travel, but also fun to do things here too.
A: We did Hamish Bowles' 50th last year, that was really fun and glamorous.
M: We love the glamour jobs! We're just a couple of tarts! [laughs].
I've seen you've just started doing cookery classes, with a kimchi class as your first one. What's the story behind that?
M: We want to encourage that, we want to do five before Christmas. Anna's going to do one, Fergus, Jeremy Lee, all great chefs. We're looking into them at the moment. The first class ran 6-9pm and cost £85, but then you get a meal too and we have to pay the chefs too. The kimchi one was brilliant, it was Holly Davis from Sydney and she really knew her stuff, she's an expert.
Do you know what the other chefs might cook?
M: I think Fergus might do some pig - I think it's good if you look to one thing and focus on that.
Where do you like to eat out at?
M: Yes - I love Barrafina, the new one in Covent Garden, it's really good.
And finally, what would your last meal on earth be?
Margot: Whole crab and mayonnaise.
Anna: Chicken soup.