9 Jul 2009

Rowley Leigh: Toast (anchovy)

“It’s a good, strong Essex bird,” says Rowley Leigh as he takes me through his Label Anglais chicken. “Points to note: long, deep breast, good line of fat, a muscularity of drumstick which shows that it’s moved,” (he repeatedly pinched it) “and strong skin. There’s protein in that. When a French butcher came to flog us some kit, I showed him one of these and he gasped, ‘Ca c’est undeniably artisanal!’”
We sit on eau de nil banquettes facing the uncooked bird at ‘Le Café Anglais’, Leigh’s Bayswater restaurant famous for its rotisserie-spun poultry. “‘The Wallace’ does London’s second best chicken, and ‘La Petite Maison’, comes third. But we’re number one. And we use everything, including the heart, liver and carcass, which makes fantastic stock.”
What was a sprawling McDonald’s complete with a “dark paedophile’s corner” was rehabilitated into deco splendour by designer, Jane Ormsby-Gore, “the ‘Lady Jane’ of the Rolling Stones.” She elevated ceilings and unmasked windows, replacing plastic and polystyrene for chrome, oak and bird’s eye maple. Despite its shopping centre location and daunting scale (the liner like space seats 170), Leigh approached the project as instinctively as one “who would have been an architect in another life.” However the buoyant economy of 2007 “seems a long time ago,” when the project was actually oversubscribed by half a million pounds.
Now nearing 60, it seems that the chef portrayed by peers and critics as a ‘founding father of modern British cooking’ has taken his time to realise the dream of owning a grand restaurant. His unconventional patience is qualified by a brigade, “of journeymen and young kids, not all wannabe head chefs at age 22.”
Leigh studied English at Cambridge before dabbling in farming, enjoying “philosophical speculation going around a field on a tractor”. After an aborted attempt as a fiction writer and “afternoon man” he discovered a passion for cooking, “falling into” the role of grill chef at Covent Garden’s celebrity den, ‘Joe Allen's’. He learnt the grammar of cooking with the Roux brothers at the ‘Gavroche’ of Sloane Street, becoming buyer and “general factotum”. He quickly progressed to head chef at their city staple, ‘Le Poulbot’. Leigh still visits Le Gavroche for game, “proactively looking past the printed menu” for “woodcock, saddle of hare,” or “an offal lunch at the set lunch price.”
At weekends he moonlighted in the kitchen of university friend, Alastair Little, the self-taught chef celebrated for his then radical, ‘keep it simple’ approach. At “K.P.” (‘Kensington Place’) Leigh was foremost in placing as much emphasis on dining room design as food. He spent two decades crafting “enduring” British food, “stronger than fashion.” Amongst the legendary dishes were griddled foie gras and sweetcorn pancakes, beloved by a media clientele and locals alike. In addition to Little, he rates Mark Hix, a “creative spirit, who is brilliant at mining British food” and “making things better.”
As the first of three bottles arrives, we discuss his defiantly European list. “A savoury menu needs savoury wine; it underplays sweetness.” His liquid epiphany occured in the wake of the 1973 ‘Winegate’ scandal, when an esteemed shipper was found guilty of ‘improving’ Bordeaux with Rioja.
“My father bought some cheap bottles with damp labels - who knew what we would find? The first was a ‘62 Latour - most were first growths. The heavens opened. Blushful Hippocrene! But when I tried the same vintage a few years back, it didn’t recall quite the same magic...”
On the subject of critics, Leigh trusts “Adrian” (Gill) although finds “Giles” (Coren) by far the most funny. Despite broadly favourable appraisals for the Café Anglais, he jokes of bloggers, “I want to get a T-shirt printed saying, ‘Fuck-off - I don’t read you!’”
Leigh himself is an established writer and three-time winner of the Glenfiddich award. Asked about the process, he quotes Thomas Mann, “...a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people...” In addition to his column in the Financial Times, he is author of ‘No Place Like Home’, a celebration of domestic dishes on which “no restaurant can improve.”
Despite a sustained profile, when I ask if he is a celebrity, he vehemently denies. “It was the turn of photographers in the ‘60’s, hairdressers in the ‘70’s, bankers in the ‘80’s and chefs in ‘90’s. But we’ve had our day.” He briefly pauses for a sip of Claret, “if you want a real superstar, talk to accounts about ‘Roger the Egg Man’ – our only supplier to demand weekly payments!”
Waiting staff, including Leigh’s children, Ruth and Daisy collage our table with a rainbow of hors d’oeuvres. A dexterous, smoked kipper pate is my favourite (and it transpires, also his wife’s). When I ask what’s in the game terrine, he tut-tuts, “a gentleman doesn’t ask what’s in a terrine!” Whilst cooing over his signature Parmesan custard and anchovy toast, I suggest that the title of this dish could grace his gravestone. He immediately agrees and draws words in the air, “I see ‘Rowley Leigh’ - then in brackets, ‘Toast’...”
With such nurturing appetisers, then pike boudin, kid and lemon-scented chicken, I propose that the Leigh ‘genre’ could be described as ‘temperate bourgeois’. “How dare you!” he chides, “my situationist inner-self is not quite ready to take on the bourgeoisie’s mantle just yet!” This secret fanatic of the ‘Fray Bentos’ pie is however, “toying” with the idea of bringing back ham mousse, “last seen in ‘62.”
Whilst Leigh always intended the Café’s dining room to be democratic – purveying “affordable luxury,” from the moment it opened it attracted a “distinguished” clientele: royalty, sports stars and the “literati.” But despite the veil of civility, there will always be problematic customers. Leigh agrees with Anthony Worrall Thompson that the worst diners are unhappy couples, “incredibly impatient, wanting dinner over as fast as possible.” But he is rarely the Diva, having only thrown out one couple. “A chap called me ‘reprehensible’ with ‘appallingly greasy long hair’. Whilst I hadn’t had a trim in a while, it wasn’t ‘greasy’. So I tore up his bill and told him to ‘fuck-off’. But that was a failure. I prefer Michel Roux Senior’s method of sending-in commis waiters to remove the table.”
As I excavate Leigh’s lemon meringue pie, the ‘Queen of Puddings’ - a possible sign of his emerging “geriatric sweet tooth” - he explains the saga of ‘The Tropical Forest’, an enormous “botanical orgy” gracing the far wall. “Just after we opened, a customer put their elbow right through the canvas. At great expense, we had it repaired. I’m not sure whether or not it was the same chap, but it promptly happened again, almost immediately.” Other art includes sculptor Kenneth Armitage’s “scatological” sketches of ‘The Reeves Tale’, which hang in the bar. Whilst some people complain about the scene of copulating horses, Leigh is unfazed. “I’m thinking of buying a party in a dysfunctional dolls house for the private room. The host has been flattened by marauding guests...”
Despite Leigh’s compelling and often dark humour, he remains a man of purpose. “I hope I’ve created something meaningful here, providing work for many people who look to me not only for money, but guidance and leadership. Le Café Anglais is not just a sweatshop, but a workshop, and we’ve built it to last…”
LE CAFE ANGLAIS: 8 Porchester Gardens, London. W2 4DB

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