Chef to Watch: Leo Kattou, head chef at Simpsons: 'The grass isn't always greener on the other side'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Chef to Watch: Leo Kattou, head chef at Simpsons

There is much to be said about belonging to one of the UK's great culinary families. Leo Kattou joined the Simpsons gang when he was the culinary world's equivalent of a newborn (if infants were any good at washing up) - a commis - and now, as one of the grown ups of the family, leads the team as head chef.

But even before chef patron Andreas Antona and chef director Luke Tipping took young Leo under their wings, great food was always available to him. The chef's family, of Greek Cypriot origin, built a life in Coventry in the 1980s, and when they weren't spending quality time together, sharing traditional meals of stuffed vine leaves, verdoyant salads, barbecued meats and freshly-baked breads, they earned a living running a fish and chip shop in Kenilworth.

'I hated every minute of it - but I learned a lot'

The chef started helping his parents out when he was still a boy, aged ten or 11, he told us.

"I started peeling spuds, then before I knew it I was serving, doing bits and bobs."

"I hated every minute of it," he smiled, "but I learned a lot."

"At the time I didn't [enjoy it] but now I look back, it was actually brilliant having that in my background," as it taught him a respect for earning money, the fundamentals of cooking, and got him used to seeing produce come in raw and leave as a finished product. 

Luckily for Leo, the spuds were only temporary, as Andreas Antona, who happened to be a good friend of his father's, helped him secure a place to study professional cookery at UCB, which gave him the confidence he needed to step into a Michelin-starred kitchen. 

In 2009, he joined the team at Simpsons as a commis - and has remained at the restaurant since, climbing the ranks to his current role as head chef.

From his first sous-chef, Matt Cheal, to Adam Bennett, Andreas, Luke and the whole team around him, he learned that one of the defining features of Simpsons Restaurant is a nurtured sense of belonging.

"Simpsons is all about family," he said.

"Unless you work here, you can't really understand it."

'MasterChef was never me. It was always Luke and Andreas'

Thanks to this tight-knit team, Leo has built up an impressive set of skills, which, encouraged by his elders, he has put to the test on a number of occasions - namely making it to the semi-finals on MasterChef: The Professionals 2017 and winning BCF's Chef of the Year 2021.

Leo sees the value in competing, but he isn't one to enthuse about the process either.

"You do enjoy them," he conceded. "You meet a lot of chefs along the way, you make good friends."

While he did make some "friends for life" on MasterChef, "I wasn't ever ready for it, and I'll admit that," pinpointing the pressure of being watched by millions of people across the UK as the biggest hurdle.

Besides, he said, he was never the one to put himself forward for any competitions. 

"MasterChef was never me, it was always Luke and Andreas," insistent on pushing their teams to see what they are capable of. 

"They're never disappointed or anything like that if you don't win," he said, and treat it more like a learning process. "We look at where we went wrong and we look at where we can improve. That's how it works."

Modestly ignoring his obvious skill, the chef said that adopting the right mentality was what led him to victory in last year's BCF competition.

"I just enjoyed it," he said, which "I like to think is why I did well."

"I had a smile on my face, I enjoyed the cooking." 

Asked if he would consider taking part in any other competitions, he said: "You never know."

"There was discussion of one yesterday, but I'm not going to say what it is." 

'My style is Luke's style - and that isn't a bad thing'

Having been at Simpsons for as long as he has, the chef has earned the right to his own creative freedom - but has nonetheless developed his style on the restaurant's classical foundations, with strong ties to its local area.

As one would expect of a longstanding Michelin-starred restaurant, the food at Simpsons is highly driven by what produce they can get their hands on at any given time.

"Our suppliers are our eyes and ears," he said. "They're our guys who actually dictate our menu."

"Our style is very natural - we're lucky, Andreas gives me the buying power to purchase the best fish, the best meat, the best vegetables, to be able to do what we can achieve at Simpsons."

Happily, Leo is in alignment with chef director Luke Tipping's vision, making for a great working relationship. 

"My style is Luke's style because I've worked with Luke for so many years - and that isn't a bad thing," he said.

"I don't look at it myself and think I need to make my own style, because that will come whenever I move on, wherever that will be." 

And while others might get itchy feet after a few years in one place, Leo has no desire to move on for the sake of it.

"The grass isn't always greener on the other side," he said.

22 and counting

At just 29, the chef has plenty of time to plan his own restaurant - which he believes he will  - one day.

"It's a big commitment," he said, "because it is your own financial backing, your own name. It's a difficult thing and it's a big step in anyone's career." 

"Something might happen. It could be in the next year, it could be in the next two years. But at the moment I've just got to take everything as it comes and enjoy myself." 

All things considered, It's not a bad place to be: at the helm of a restaurant which has retained a star for 22 years, working alongside some of the best chefs in the country.

"I've seen it from being a commis to being head chef - it's a nice feeling to be a part of that team as I've got older as well," he said. 

And every year when the guide comes around, "Luke's just as happy as when he first got it."

"He deserves it. Him and Andreas, they fully deserve it." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 16th May 2022

Chef to Watch: Leo Kattou, head chef at Simpsons: 'The grass isn't always greener on the other side'