Rob Kirby, director, Lexington Catering, London

The Staff Canteen

With over 30 years of cooking experience, Rob Kirby has worked in the finest hotels, restaurants and personally for high profile clients, including members of Royal family at various times throughout those years.

He began his career age 16 at with a full apprenticeship with Intercontinental Hotels, from there he moved on to CDP Lord Mayor London Residence, Israel Hilton International Middle East CDP, High Table and in 1998 he became Avenance Group Executive Chef. Now 48 years-old Rob is a director of highly successful top end catering company, Lexington Catering, which was founded in 2002. Rob has recently published two books, his first book ‘Cook with Kids’ achieved global success and won “Best Fundraising Cookbook in Europe” at the World book awards in Paris, it also currently sits in the Independent newspaper top 10 children’s cookbooks. His second book ‘Family Kitchen’ released in November 2013 featured on the cover of Waitrose magazine. It was named as one of the top 10 cookbooks in 2013 by MSN. Rob appears regularly on television BBC Breakfast and radio throughout the year, namely every Christmas day over the last decade showing the nation how to cook their turkey! The Staff Canteen caught up with Rob to find out where his love of food came from, why he champions seasonal ingredients and why Marco Pierre White is such a god.

Where does your interest in seasonal produce and comfort food come from?

When I was growing up we lived in a huge Victorian house in north-west London. We were really lucky and it came with an acre of land so we grew our own ingredients. My granddad was growing things like cucumbers, grapes and nectarines, which back in the day was unheard of. People would come and knock on the door to buy what my granddad had grown. But what really takes me back to that time is the smell of jam, my grandma used to make her own preserves and those smells still stick with me. Food is very nostalgic, smells and flavours that’s what good cooking is all about. What made you want to go down the route of contract catering? It’s very diverse, there are never two days the same and that’s what I like. From a small dining room to a 500 cover event, each menu comes with its own challenges and I love it. Lexington Catering was a natural step for me. I was given directorship and sat on the board with people I had worked with before at High Table. We came together to create a small, foodie, boutique company. Our vision was half about people, looking after people in catering – it’s a hard job and we wanted to give a lot of love to the people who worked for us. The other half was the food and service – it was about using fresh food and the local supply chain before everyone else was doing it. This vision to provide simple, fresh, tasty food and fabulous service attracted all the right kind of chefs who wanted to work for us and in turn we’ve been able to deliver an edgier product. So what is your cooking style?

Top five restaurant meals: Funky…. Upstairs at the Ten Bells Shoreditch Palomar soho Clove Club Solid…. Scotts Spotted Pig -NYC Posh.... Maision Trois Gros- Roanne Five most influential chefs in career: Marco Pierre White Michel Giguel Gary Rhodes Eric de blonde Anthony Worrell Thompson ( at Menage a’ trois ) Top 5 comfort foods: Prawn Cocktail Fish n Chips Shepherds pie and baked beans! Roast Pork Sunday roast Dirty Burger and spotted pig fries!

It’s absolute comfort food! I keep it simple, with minimum components on the plate and it’s always British seasonal produce. That’s what I like to eat and I also prefer a more informal dining experience so that’s what my style represents.

What’s your favourite season?

That’s a good question! They all stand out for very different reasons but I think spring is my favourite. Everything is coming alive, the spring veg and the lamb is coming through. Although I do like autumn too, with all the game and the big root vegetables.

What about ingredients, are these still influenced by your childhood?

Every chef loves big flavour that’s why I like to work with things like offal, it’s full of flavour. I think that’s why most chefs enjoy using heart and kidneys nose to tail, they are so strong to taste. Because I was raised with seasonal produce I still tend to stick to those. But why would you buy in something that wasn’t? It doesn’t taste as good and it’s really expensive.

Foraging is very popular at the minute, is it something you’ve done?

I’ve done a small amount but I’m very London-centric and there’s not really anywhere close by you can go foraging. We’ve taken chefs on days out but I think foraging has more of a place when you are based somewhere like Le Manoir. It doesn’t have the same romance about it when you have to jump on the circle line!

On your list of most influential chefs you mention Marco Pierre White. What is it about him that influenced you?

In the 80’s when he was at Harveys he just kicked the door open for British cuisine. At the time everything was French led but he broke the mould and his dishes still stand up today. In his day he was one of the gods.

Do you still think there is a place for classic French cooking?

Any chef has to remember that the classics are the foundation of anything they do. Holes will appear if they don’t learn the basics. The Roux Scolarship is very good at promoting this and it’s very influential. Also Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Annual Awards of Excellence, I’m very much a part of that as a member.

What about now? Are there any young chefs who you think are pushing the boundaries and bringing their own style to the forefront?

Chefs like Jason Atherton, they are following in the footsteps of the Marco generation by putting their brand out there. But behind them are a huge amount of chefs who are cooking consistently day in day out. Places like Palomar Soho, Scotts and the Ivy, they always produce great solid dishes.

The Royal Academy of Culinary Arts is obviously close to your heart, how did you become involved?

As part of the academy chefs are asked to link up with local schools, as part of this we go into schools and teach kids to cook and understand and explore tastes. That’s how I first got involved with the Children’s Hospital School at Great Ormond Street. I’ve spent the last ten years with the academy at the school, it’s for children who are ill but they still get the opportunity to go to school. A lot of people think that if they are ill school is not the best thing but it gives them consistency.

Is this where the inspiration for your first book came from?

I approached Jon Croft at Absolute Press, I decided the royalties would all go back to Great Ormond Street Hospital. I wanted it to be something very simple and the images by Lara Holmes reflect this. It’s an uplifting place and I’ve had a truly rewarding experience teaching the kids there to cook.

What about your second book, did you learn a lot form the first?

Absolutely, I was a little naïve with the first but it will always be close to my heart. The second one was bigger and ballsier.

So what is it about?

It’s about not letting the tradition of eating a family meal round the table fall by the wayside. I want to encourage families to get into the kitchen and spend quality time together. I feel so strongly about the importance of food and how it helps to build a strong foundation for families in today’s modern, fast-paced world.

What are your plans for Lexington in the future?

I’m very proud of the business and I want Lexington to carry on growing and innovating. We want to keep fresh food on the map. Our chefs play a big part in the development of our menus with that in mind and we encourage them to buy seasonal British products. We want to keep things fresh and simple, but full of flavour – comfort food but always at a high standard.  Confident cooking and ‘keeping it seasonal’!  

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The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th November 2014

Rob Kirby, director, Lexington Catering, London