Theo Randall, Chef Patron, Theo Randall at the InterContinental

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th February 2016

Theo Randall is an 'English chef with an Italian soul'.  He believes simplicity in food is much more interesting than being over complicated and despite not having an ‘Italian bone in his body’ it’s the cuisine he has chosen to specialise in.

Theo started washing pots aged 15 and after learning his trade under a Spanish chef he moved on to Chez Max in Surbiton, a French restaurant, before settling on Italian cuisine and joining Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray at River Café. After 17 years there he opened Theo Randall at The InterContinental.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Theo about his love of Italian food, what kept him at River Café for so long, why he decided to open his own restaurant and how it has changed in the last ten years.

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GUINEA FOWL

Why did you choose to become a chef?

We grew up having really good food. My mum is a really good cook and she’d bake every week and make bread - I’d always help her. We’d go on holidays and we’d go to these museums and art exhibitions, which I used to find horrifically boring, but at the end of it there was a nice meal and we would go to a restaurant. So I guess that’s where my love of restaurants started. This was in France and Italy so it very much had a continental feel about it. I was the kid that used to go to school with the homemade bread with Gorgonzola in the middle and everyone else had mothers pride plastic bread with ham. I didn’t really realise at the time but I just loved food so much.

And why did you specialise in Italian cuisine?

I haven’t got an Italian bone in my body, but going on holiday and having proper pizza from a wood oven - this enormous pizza would come out and it was so amazing. Then there was the pasta and having pasta with clams, I was quite an adventurous kid I would always order the oddest thing on the menu, much to my parent’s dismay. As a kid I loved things like fish and anchovies which is completely not normal I suppose.

Italy has so many different regions, so many varieties of food, so many influences from other countries and each region is so proud of what they cook. The pasta, risotto, cheese – it’s endless the whole thing! They live to eat and that philosophy really drives it, it’s so simple but so delicious – less is more for me. I think back to early memories of food and I remember tomato and oregano, so I think I’m lucky in that respect that I’ve had parents that are very into food and very open minded.

As you are not Italian does anyone ever question your food and it being the same standard as an Italian chef?

When Italians come in they say ‘what do you mean the chef isn’t Italian? Of course he’s Italian!’ But I’ve learned all 

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the  techniques from cooking in Italy and eating in lots of Italian restaurants so I may not specialise in one region but I specialise in my interpretation of Italian food.

How did you get in to the industry?

I was about 15 and wanted a bit of pocket money, I went and washed dishes in the most brilliant kitchen it was so flamboyant and there was a Spanish chef. He was very good and I loved the banter between the front of house and the kitchen. The tables were packed the whole time, it was so busy and I remember thinking, I love this, I love this atmosphere. I love food as well; I loved watching the chefs preparing all the food, the fish and meat.

I realised at this point that I wanted to get into cooking and I had been to college and then I thought I should go to a catering college. I went to Chez Max in Surbiton, a really good restaurant, and got a job as a waiter - we had the understanding that if something came up in the kitchen, I’d get the job. I think front of house were delighted when there was an opening in the kitchen! Then I was like a duck to water, I absolutely loved it and being with someone like Max Magarian who was the chef patron, he was such a brilliant man, you learnt the old school way, everything was prepared, nothing was brought in.

I learnt everything from boning to making sauces. This is French food, classic French food. My job was to do basically everything that he didn’t do, so that was quite a lot - all the pastries and the garnishes to all of the cold starters. Then as I got better I got more and more - I learnt a huge amount very, very quickly and it was a great experience.

From there you went to River Café where you stayed for 17 years – what was that like?

When I turned up it had just been open to the public so it was a new place. Again I just absolutely loved it and got on really well with Rose and Ruth and within a couple of months I was like their right hand person. They weren’t trained chefs, they loved food and in lots of ways it was great that they weren’t trained because they were so open minded.

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CARPACCIO

You also spent time at Chez Panisse in California with Alice Waters?

That was amazing. It was just one of those place where everyone was really into food, people had been there for quite a long time and it had very much a family feel about it. But what was amazing about Chez Panisse was how Alice Waters nurtured these people not just chefs but bakers, farmers and people that rear cattle; she got them to produce great quality produce that styled the food theme which was so advanced then, this was back in the early 90’s.

Everyone was talking about sustainable, everyone was talking about what the name of the farmer was and rare breeds and this is way before it had happened in London. I was in the right place at the right time, and it was just a great eye opener.

Why did you come back to River Café?

They offered to make me a partner in the restaurant and head chef – it just went from strength to strength. It was a very happy time and a great place to be. Everyone that was working there was very nurtured, it was a great place to grow talent and the good thing about River Café is that it brought out the best in people and so I was there for a long time, I have no regret about being there as long as I did.

Why did you decide to branch out on your own and open Theo Randall at The InterContinental?

There was never a dull moment, but at the back of my mind I always thought I really want to do something myself and I’d been looking for quite a while and various things popped up and didn’t work out. I thought to myself, I’m not going to leave River Café unless something really good comes up because I’m in a good position here, I don’t want to just leave for the sake of it. The InterContinental wasn’t obvious at the beginning but when I saw the space and was given the opportunity it was one of those things.

Not that many chefs in London had actually opened a restaurant in a hotel so it was not necessarily the thing to do but since then its changed a lot. I went in there thinking I want to do a restaurant that does great food but is a bit more casual than lots of other restaurants around because there were so many stuffy restaurants at that time.theo quote 2

Ten years on and you’ve just refurbished – are you happy with what has been done and has the menu changed too?

We are doing a few new dishes but I won’t be changing everything - it’s a good opportunity for a fresh start. The restaurant will look much cooler, it’s got a fresher look, the furniture is going to look less formal and all the walls are going to be much lighter, it’s got energy in there already and even though it’s sort of a building site you can really see and feel the space coming together. We are going to be adding lots more fish and adding a bar menu - I love going to a restaurant where you can have a glass of wine and have a plate of something and then a bit of salumi and different cheeses and things from the bar.

The menu is going to be a lot more spontaneous and it will be interesting to have a daily changing menu. But if you look at the menu there are things still on there like a squid dish and a veal chop – they are there for a reason and that’s because they are good and people love them. When you have a regular crowd you do feel you have to keep certain things on.

Talk us through the menu at the restaurant?

We are very seasonal, I like to go to a restaurant where reading the menu you can tell it’s Spring. So we’ll do a squash ravioli around October when the squash is fantastic or asparagus with pasta around April time. It’s also about the quality of ingredients we buy, how they are prepared and put on the menu. I know everyone says it but if you have really good quality ingredients the less you do to them the better. I love cooking fish, for instance turbot – you can fillet it, roast it, grill it but sometimes the best way to cook it is on the bone and roast it in the wood oven. Depending on the time of year you’ll change the garnish so artichokes in March, Sicilian peppers in spring, it’s quite versatile and the garnishes are key to what we do.

You visit Italy often, is this key to what you do and making the restaurant successful?

When I go there I pick up ideas, whether it’s just going to a market and picking up an ingredient I’ve never seen before or going to a producer who is producing the most amazing olive oil and they show you a pasta dish using just their oil – it’s so interesting. But it’s not about copying a dish it’s about your interpretation of it and that’s what I love.

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BURRATA

Do you have a go-to dish yourself?

I love cooking pasta. It’s so rewarding and you don’t have to have a huge plate of it – sometimes are smaller plate is better! I love clams, mussels, anything shellfish.

You have two books – what made you want to do a book in the first place?

I wanted to share my recipes and it’s a great advert for the restaurant. People do like to see what you are doing, when I first started the restaurant people asked where my book was and I didn’t have one so I felt pressurised to have one but I really enjoyed writing it.

It becomes quite personal and it’s part of you. You have to really love it and really think about it, you don’t just write a cookbook just for the sake of it.

How has the industry changed since you started?

I think the industry is doing really well and there are a lot of new restaurants opening and there are a lot of very talented people around. But it’s very hard to find staff and we tend to take commis chefs and train and develop them to promote within. You can’t just take on a chef de partie, they don’t exist! But the London food scene is phenomenal and it’s probably one of the greatest food cities in the world now.

What about your future plans, would you ever open a restaurant in Italy?

Yes I’m not against that but the Italians are very particular, there are so many restaurants and it depends where. A city maybe, but rural Italy people are very particular, if the chef is from the next town they won’t eat there let alone a chef from another country! I’m from London and I love what I do here so I’m not planning on opening a restaurant in Italy.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th February 2016

Theo Randall, Chef Patron, Theo Randall at the InterContinental