Ondine has won many awards including the AA Scottish Restaurant of the Year and Chef of the Year. I would like to say a huge thank you to Roy for all his generosity and spending time with me for this article.
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As a customer sitting in Ondine restaurant, you’ll notice that both the restaurant and the staff look pristine. You’ll notice too that the menu is full of things you want to eat and when the food arrives you’ll further notice that the quality of the product is outstanding. But what you’ll also observe is that the restaurant is buzzing with life and laughter and never a hushed temple of reverence, and that’s the way Roy has always wanted it. Roy reflects on what Ondine has become for both him, and the customer:
If somebody had of told me [when I opened Ondine] that in seven years’ time, you’re going to have 18 dishes on your menu that you can’t take off, I would have laughed. But we have 18 dishes on our menu now that just don’t come off, simply because I listen to what customers have to say. We wanted a room that buzzed, I wanted atmosphere, I wanted to encourage the guys that it’s okay to have another bottle of wine, it’s alright to laugh and enjoy yourself, and also my team can enjoy it and laugh as well.
And of restaurants that have become temples to food, ‘stuffy’ restaurants where customers feel a need to talk in whispers…
…they’re one step closer to your funeral, they’re that sombre, and it’s all about cleverness [in cooking technique] whereas I wanted the cleverness to be done by the fisherman who caught this amazing fish that I clearly didn’t want to fuck around with, I wanted to serve it and I wanted them [his customers] to feel they got something that was completely unadulterated with its pureness; its prime, its fresh so my emphasis went on one or two or three components and it all goes back to the [Mark] Hix days and Rick [Stein] days of two or three components perfectly done.
Roy, like all the chefs that I have interviewed, has a clear philosophy of what he wants to cook and how the restaurant should run, and as Roy talks through his journey, the influence of those chefs that he worked under, and the lessons he took from them reveal themselves in all aspects of the chef that Roy is today.
Roy started his life in professional kitchens at the age of 17:
I started at the Caledonian Hotel [in Edinburgh]. I just remember a few of my mates were leaving school, and I was at a school where you weren’t put through for university, you were to become a tradesman, so you’d be joiners, labourers, and I was set to be a joiner but knowing that it wasn’t for me, it was just what you were going to do. And a couple of my friends were working part time at what is now the Marriott hotel on the Glasgow Road and I though this cheffing work just keeps coming up, and it’s very agreeable. And my late father took me fishing so I was always around fish, catching fish and it’s like what do you do with them after that: you’re cooking them, you’re boning them, so I had a feeling for it, but I didn’t know what the feeling really was, it was just something I enjoyed.
Critically then, Roy opted not to undertake the path that had been chosen for him, joinery, but instead to do what he felt with some gut level instinct to be right for him. Time and time again when you hear the stories of successful people, ‘trust your gut’ is a recurring theme. But it wasn’t all moonlight and roses from day one, and while Roy instantly felt of life in the kitchen, ‘this is for me, this is it,’ Roy also admits:
I found it really hard at first, the first two years, I just really didn’t know why I was there, you believe that you are there for the right reasons, but starting breakfast shifts at half past three in the morning, so you’re getting up at half past two, working until half past two or three o’clock in the afternoon, and your other friends are off at the weekends and you’re working at the weekends, it’s like, ‘have I made the right choice?’ But then I started to learn a lot from the chefs around me and started to believe that this was for me.
A young Roy then demonstrated the hard work and perseverance needed to get through those early days, necessary values to acquire since the reality is that those traits are at almost all times necessary to be successful. The literature is full of it: for almost all people, across almost all endeavours, be it business, sport or even a hobby, hard work and perseverance are the critical characteristics that allow the possibility of achievement, trumping even natural talent.
At the Caledonian, Roy’s first Head Chef was Alan Hill, a legend of the Scottish hospitality scene, and currently director of food and beverage at Gleneagles hotel. What are Roy’s memories of Alan:
I kind of feared him, but I really respected him… Alan was the old style man manager, and I get him now more than I did then. [With the old school style] you were never close with the chef, he was very distant… say on a Friday he would show me how to open a scallop when I was first training, and he would show me how to slice smoked salmon the following week, but it would happen, then there would be a gap, then it would happen.
And the values?
It’s hard to put into a couple of words, or a sentence even, but I think what it was, was to do everything right. So your shoes were polished, it’s important to be clean, you’re always cleanly shaven in the kitchen, the chefs, discipline in your containers, your storage, everything is on a regimented line, it was proper army hardcore. At The Savoy [where Roy later went with Alan] from the neck scarves being tied to the hats being immaculate. And I always remember looking at his handwriting, it was perfect… but what it gave you then was that this is a profession, and seeing him run the Gleneagles hotel now, he’s a professional.
And in Alan getting his people, including Roy, to where he needed then to be, it was very much like boot camp:
I think what he did was at one point he broke me down... they break you down and build you back up to where they want you to be, and I think that was what he did when I was at The Savoy. It was almost to breaking point, I was going to walk out, but he then built me back up and gave me a little bit of warmth and then your belief was with him. They break you down to build you up to who they want you to become in their group.
Alan seems to have judged it brilliantly, and while this might seem a tough approach, former US Army four star General Colin Powell considers it a kindness in his book on leadership:
Taking care of employees is perhaps the best form of kindness. When young soldiers go to basic training they meet a drill sergeant, who seems to be their worst nightmare. He shouts at them relentlessly, he intimidates them, he makes them miserable. They are terrified. But all that changes. Their fear and initial hatred turn into something else by the end of basic training. The sergeant has been with them every step of the way: teaching, cajoling, enforcing, bringing out of them strength and confidence they didn’t know they had. At the end, all they want is for their performance to please him. When they graduate, they leave with an emotional bond and a remembrance they will never forget.
Back to Roy’s story. When Alan left the Caledonian, Jeff Bland, now of The Balmoral, took over as Executive Chef. He had a very different style to Alan, which delivered a huge benefit to Roy in showcasing a different angle on how to manage people:
Jeff was a brilliant man manager, very inspiring, so there was two styles (Alan and Jeff) and they both stuck with me… Jeff would stand with you and turn potatoes, and ask you how you were doing and who’s your favourite football team, and are you going out tonight? It was getting you on the journey with him… with Jeff, he just had a really nice way about him.
Jeff very much achieved emotional buy in through a strong personal bond with his chefs. And how does that impact Roy now?
What I try to do with my team is, looking at what they did with me, I try to take the values which I liked from their management style, and that has an influence now. And the other chefs I’ve worked with as well had a huge impact…
So Roy in some ways is a blend of the best things that he saw in all of those styles of all those chefs he worked with. As the old saying goes, experience is the best teacher and Roy was ‘lucky’ to have experienced a wide variety of brilliant chefs each with their own unique style to contribute to Roy’s development.
But it’s not all about Head Chefs, and another aspect dating from the time at The Caledonian that was influential on Roy was his relationship with the chef de parties who again contributed to Roy’s development:
I was actually following chef de parties as well [as Head Chefs], great guys like Raymond Capaldi, a brilliant chef, he really looked after me as a young lad, and Lawrence Robertson who was another brilliant chef de partie at the Cally [Caledonian]. He went to The Savoy and became a sous chef down there, so I was around my food heroes at the time, these guys were my inspiration, and they would put an arm around you and look after you.
I really like the idea here that you draw inspiration not just from the Head Chef, but from where-ever it is offered, and where-ever you can find it. And I like even more that it emphasises that you don’t need to be the head man to show leadership: everybody at any level of the hierarchy can show leadership, and Roy’s story here shows how meaningful that leadership can be to those around you. Roy had said to me earlier in the day that chef de parties were back in the day his rock stars, a huge statement.
Inspiration is so important and it’s a recurring theme of not only my conversation with Roy but every chef that I have talked to so far. But while anyone can and should provide it in the team, the Head Chef nevertheless holds a special place, as Roy notes:
Inspiration, it’s so important, it’s why you’re there. I think 70% of the time it has to come from you, you have to inspire yourself, but that big 30% comes from the guy that stands in there tonight [heading the kitchen], he’s very important, and his mood is very important, because if he’s going to be a fucker, then everybody is feeling low. If he’s in a good mood and a good place, the restaurant is in a good place, so the waitress is coming out smiling, not crying, not nervous, not upset.
Back again to happy food.
* In part 2 of this interview, we discuss two other key influences on Roy: Mark Hix and Rick Stein, as well as the late AA Gill’s unfavourable review of Ondine.