Orwells near Henley-on-Thames is not only run by co-proprietors and co-chefs Ryan and Liam Simpson-Trotman, but they even refurbished it themselves and live together above the restaurant. Katie Pathiaki learns how the newlyweds are living the dream
It’s the middle of October and the Simpson- Trotmans are discussing Christmas plans next to the fireplace in their restaurant, Orwells, with their two beagles, Truffle and Remi, by their side. Ryan says he would like to go to Devon to do sea fishing, but Liam is not too keen. “We went five years ago and I was chilled to the bone. I kept asking Ryan if we could go home, but he said not until we had caught something. When we got back to the hotel we realised there wasn’t any heating!” he shudders. Ryan laughs. “It was fun though.”
The pair met 10 years ago in Torquay, Devon, through an online forum – “it wasn’t a dating site,” they emphasise – where their conversation turned to cheffing. At the time Ryan was working at the Michelin-starred Elephant in Torquay under Simon Hulstone, and Liam was at Bovey Castle in Dartmoor, Devon.
“We were looking for chefs and Simon asked if I knew anyone,” Ryan says. He invited Liam to the Elephant, and although he didn’t take the role, the pair hit it off and became a couple. Liam followed Ryan to his next role at Winteringham Fields, Scunthorpe, as sous chef, where the pair found that they worked well together and have done so ever since.
In 2008, Ryan was offered his first head chef role at the Goose in Oxfordshire, which at the time was a Michelin-starred restaurant run by Matthew Tomkinson. “It sounded perfect. The restaurant closed two days a week, it had 36 covers, and we had the freedom to create whatever we wanted in the kitchen,” Ryan says.
Within 12 months, Ryan was awarded the Good Food Guide’s Up and Coming Chef of the Year and the restaurant received two AA rosettes. In just 18 months they earned their first Michelin star. However, in 2010 the couple, alongside all the staff, including waiters and chefs, walked out following a dispute with the Goose’s owner, Paul Castle.
“When you are in a job and you don’t feel appreciated, you can only go so far,” Liam explains. “When the team, which were so passionate and worked so well together, were rewarded with a star, Castle responded by bringing people in to change everything. He wanted us to start cooking pub food – steak and chips and pie and mash. We didn’t work that hard and achieve that much just to go back on ourselves. We were upset, but we waited until the end of January to see if he would change his mind. He didn’t, so we left.”
Ryan adds: “We had been so excited to finally be cooking our own food at the Goose, but within a month of our arrival, things started to turn. The bins were overflowing and nobody would come and empty them because the bills weren’t being paid.
“The problem was that Castle was not a restaurateur – he was a money man. When money men who don’t know how restaurants work come together with two chefs who want to cook fantastic food, the balance isn’t right.”
Liam says it was a very stressful time for the couple, but that they held their heads high. “The Goose was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to us, because we treated it as if it was our own and that allowed us to learn what we needed to do to open Orwells.”
When the couple opened Orwells, it was their first solo venture – and they did it with only £10,000, which they borrowed from a friend. They took the free-of-tie lease from pub company Brakspear, which helped them get off the ground by offering a peppercorn rent for the first six months. The restaurant, which is housed within a former 18th-century pub in Shiplake, near Henley-on-Thames, was named after the author George Orwell, who lived in the village as a child. It opened on 1 May 2010.
The couple’s identity is present in the design of the restaurant, which features natural materials.
“It’s all about taking from the land and using everything, nose to tail,” Ryan says. “That lamp is made of driftwood, and although there’s no sea near here, it ties in with our ethos. And it’s British,” Liam adds. Even the knives on the tables are made from old tractor parts by a blacksmith in nearby Nettlebed, while the plates are made by a local potter.
To start with, the couple found the pace tough. “When you do 22 covers in your own restaurant for the first time, it feels like 122,” Liam says. “Everyone was dead slow, people were complaining… I think we gave away about 30 litres of free wine that night. Whereas now if we do 22 covers we think ‘what a breeze!’”
Over the past seven years, they have got the day-to-day running down to a tee. They have branched out and are now fanatical about wine and have a fully fledged wine list, which Ryan says was one of the things they had no idea how to put together at the start.
Ryan says: “We are now very educated about wine and specialise in Champagne, as well as gins. I’m quite greedy and I like choice, so if I go to a bar and only see a couple of gins available, I’m disappointed.” He points to the bar, which stocks an impressive 70 gin varieties. The newlyweds live above the 50-cover restaurant, which, they say, makes it feel like welcoming people into their home. Although they work together – not only in the same restaurant but in the same kitchen – the pair say they couldn’t imagine not seeing each other for 18 hours a day.
“We are so synced it’s unbelievable.” Ryan says before Liam finishes his sentence with “because what I don’t know Ryan knows and vice versa.”
The menu, which has a sustainability focus, changes before every service and is determined by the seasons. Ingredients are sourced locally, and 75% of those come from their own smallholding down the road from the restaurant, which Liam oversees. “The season carves what we put on the plate,” says Ryan. “Before, I used to chase awards and I think I’d had enough of it. I wasn’t being true to myself and I was cooking things to please others. Now we just make the food we enjoy eating.”
A great example of this is a dish featuring egg, bacon and maple syrup that pays
homage to an American breakfast. “I love bacon and pancakes – I could eat it all day long,” says Ryan. “It’s incredible to be able to portray that message on to a dish.”
Ryan believes it’s important to stay true to yourself and not to feel pressured to change because of what other chefs are doing. “I’ll go to restaurants to respect and appreciate what people are doing, but I won’t go to take ideas or inspiration,” he says. “I don’t want to copy hat others do, but stick to what we are doing here and not get corrupted.”
Their main aim is to make people happy with their cooking, a style which they sing in unison is “rural cooking with a modern approach”. The modern approach also applies to how they use their produce, leaving nothing to waste and sending nothing to landfill.
Ryan explains that they recently took a delivery of hare and, like all other animals they have, used every part. The loin was barbecued, the legs confit and the bones used for a consommé.
On the day The Caterer visited, they served a confit and breadcrumbed hare shoulder with a black garlic mayonnaise. “It’s like a big chunk of KFC,” laughs Ryan. “It looked rustic – a big leg of hare in the centre of the plate – but people loved it. The moral of the story is we don’t want to waste anything.”
Liam adds: “We are perfectionists when it comes to creating dishes, but the most important thing for us is that it has to taste bob on.”
That mentality seems to be working, as last year they won Restaurant of the Year in the 2016 edition of the Waitrose Good Food Guide as well as four AA rosettes. In 2012 they were also named Readers’ Restaurant of the Year in the Good Food Guide.
But what’s next? Liam, half-jokingly, says: “I’m retiring in three years. The 10- year plan was to start a business that would be relatively successful, get married, buy a house and have children. So we are on track, but over the years we have made changes to the plan and realised that we also want to get a farm.”
Ryan says: “We are living our dream now, but that’s the real dream! Imagine living on a farm and rearing sheep, pigs chickens and cows. We could also have a few rooms and a lovely big oak dining table in a small barn restaurant that everyone eats together on.”
They hope it’ll happen in the next few years, but they pledge to never miss a service at Orwells. Their time would be split between the two and so when they weren’t at the restaurant, it would close.
“Ryan is the brains of Orwells and I’m the heartbeat, and you can’t run a body without either of those things,” Liam explains. “We’ve created a restaurant that if we were to go out for dinner, we would want to go there. It’s our baby and it’s the perfect restaurant for us.”
About the chefs
“I always wanted to be a chef, but my mum tried to put me off. She used to work with Roger Hulstone [Simon Hulstone’s father] at the Hilton Coventry, and she said that it was terrible hours, that the chefs never see their families and just not to do it,” Ryan says.
Instead, Ryan got a job designing concept cars with Jaguar. It was when his mum and dad went to Ibiza on holiday that he realised that he didn’t want to work for Jaguar – he wanted to cook.
“I thought if I learned to cook I could travel the world with my skill and get a
job anywhere. So I asked my nan to take me down to the college and I signed up to a course. After a few months I was star student. I was even sent to France!”
Ryan moved to Roanne near Lyon in France at the age of 18, where he worked
for chefs such as the Troisgros family, Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire. When he returned to the UK, he entered the kitchens of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Sketch, the Langham and the Elephant. He won his first Michelin star aged 24 at the Goose.
Ryan was a competitor on this year’s BBC Two series Great British Menu, where his ‘summer fruit and veg’ starter placed him second in his heat, and since the show they’ve seen a 40% increase in custom at Orwells. He also featured on the BBC One programme Yes Chef! and Kitchen Garden Live alongside Liam with David Myers and Simon King, the Hairy Bikers.
They will both appear on Saturday Kitchen in January 2018.
“When I was 16 I received my GCSE results and I was faced with the decision of staying on at school and becoming a geography teacher, or becoming a chef. So I enrolled at college and never looked back.
“The first thing that the lecturer said to us was, ‘Catering is hard. It’s shit hours, crap pay, you won’t see your family and your friends won’t exist, but it’ll all be worth it in the end when you’ve made a name for yourself and you can choose your working hours. Does anyone want to leave?’ Half of the students got up and left.” Liam started his career at 60 Hope Street, Liverpool, before moving out of his hometown to work at Bovey Castle in Dartmoor, Devon.
It was here that he met Ryan and joined him as sous chef at the Goose. At Orwells, as well as cheffing, Liam looks after the restaurant’s fruit and veg plot and harvests honey from its five hives.
In 2012, Orwells teamed up with the Oxfordshire-based pub company and brewery Brakspear to create the 101 Beer, followed by the Honey Bee Beer in 2013, using honey harvested by Liam.
From the à la carte menu
• Scallops, curry, chicken, cauliflower £20
• Oxtail, squid, salty fingers, walnut £15
• Mylor prawns, mackerel, cucumber dashi £18
• Tamworth, choucroute, potato, salt-baked celeriac £34
• Monkfish, parsnip, versus, artichoke £36
• BBQ hare, black pudding, salsify, blewit £35
• Crediton duck, shiitake, beetroot, Savoy cabbage £32
• Apple, salted caramel and spiced shortbread £9
• Pink praline tart and sorrel sorbet £9
• Egg custard tart and honeycomb ice-cream £9