Less than 12 months after he called time on his 20 years in the kitchen of London restaurant Kensington Place, Rowley Leigh is back in business with a new venture. And, as you might expect, he's not too bothered about keeping up with food fashion. Joe Warwick reports
Rowley Leigh does a good line in understated faux indignation. "There's nothing modern" is his dry reply to my enquiry as to the most up-to-date item on the expansive menu he has put together for Le Café Anglais. "People will accuse it of being the word ‘retro' will come up," he says. "I'll probably end up being bored of defending it against being ‘retro'. It's food that's cleanly produced, so it's not retro in the sense that it's not heavy and old-fashioned then again, there will be some dishes that probably haven't seen the light of day in London for a long time"
During his 20-year reign cooking at Kensington Place, Leigh did much to define whatever it is we think the nebulous term "modern British" means these days, so it's strange to think of him as any sort of culinary retrograde. When, in December last year, he finally ceased to be involved in KP - as the bustling, glass-fronted canteen on Kensington Church Street was affectionately abbreviated by West London types - it was very much the end of an era. New owners D&D London, who bought it in June this year along with the rest of the struggling Image Restaurants (although KP never struggled on Leigh's watch), know they have an incredibly hard act to follow.
Cambridge-educated, having won a scholarship to Christ's College, Leigh started cooking professionally relatively late in life at the age of 27. His 10-year apprenticeship prior to KP began as a grill chef at Covent Garden showbiz hangout Joe Allen before training under the Roux brothers at Le Gavroche, ending as head chef at their ambitious City brasserie, Le Poulbot. Because the restaurant was open for lunch only, from Monday to Friday, Leigh spent his evenings and weekends moonlighting in the kitchen with Alastair Little, his then flatmate, at 192 Kensington Park Road - that other "modern British" west London institution that finally passed away back in 2002.
That Leigh has returned to the restaurant scene so soon after his abdication from KP has surprised few bar his wife. "I said to her after I left that I was not going to even look at another restaurant for at least a year," he recalls. "And then this came along."
"This" is a site on the second floor of Whiteley's, London's first department store. The store's original Bayswater building was destroyed by a fire in 1897, and its striking new premises, originally complete with a golf course and theatre on its roof, opened nearby in 1911.
The department store closed in 1981, and its grand facade, a precursor to art deco, has housed a shopping centre since 1989 - one that has grown increasingly downmarket in recent years, its second floor furnished with lower midmarket restaurant brands and a cinema. Its owners, realising that the future lay in more high-end retail and less tat, have, complete with the corny catchphrase "Brand new W2", recently set about upping their game. A branch of the upscale bowling-meets-burgers concept All Star Lanes opened in the basement in August this year and a new luxury food market, courtesy of ex-Harvey Nichols F&B director Dominic Ford, is currently scheduled to open next February.
But key to the plans for Whiteley's rebirth was a new restaurant on a site that had previously been occupied by McDonald's. The garish layers of modular fibreglass were stripped away to reveal a 7,000sq ft space, bathed in natural light on all sides from the huge original windows, each a patchwork of smaller leaded panes. It is a perfect space for an ambitious 170-seat restaurant, something you might think - having just come from two decades of hustle and bustle at the 120-seat Kensington Place - would be the last thing Leigh would want to get involved with.
"I'm very lazy and if I had done a small place, I'd have had to cook all the time," he says. "In a sense there's less work in a big place. For me, personally, I feel if I were to open a small place one day I'd have to be there cooking day-in, day-out. Cooking isn't an old man's game and I'm 57 now."
Running the kitchen when Leigh's not there will be long-time co-conspirator in the kitchen at KP, Colin Westal.
"I'm also a didact of sorts and I get as much pleasure from seeing somebody else execute something I've envisaged as I do from doing it myself," Leigh goes on. "At the same time, when you see lots of people happily employed and you've created this institution that is giving those people work, you feel incredibly proud of that. I'd also like to feel incredibly proud of creating an institution that people in London will value. That's what turns me on.
"It's not going to turn me on slaving over a hot stove on a Saturday night ‘expressing myself in food' - I've moved beyond that. Even if I wanted to do that, the only way I'd do it would be to do a seasonal restaurant, open for four months a year, four services a week."
His partner in the business is Charlie McVeigh, who previously opened Woody's, the Bush Bar and Grill and Matilda - latterly relaunched as the Westbridge Tavern. A West Londoner and long-time admirer of Leigh via Kensington Place, it was McVeigh that introduced Leigh to the site.
"I needed a business structure, I needed a business partner who could help me achieve what I wanted," Leigh says. "Perhaps with a smaller operation I could have done something on my own, but as soon as I saw this site I was interested."
Returning to those alleged retrograde tendencies, what he's doing at Le Café Anglais is, he says, a deliberate step back from what he was doing at KP. Although he's not that far away from his old haunt and he'll be beckoning all of his old customers, he won't be doing it with griddled foie gras and sweetcorn pancakes or any of the other dishes they kept coming back for.
"It's more old-fashioned than what I was doing at KP what I did there was to do a meal on a plate. That really was new in 1987. At KP everything was plated and so you didn't need to think about what you were going to eat. It started off as a modified fine-dining menu and slowly expanded into a brasserie format, whereas this is much more of a brasserie from the beginning," he says. "It's a big menu, almost twice the size of what I was doing before."
It kicks off with a - some might say "retro" but it's best not to - 15-strong selection of hors d'oeuvres that are available at £3 each or £8.50 for three. Leigh describes them as "lovely little nibbles" - dishes such as caponata or salsify fritters a mackerel teriyaki with cucumber salad being as modish as it gets. It then moves into "lengthy fishy starters", his particular favourite being his pike boudin - please don't call it a signature dish - before moving on to a selection of omelettes and soups.
"With the main courses the main feature is that the fish is very simple - steamed or grilled, with a choice of sauces - and the meat almost all comes from the rôtisserie and will be on view," he explains. "That gives me scope to do a very wide ranging menu of game and various meats in season, a fantastic roast chicken and various roasts of the day such as leg of veal, stuffed kid, rabbit, suckling pig"
With the meat out on display, diners will be able to experience the theatre of seeing a lobster, a leg of mutton or a chicken, flame-roasted on a spit. This approach also gives Leigh a great place from which to survey what, for the first time in his career, will actually be his own restaurant.
For afters there's a selection of fruit, ice-creams and sorbets, classic puddings such as apple charlotte and sherry trifle and a European cheese selection. The menu, printed daily, also features daily lunch specials, a set two-course lunch table d'hôte for £12.50 and a different roast each evening.
Another re-imagined blast from the past is the cover charge, something that has been widely abandoned - apart from establishments set up by Corbin and King. "For that, customers get a tablecloth, bread, the finest unsalted butter, some form of nibble - whether it's an olive or a radish - and a carafe of filtered water on the table when they sit down. So they'll end up paying a good deal less than if we did the usual water trick, although we'll have nice, proper bottled water if people want it," Leigh says. "I'm anticipating a certain amount of criticism for charging everyone £1.50. But when you think about it, mineral water has become a cover charge of sorts."
Although he has made a big effort to use as much British produce as possible, he doesn't adhere to the currently fashionable mantra that British is always best.
"Meat and poultry will almost entirely be British - with exceptions such as Languedoc chicken, the odd kid and squab pigeon. But I'm happy to bring produce in from Rungis. I'm European, it's Le Café Anglais, it's an Anglo-French restaurant. France, after all, is only a department of Britain," he pauses, his smile suddenly dissolving in irritation. "If somebody in Britain could grow and deliver lettuces that compared to those I can get from Rungis I'd take them, but I'm not going to buy British rubbish. I can't get anybody in Britain to grow salsify on a regular basis, or witloof endive. It's hard enough to get them to grow a decent artichoke. I think the standard of market gardening and vegetable production in Britain is still lamentable."
When it comes to that other voguish concern, sustainable seafood, Leigh admits that his menu will contain a few guilty pleasures. "It's on my conscience but I'm still hooked on prime fish," he says. "Nothing beats a turbot, a sole or a red mullet. You have to be reasonably respectful of what is sustainable but most of the species of fish that have been endangered have been endangered by mass catering, not by people like me. I probably won't do cod, but I don't think I could do without Dover sole."
As well as putting together the menu, Leigh has also assembled the 80-bin, all European (with a definite emphasis on France) wine list that starts at £15 a bottle. There are no bottles from the New World - a decision, he claims, that fits his style of cooking. "I don't sweeten my food and I think the higher fruit/sugar content of New World wine is suited to food that is," he says. "What I'm trying to do is very much a correction to the gastropub style of cooking and that's not a criticism of gastropubs - some of them are very good. But there is now a benchmark style of cooking, where every young cook thinks he should sweeten his main courses, especially his meat, which I find very depressing. I can't eat it and I don't like it. I think it's something that has happened insidiously, partly as a response to high sugar levels in New World wines."
Roughly a quarter of the list is available by the glass and the now (post-Arbutus) fashionable 250ml carafe. "I know everybody is doing that now," Leigh says, "But I think it's a great idea and I've been wanting to do it for some time. I can't understand how so many restaurants let a wine merchant choose their wines for them. What an abnegation of responsibility that is."
With Le Café Anglais open every day from noon until midnight, Leigh hopes "people are going to want to come and hang out here, even if it's just for an omelette, maybe three or four times a week because it's affordable and it feels glamorous."
A street-level entrance with a lift and its own reception means you don't have to fight your way up the shopping centre's escalators to enter the restaurant. Architects Stiff & Trevillion have created a sweeping dining room that is decked out with pale mint leather banquettes, red swathes of satin framing those fantastic period windows. The front of house is being run by Graham Williams, who, via setting up his own pub in the Cotswolds, comes with years of experience at Bibendum.
"I'm not smugly confident that it's going to be a sure-fire hit but I think we've got all of the right components," Leigh says. "The only possible question marks are, first, that it's in a shopping centre and some people might be deterred by that. The other is that my mission is still to do very simple food, very well and at times I worry that there isn't a big enough market for proper food." He pauses for a rare moment of self-doubt. "And that maybe I haven't got it right any more." I'd like to think that he's definitely got that wrong.
What's in a name?
"Le Café Anglais" is a tribute to the illustrious 19th-century Parisian restaurant of the same name where Carême protégé Adolphe Dugléré became a culinary legend. It's also a playful two fingers up to the French.
Le Café Anglais, 8 Porchester Gardens, London W2 4DB Tel: 020 7221 1415, www.lecafeanglais.co.uk