Interview conducted by Adam Coghlan
A few years ago London underwent a culinary renaissance that had something in common with the Parisian ‘bistronomie’ movement: food remained high quality but was served in more informal, relaxed environments.
James Lowe, Lyle’s head chef, claimed, though, that there were only three British chefs who could be truly compared to those in France adhering to the principles of ‘bistronomie’. He was one. Tom Adams – then of Pitt Cue Co. and now Coombeshead Farm –another. And Anna Tobias. Above all, it had to do, he said, with the respect shown to ingredients.
Anna’s career offers a clear picture of why she belongs in this select group, since, for nearly 10 years, she’s been under the stewardship of four icons of the ingredient-led tradition: Jeremy Lee at the Blueprint Café; Ruth Rogers of The River Café; and most recently she’s been head chef under Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold at Rochelle Canteen. With long periods of time spent at each, her culinary education has had a purism to it.
Last year Anna was invited to collaborate with a chef at a restaurant she prefers not to name. It was July, so her dish would be a soup of courgette, coco beans and tomato, with a touch of marjoram; a dish which is as good only as the quality of its component parts. She was, she says, “horrified to find Dutch courgettes and tomatoes bought from the local shop” waiting for her magic touch. The dish was doomed. Then, as if to assure me that she’s no kitchen diva, she stresses that it’s “not that I like buying expensive ingredients; it’s that I like buying good ingredients.”
‘Simple’ has become a useful term for chefs who want to distance their style from that of predecessors they deem to have tried too hard. But it can mean different things to different people; for a chef like Anna, simple means sourcing the best ingredients and doing very little to them.“The food I love to cook is very ingredient-driven and simple – I try to bring the best out of the ingredients I’m using without fussing with them too much,” she says.
Anna was born in Hong Kong and moved to London at 13. She would go on to study modern languages at Oxford – French and German – between 2005 and 2008. It was during that time that her interest in cooking developed. She wrote half a dozen letters to chefs she admired, unsure “if any of them would have me, let alone employ me.” Jeremy Lee replied.
He would provide the foundation on which she grew as a chef. He oversaw a kitchen she remembers being “unusual; flamboyant; dramatic”. Lee himself, she says, “was amazing at explaining things, particularly when it came to history.” He placed great importance on reading the classics, especially female food writers.
“Elizabeth David (particularly her article ‘Letting Well Alone’ from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine), Jane Grigson and Patience Gray are probably my three favourites. And Simon Hopkinson’s Prawn Cocktail Years is probably one of the books I use most often,” she says.
Post-Blueprint Café, Anna almost stopped cooking because of family issues. “I wasn’t sure I could cope,” she says. She considered moving into food PR. The only restaurant that would keep her cooking was The River Café. So she applied thinking that if she got in – great, if not – “I’ll do something else.”
She got in. The River Café is a seminal restaurant that thrived before food and restaurants overtook almost every other interest and recreational activity in popularity. And what made The River Café so good? Well, there was the massive staff and a freedom seldom afforded to chefs. But mainly it was about ingredients: the best – imported from Italy or grown right there, on the bank of the River Thames.
It was also a great place to be a young chef – to learn and be trained. The River Café very rarely hires for a position; chefs start as commis and work up. They tend to stick around because they’re treated well. “We never did more than two shifts in a row and the staff food was amazing,”Anna says. Not only are there lots of chefs, each with very specific tasks, the waiting staff arrive early to do a lot of the prep. It means the chefs can concentrate on cooking.
“The training at The River Café made me very confident in my ability to train other people; there is nothing I feel unconfident about, in terms of butchery or fishmongery,” she stresses. Anna, noticeably quite shy, is also keen to stress how the restaurant taught her “to project – how to talk to different areas and how to make your voice heard. You know, shouting ‘service, please,’” she jokes.
Anna left The River Café for the same reasons that made it such a great place to work. “I was conscious not to wait until it became too hard to leave,” she says. But there was also the ceiling you hit: there’s usually only a promotion available if someone leaves. And she acknowledges that she was “quite ambitious”.
Given her style of cooking, there was only one place left to go. “I wanted to work for St. John,” she says. She trialled at Bread & Wine, the St. John Hotel and Rochelle Canteen (co-owned by Fergus Henderson’s wife, Margot.) She called it “the holy trinity of simple cooking.” It was 2013 and she would work as sous chef at Rochelle for a year before becoming head chef.
She left last summer, having relished the responsibility of sourcing from the best suppliers, and lights up when talking about Fern Verrow – “the best veg in Britain” – who “pick their customers.” As one of the chosen ones, Anna, without even a hint of arrogance, says, “you feel like you’ve made it”.
We’ve just finished some on-trend tacos in a new London restaurant when she tells me: “I’m not bothered about trends or being trendy. The three places I’ve worked all have a sense of identity and, for me, that supersedes any whim or trend.” She’s learnt from those who have stood the test of time. Anna is 30 – the same age as The River Café. My suspicion is that she will too.
Follow Anna on Instagram @tobiasanna to find out where she’ll be cooking over the summer. Some exciting things are lined up with Towpath Café, Canton Arms and maybe a return to The River Café. Watch this space.
ANNA IN SHORT:
Favourite drink: negroni
Favourite dish: chicken broth and semolina dumplings
Most memorable meal: too difficult! Best meals are the ones at home surrounded by the people you love and who love eating
Chef or food person you most admire: Elizabeth David – I love how venomous she could be. But she was always right!
Guilty pleasure: shop-bought chicken kiev
Words | Adam Coghlan
Images | Jack Wilson, The Skinny Bib