Take Me to the River
Do you ever wonder how things work behind the scenes at fine restaurants? I was lucky to get the chance to interview Sian Wyn Owen, head chef at the River Cafe, while shadowing her through an entire lunch shift. Here is a peek at the inner workings of one of west London’s best restaurants and some Q&A with a very cool working mum.
It is 10 a.m. at the River Cafe and Head Chef Sian Wyn Owen is working out the final details of the day’s menu. Sian, who lives in Hammersmith with her partner and five-year-old daughter, has already been for her daily swim, changed into chef’s whites and inventoried the ingredients available today. The grey and damp weather is a key consideration as she contemplates what her customers will want to eat. She also thinks about what she and her team would like to cook. This process sets the theme for the day—it is hard to miss that Sian is constantly thinking about how to take care of the people around her: customers, staff and family.
Lunch service will begin at 12:30: the tables are already set and the wait staff are lined up along the bar chatting as they shell chestnuts and de-stem kale. Pumpkin and chestnut soup, pappardelle with Scottish girolles, and wood-roasted Yorkshire grouse will be among the day’s offerings. Sian assigns tasks to each of her cooks and answers questions along the way (“Would you prefer the fish stew thick or brothy?”). All the while, she is smiling and laughing, telling me stories about her staff and chatting about being a working mum. She makes multitasking look easy.
Although home kitchens are stereotypically considered the domain of women, professional kitchens are overwhelmingly a man’s world. The kitchens where Sian worked early in her career were all run by men, and she found that she had to work harder and do a better job than her male counterparts in order to get ahead. So that’s what she did.
Five years later, she landed at the River Cafe, the iconic restaurant run by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. It was (and still is) unusual to find a restaurant run by women, let alone one with a Michelin star. After six years of learning the River Cafe recipes and ethos inside out, she was made head chef.
“I think you have to be able to work with men, you have to be able to understand men, but I don’t think you have to act like a man to succeed,” Sian tells me. She is proud of the fact that her kitchen staff is half women and she clearly wants this to be a place where any young chef can flourish regardless of gender. “Men and women react to stress differently, and that is okay.” She looks for chefs who aren’t just talented but also passionate about food. And then she tries to treat them well, minimizing double shifts, treating them with respect, making sure they see the sunshine and their families. There is no point in grinding the passion out of people, she explains.
As the lunch crowd arrives, Sian is stationed at the “pass”, a semicircular counter between the kitchen, the bar and the dining room. The staff is relaxed and convivial as they juggle orders. As each dish is completed, it is placed on the pass for Sian’s final inspection before being delivered by the wait staff. In this open, modern space, Sian has a 360 degree view of everything happening in the restaurant and she makes use of it throughout lunch.
In line with the late Rose Gray’s philosophy, everything at the River Cafe is cooked the same day, as it would be if you were entertaining at home. Much the same way, Sian is focused on her guests’ enjoyment regardless of whether they are there for a business meeting or a special celebration. She sends extra prosciutto to one table so they will have enough to share. She sends a highchair to a mum struggling to eat while holding her baby. After consulting with the mum, she also has a chef mash up some pumpkin for the baby.
I asked Sian how she feels about having children in the restaurant and she is effusive when she assures me that children are welcome and catered to. On Sundays in particular, there are dozens of children throughout the lunch service and they can typically be found running around the garden after they’ve finished at their table. What does she do for a children’s menu? “We’ll make nearly anything. But most people order simple buttered noodles, which is a shame.”
As lunch winds down, the aroma of coffee works its way through the room and plates of chocolate nemesis come across the pass. The lunch shift is cleaning their stations and one chef is preparing the staff meal that they will all share before things gear up again for the evening. The dinner shift is arriving and beginning to prep for the evening service. Sian is still smiling as she briefs the chefs taking over and visits with a friend in the restaurant.
Sian will be heading home shortly to see her family. Her partner, who worked in the wine trade, now stays home and looks after their daughter rather than trying to juggle two hospitality-driven careers with a family. Sian still does the cooking at home, and says her family meals are not very different from those she makes in the restaurant. Her approach to the challenge of getting a young child to eat nutritiously, she says, is “quite relaxed—I let my daughter eat sweets, ice cream. I don’t want her to have a complex about food. She should know what’s available to her and make her own choices.”
After so many assurances that this very posh Fulham institution is in fact child-friendly, I took my own children there for Sunday lunch. My five-year-old twins were as enamored with the gnocchi as they were with the grass patch outside, where they played pick-up football with other kids from the restaurant. When it came time for dessert, both of my children wanted the chocolate nemesis (or, as they called it, the chocolate enemy). It is amazing, but also amazingly rich. “Is it possible to have 1 ½ slices—just enough to share?” I asked. “Anything is possible,” the waiter responded with a smile.
When most restaurants are concerned with selling a “concept” or a “cuisine”, the River Cafe is concerned with giving their customers a really enjoyable few hours in their care. I think there should be a little more of that going around.
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