We Talk To Spring Head Chef, Rose Ashby
As head chef at the über-sustainable Spring restaurant located in Somerset House, Rose Ashby is among the young stars of the hospitality industry named on a prestigious “30 Under 30” list. Launched by head chef Skye Gyngell in 2014, Spring has gone on to win the hearts of seasonal British food fans. After starting as a chef de partie at the restaurant three years ago, 29-year-old Rose has become Skye’s protégé and one of the most well known women chefs on the London culinary scene.
Hey Rose! What does your role of head-chef at Spring involve?
I have the pleasure of working at Spring in Somerset House where I head up a team of 24 chefs. We work closely with a biodynamic farm in Wales called Fern Verrow where from we receive two deliveries a week. Each delivery brings the most beautiful produce, all freshly picked and tasting how it should taste.
Can you tell us about your career: how did you make it to one of the most well-known restaurants of London? Did you want to be a cook since an early age?
I grew up on the south coast on Devon. I realised my love for food at school, having always loved cooking my Dad suggested I do the Leiths course during my A-levels. I absolutely loved it and felt I had found my calling, it was all guns blazing from there really and I went straight in to kitchens after completing the Leiths diploma. My Mum is a seriously good cook and throws incredible dinner parties which my sister and I were so often roped in to help with when we were young, we absolutely hated it! Scrubbing potatoes and whipping cream were so boring to us, until I started to enjoy it and she sidled out the room. We also spent a few years during my childhood living on a wine farm in Stellenbosch in South Africa which my Mum ran and managed. It had a restaurant and winery on site where she was always to be found tweaking dishes, gliding around the restaurant and tasting new wines with the wine maker. I can definitely say that I have both my parents to thank for where I am today.
By the age of sixteen, I was working in the kitchen at the Dartmouth Apprentice – a charity-sponsored restaurant in nearby Dartmouth that would take on kitchen apprentices. It started as a way to raise money for a year abroad, but I quickly discovered that I had a genuine passion for the job. I’m definitely someone who learns by doing, so I loved the practicality of it all, and it was a wonderful learning environment. The restaurant was in an old converted church, really beautiful on the inside. It was just a really perfect first kitchen job.
Inspired by my first taste of the kitchen, I returned to Leith’s School of Food and Wine – the west London culinary school that has trained the likes of Henry Harris, Matt Tebbutt and Gizzi Erskine, among many others. Maybe I thought about it for a minute, but I don’t think any alternatives really crossed my mind – I’ve always wanted to work in the kitchen in a restaurant, and I was willing to work really, really hard for it. After graduating from Leith’s with flying colours, I joined the brigade at Petersham Nurseries, where Skye was head chef and I realised that the way I love cooking is so similar to the way Skye cooks in that we both value balance of flavours and purity of produce.
What was the first dish you cooked?
The first dish I cooked professionally was a fresh tomato and parsley pasta at the Dartmouth Apprentice, a very simple dish but utterly delicious- if done right-which I hope I did!
You've mentioned before how starting as a 18-year-old female in a male-dominated industry was tough. What is the food industry like and what are your thoughts on it as a female head-chef?
When I first began my career in London kitchens really threw myself in at the deep end; I went for a kitchen which just so happened to be all male and very high-stress. It was a catering company in London where we would pump out three course dinners for 1000 people at a time and work ridiculous hours day after day. It was definitely a stressful environment with huge pressure all round, especially on those above me running the kitchen. I remember many a teary moment in the walk-in fridge, trying desperately to pull myself together so I wouldn’t be caught crying and be labelled a ‘cryer’. It was an environment where having a love for food was not a requirement, you just had to be really fast at making 1000 of the same canapé sized tart shell. As a result I left after a year to reignite my love for food.
Skye Gyngell has done a wonderful job at Spring with her Plastic Campaign and Scratch Menu. How do you feel about sustainability within the food industry?
It is terrifying to think that a third of all food grown and produced never gets eaten, with a million tonnes going in the bin in the UK every year. Restaurants have huge amounts of food waste, apparently the average cost to a business is £19,000 per year. Lots of restaurants I visit are still wasting huge amounts of food and there is cling film and plastic everywhere. At Spring it was easy for us to go single-use plastic free, most kitchens will argue they can’t survive without cling film which is just not true. We went cold turkey and simply bought lids for all our containers, simple.
I think more and more people are aware of food waste and the problems surrounding plastic, there just needs to be the right alternatives readily available which are slowly creeping on to the market. I wish there were more plastic free supermarkets or supermarket aisles around London, Tesco and Sainsbury’s need to step-up!
If you had to choose one (other) restaurant to dine at in London, which one would you choose?
What does your typical day look like?
I wish I was one of those people who woke up early, made a cup of tea and got back in to bed to read the news. Sadly I am the opposite, I wake up at 6.35am and fly out the door by 6.50. Mornings have never been my strong point and I am most certainly not able to speak until 9am and a few cups of tea in. I arrive at work for 8am and call through the daily fish order and answer the gazillion questions from the chefs, check the menus and help with prep where needed. My favourite thing to do is cook a new dish with the chefs and take the time to talk them through the process. Then service begins which goes by in a flash, before you know it 3 hours have gone by and it’s almost home time.
I then go back home to my favourite high street in London, Turnham Green and I think about dinner for myself and my fiancé Oli. My favourite shop is a cute green grocer called Lemons and Limes where I buy all my vegetables. I can’t remember the last time I cooked meat or fish at home, we prefer to eat vegetarian to avoid buying supermarket products which are all too often bad quality and irresponsibly sourced.
I then have bedtime routine which I relish and couldn’t live without. I put on my Muji diffuser with lavender oil and begin the many beauty steps I take to get ready for bed- cleansers, toners, serums, oils and moisturisers are applied and all the other necessaries are done. My pillow has a few spritz from my ‘this works deep sleep’ pillow spray, my lavender eye pillow bean bag goes on and I’m out like a light.
What's your advice for any young cooks out there who want to break in the industry?
Find a restaurant where the food excites and interests you, go for a trial and really try to gage the atmosphere in the kitchen- will it be a place that you thrive in? Is it a calm environment or a stressful one? Always leave your ego at the door, there is no room for it in the kitchen and generally senior chefs won’t want to teach you skills if you act like you know everything. Most of all, enjoy it! I always try and tell the chefs at Spring that we are just cooking and it should be fun. Stress and anger don’t need to be a part of your life as a chef, take pleasure from what you do. Obviously it is impossible to enjoy what you do if your head chef is angry and shouts all the time so make sure you don’t choose a kitchen with one of those - easily avoidable if you investigate during your trial. I was asked the other day what my management style was by a trial, which I really respected.