Rob Roy Cameron was no stranger to stress. He had worked at the legendary el Bulli before helping Albert Adria open 41 Degrees and Hoja Santo clinching a Michelin star for both restaurants in the process. As he said, the stress of opening a restaurant is huge but when he embarked on a motorcycle journey from Barcelona to South Africa to visit his family, this certainly helped put things in perspective. After having worked at Hoja Santo and 41 Degrees he was feeling not only under stress but he felt that he needed time for himself. He needed a break and he needed to decide on his future.
“Do I work in pastry or chocolate or do I become a chef,” was the question that was tearing him apart. Originally from South Africa, he arrived in Spain via the UK where he had originally moved to become a photographer. The digital revolution had played havoc with his plans as photography moved from analog to digital. He had not visited his father’s place in South Africa for a long time and so he decided take his bike and ride there.
“When I drove across Africa, it was a difficult time because of the Arab Spring which had just broken out. I got to learn to deal with stress and with difficult situations. I also spent a lot of time on my own nearly four months.” Being solitary for long stretches is not for everyone and even when he was in cities full of people there were times when he could not communicate. “It was a weird feeling to be surrounded by people but not able to communicate because you do not know the language,” he said.
Being alone was a big learning experience but putting things in perspective was also something he really learnt. “I learned to stay calm and relaxed. When you see the world outside of the restaurant, you put things into perspective. In a restaurant, small things might seem to be the end of the world but at the end it is just food. I am aware some people commit suicide over these things but when you venture outside you realise that there are much bigger problems in the world. You change the way you see the kitchen,” Rob Roy told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview at his new restaurant Gazelle in Mayfair, London.
In South Africa, he spent time with his father because he had not seen his family for a few years than got a call from Albert to go and help him at Hoja Santo which had opened six months before. He ended up staying for two years at Hoja Santo, during the most stressful period because as he says, it takes two to three years for a restaurant to settle down. “In those first years, there is a lot of staff turnover and few restaurants have the same staff that they had in the first one or two years. Ultimately you know where the restaurant should be but you don’t want to wait for two years but want to achieve everything in six months which is not easy,” he said.
Today, Rob Roy is master of his own destiny having returned to London to open Gazelle, a restaurant in Mayfair, London. The time with the Adria’s has clearly left its mark.
I am getting older and stress leads to fatigue so you cannot really afford to be stressed out. You need the time to relax, to take a break and clear your brain. It is not only good for me but also for the team because you do not want the boss to be stressed out, angry and creating negative energy in the kitchen
Despite knowing exactly what starting a restaurant entails, Rob Roy has decided to take the plunge. “This is stress that you put on yourself. You can always take a step back and say that you are going to relax and let things slip. It is of course another learning curve and you need to learn when not to put pressure on yourself. Also, I am getting a bit older and stress leads to fatigue so you cannot really afford to be stressed out. You need the time to relax, to take a break and clear your brain. It is not only good for me but also for the team because you do not want the boss to be stressed out, angry, creating negative energy in the kitchen. I’ve learnt that taking a day off is also extremely important not only for me but also the staff even if you feel you need to always be in the restaurant.”
The first time Rob Roy arrived in London he wanted to be a photographer. Being a chef never even crossed his mind. At the time there was the digital boom and he loved working mainly in the dark room, developing film, working with negatives and developing the skill of printing good quality photographs.
He realised however that the digital era was about to make such a skill pretty much redundant and opted to work in pastry instead. “With work in the kitchen, it seemed similar. You needed to develop a skill and then work on it repeatedly to make it better.”
He moved to Spain but never thought he would end up cooking in some of the best restaurants in the world including el Bulli and then alongside Albert Adria. “My idea when I left London was that I was going to a place where I could learn, where they were doing things differently, pushing the envelope. Just going to learn as much as I could and go as far as I could.”
Before, deciding to settle down in London and open a restaurant in the English capital he considered returning home to South Africa and even Australia but he settled for a return to London because he believes there is a lot of potential if you can start now.
There have been some ups and downs, as one would expect from any restaurant that has just opened but it has already been billed as one of the most exciting and innovative restaurants in London. “I am happy with the team. Most of the people who started are still here, the few who left did so because it wasn’t for them. The feedback has been mostly positive, we have people who find it a bit challenging but it is on a positive curve. It feels like we have been open for a year but we have only been open for a few months – we are looking forward to showing people what we are doing so it can start to flourish.”
I want people to come to see a dish and say that’s Gazelle, that there is a certain mentality and approach to cooking. I dream that years ahead, people will come here and learn something.
His vision is to give the restaurant a distinct style. “I want the restaurant to be a place where people understand the style, the concept, the depth. When they see a dish, I want them to say that’s Gazelle, that there is a certain mentality and approach to cooking. I dream that years ahead people will come here and learn something and say this is a restaurant that has influenced the industry. I am not saying I am going to change the industry but I would like to start that ripple. Accolades would of course be nice but is is not about getting a star but rather about being full and appreciated for what we do. Hopefully people will say that we are actually doing something different with food,” Rob Roy explained.
It has not been plain sailing however. “It has been a bit challenging in terms of getting people to understand what we are doing. I don’t think that the food we do here is crazy or outlandish but it is still different and therefore not necessarily easy to get people to open up to something new. “The thing is that this is not something people are familiar with and I also don’t come from a big restaurant in London that people are familiar with.”
He is of the view that things are starting to change in London and people are however starting to be more experimental. “In the past, everything centred around money. Affluent people would go to expensive restaurants so the restaurants could afford to use certain products. Now young people are getting involved with good quality food, good quality products, but not necessarily expensive products. People go for quality. The more people start to do that, the more they will be open to try new things and a different style of dining. So far, people are trying what’s more accessible like street food but creative people will make a move,” he said.
What Rob Roy is doing apart from creating modern cuisine is challenging two established concepts which people are used to. He has moved away from a 2 to 3 course menu but has also moved away from the tasting menu.
“I see it more like giving choice to the diners. I come from restaurants where we told our clients how to eat, which order to eat the dishes. It is very controlled. I don’t like to eat like that any more. I like to decide what I want to eat,” he said.
“What I wanted to do here was to not have a tasting menu and also give clients a choice. I wanted it to be a place where people can come quite often because we offer variety and change. We have enough things on menu that they can come every day and try something new but also if they want to sit down and have a tasting menu they can still try a lot of different dishes and flavours but it would be their choice. The idea therefore was to keep it flexible and to give more to the diner. If you want to come and have one or two things fine, also full menu fine.”
Given that this is London and the rents are what they are the kitchen at Gazelle is small and Rob Roy says that this has also influenced the style of food. “We have tried to simplify it a lot. We need to be quick but it also needs to be delivered within a certain timeframe. “If someone orders meat to start, the wait will be around 25 minutes to half an hour so we try to manage guest expectations. In the kitchen we think about how things are going to be plated,”
What has been the influence of working at el Bulli and then with Albert Adrià I ask? “I learnt a lot from el Bulli about thinking outside the box, about not following a recipe, about how to design a recipe and do something completely different. I’ve worked with Albert for a long time and he is not a classically trained chef. He has an idea and will find a way to make it work. That is what we are trying to do here. The influence is heavy as I spent half my career working with him. People say that when they come here they expect El Bulli food and sometimes what we do is simple but it very much influenced by the philosophy of el Bulli. If they know the food, know the philosophy, they will understand and see where we are coming from.
“I think for me, it was very important to have spent that time with the Adrias and I am very lucky to have done so for a long time. But of course, it does not have to be el Bulli food,” he said.
Rob Roy explains that what was most important at el Bulli was the idea and the whole concept of the dish. The el Bulli concept is about the idea.
How does London help you in terms of creativity? “It is hard to find ingredients here. We can get everything here but it might not be the best quality if I compare to Spain. We are working to find good fresh products either from places like Kent or from Scotland or even France and Spain. We try to work with local products and interpret them in a different way.
Being his own boss means it is more difficult. “I need to check bookings, deal with staff apart from spending time in the kitchen. To develop new dishes, he and his sous chef take a day each week, order products and test different cooking approaches. Once we have an idea, we know which direction a dish is going. That is the first step and it goes a lot quicker than working from a book,” he said.
He does not let social media influence him too much. “The reality is that everything has been done somewhere. It could be a coincidence that you do something and you see it a week later on Instagram being done else where. That does not mean that people are copying you or you are copying them. But it is a bit frustrating that you worked on a dish and someone else has done the same thing. I do not try and be influenced by Instagram and see what people are doing but not to get ideas and put stuff on the menu.”
Rob Roy believes London is not yet on the gastronomic map. “People travel to Copenhagen and to Barcelona for food but they don’t necessarily come to London to eat.” Is it a question of PR or of style I ask him. “It is more a question of style,” he said. “The style of cooking in London hasn’t changed and people have moved on, they want something that is a bit more trendy, innovative. London has that image of old, French cooking. It is good traditional English cooking but people are not in general excited about going to eat in London and hopefully that will change in the next few years,” he said.
He is of the view that the foreign chefs cooking in London can help take things forward. “British food is food that has influences from everywhere. I think that the food in London will also evolve because there are many chefs cooking in London and this is a natural and organic way in which the food scene grows,” he said.
Brexit is the huge elephant in the room and Rob Roy, like many others does not know how it is going to play out. “People are very nervous about what is going to happen. What is sure is that it will have an impact on business, restaurants and hospitality in London and the UK. It will be difficult but we hope tourism will not be impacted,” he said.
He is working hard to find suppliers and use local ingredients where possible. “We do not want to buy cheap meat from South America. We try to source as much as we can from as close as we can. This approach pushes you to be creative and learn to use what you have. In Spain, there was a variety of seafood and it was a lot easier. In the UK, winter can be challenging in terms of produce,” he said.
During game season, Rob was working with venison from Scotland which was something new for him. “We are already working to preserve things, we dry mushrooms for example and get lots of flavour through umami. We are looking at this side of the kitchen, drying and preserving not in a typical way but rather to try and extract as much flavour as possible. This is also part of growing and being more creative. Ultimately there is a limit to what you can do with a potato or a beetroot,” he said.
Rob Roy is working to define the DNA and style of the restaurant. It has already won acclaim even if as Rob Roy says, it is still work in progress. “We are trying to create something that is unique to us. We want to keep it as different as we possible can from other restaurants.”