A quick catch-up with Neil Campbell, head-chef of ROVI
After a quick holiday back home, to the north-west of Scotland, Neil returned to work with the glowing tones of a knock-out review ringing happily in his ear. None other than Marina O’Loughlin – AKA The Sunday Times restaurant critic whose praise everyone covets – gave ROVI the sort of write-up that Neil and his team could only dream of. “Lovely, surprising ROVI”, Marina wrote: “There isn’t a single dish we eat [. . .] that doesn’t have us grinning with astonished delight: the cooking seems to home in on a set of completely new pleasure receptors”. “It was pretty good”, says Neil, in response to the praise: “I read it twice!”.
So, how is ROVI different to the other Ottolenghi restaurants, we wanted to know?
“The menu is veggie-focussed and there is also a real passion to minimise food waste. We are not a kitchen that’s throwing away cauliflower or broccoli stems, for example: these are going to find their way back into the food. It’s where our interest in pickles and ferments comes in as well. Having pickles and fermented foods on the menu is great for two reasons: one is that it’s such fantastic way of injecting tonnes of savoury flavour into a dish and, also, it’s a great way to extend a food’s shelf life. We are playing around at the moment with things pickled in sake lees, for example. The sake gives the pickles such a deep, rich umami flavour it is amazing so we’ll hope to get that onto the menu soon. Having something sitting on the shelf which can last two or three months, rather than having a short best-before date: it feels timeless and real”.
Speaking of timeless and real, how is it to have an open fire grill at the centre of the kitchen and the centre of all-things ROVI when it comes to the menu.
“I love it. I don’t think I could ever go back to any other way of cooking, now that I’m cooking over flames every day. It creates such a respect for the food, I think, and connects all the chefs with the way that things have been done forever. And, absolutely, it makes the food taste incredible: whether you are charring a whole aubergine until the skin falls apart and the flesh is totally smoky or you are just giving something a final ‘kiss’ on the grill, it just imparts such a flavour and texture that would be impossible to create off the flame.”
And Yotam wanted to know whether it is true that none of the chefs working over the grill have any arm hair any more?!
“Erm, yes! We do have arm hair! We are not working over a blaring open flame so are not in the habit of actually singeing our arms! Cooking over the flame is as much about letting it dye out and cooking over a low or residual heat as it is about cooking over an actual big fire. The thing we do all have, though, is chapped lips: it really dries your lips out working over the grill all day. There is a lot of water drinking in the kitchen that goes on. And chap stick!"
Ixta from the test kitchen wanted to know how you keep morale up with the team, the daily grind of working day-in day-out in a kitchen, where the hours are tough and long.
"I spend a lot of time talking about the produce, getting the chefs as excited and passionate as I am about the ingredients we are using. What they are and where they come from and who supplies them to us. It’s all about the produce and the people for me: knowing where something comes from and the passion behind the person producing something is a complete game changer in terms of respect and humility for the whole process."
What are the favourite dishes on the menu at the moment?
“The lobster crumpet for sure, the tempura stems and herbs. The celeriac schwarma. These are the most popular at the moment. And the parsnip and pecorino croquettes are also really popular: people can never resist a croquette!”
Marina, in her ROVI review, said of the lobster crumpet that she’d ‘happily earmark [it] for my last meal.. . .it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve greedily inhaled in a long mile. Each mouthful reveals something new”. So if Marina is on her desert island eating her last meal, what would you be having on your desert island. You’ve got your open-fire grill, of course.
“Aaaaah, let’s see: I’d have some fresh mackerel to start with, cooked quickly on the grill, served with some fresh lemon and crusty bread. . and then maybe a chicken to follow, spatch-cocked and cooked on the grill with some piri piri sauce. And then pudding I’d seek out some coconuts or mangoes on the island and do something with these. I’d grill them and then work out a way to add some frangipane and build it up from there”.