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Ones to watch: Neil Campbell

Ones to watch: Neil Campbell

by Pete Dreyer 25 July 2018

Formerly head chef at Bruno Loubet’s Grain Store, Neil Campbell has taken the reins at Yotam Ottolenghi’s new restaurant Rovi, and is set to push the boundaries of plant-based, sustainable food.

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When Yotam Ottolenghi opened Rovi in June, the restaurant launched without the fanfare one might expect for one of the UK’s most influential chefs. This is, after all, not just another of his super-successful ‘Ottolenghi’ delicatessen-cum-cafés, or a follow-up to his à la carte restaurant Nopi – Rovi is a completely new brand with a totally new ethos. This is Yotam’s first real foray into the voguish world of fermentation and pickling, and in Neil Campbell, he has a chef who is an expert in such things.

Before arriving at Rovi, Neil spent four and a half years at Bruno Loubet's Grain Store – the last two of those as head chef of the trailblazing plant-based restaurant. In fact, Yotam was recommended to Neil by Bruno himself. ‘When Grain Store was closing, I asked Bruno who he thought I should be working for,’ says Neil. ‘I wanted something like Grain Store – something vegetable-focused and owned by someone who had a big future. Bruno said, ‘I think Yotam is the guy for you'.'

As it happens, Yotam and his team were cooking up a vegetable-focused plan of their own when Neil came to them. Rovi was already being readied as a farm-to-fork, stripped-back version of Ottolenghi’s usual fare, but Neil has had a huge influence on the final form of the restaurant since joining the group. ‘A lot of the pickling and fermenting has come from my side,’ he explains. ‘I actually cooked a six-course meal for Yotam and all the bosses as part of my trial – I served some of my house-fermented pickles and a little pre-dessert of kombucha and they were blown away by it!’

The first thing you'll see when you enter the restaurant is the beautiful bar, where you can enjoy a range of snacks and cocktails
The enormous grill at the front of the restaurant is fired up every morning, and used to cook a variety of meat, fish and vegetables

Rovi is the culmination of quite a journey for Neil. The Scottish chef grew up in Kyle of Lochalsh – a tiny village in the north-west of the country that sits in the shadow of the Skye Bridge. His dad – a trawler fisherman – would head out into the lochs and the North Sea, and come home with boatloads of langoustine, as well as by-catch like monkfish and halibut – ’the crème de la crème of the British sea’, as Neil calls it. ‘I remember him coming home with langoustines the size of lobsters and chasing me around the house with them!’ he laughs. He and his father would often go out hunting as well – shooting pheasants, rabbits and deer out on the Highlands. ‘It felt like I was always around animals or food, so I was probably influenced by that without even knowing.’

After the family relocated to North Berwick near Edinburgh, Neil quickly found work in a local hotel and worked in the kitchen through his later school years. Though his childhood had instilled him with a love of food, that passion remained dormant for years – ‘it was just a job’, Neil admits, until he packed his bags and left to work in Australia when he was twenty-one. ‘I just saw produce like I had never seen before, and the Thai fusion influence was going on, the flavours and food was so clean – it just blew me away. That was when I realised I wanted to be a chef.’

Rovi sits on Wells Street in London's Fitzrovia, with a little terrace area outside and around 90 covers inside
Neil linked up with Yotam Ottolenghi after they were introduced by Bruno Loubet

He returned to Edinburgh and took a job with Roy Brett at Ondine – one of Edinburgh’s most beloved seafood restaurants – before working at Michelin-starred 21212 with Paul Kitching. Although both chefs opened his eyes to many things, he still felt ‘a little bit lost’ after leaving 21212. ‘I knew that Michelin star cooking was not the way I wanted to cook.’ he admits. ‘My food is the sort of thing I ate growing up in Scotland – a few ingredients showcased very well.’ Without a restaurant to call home, and with his girlfriend moving to London, Neil found himself at a crossroads. ‘She told me later, if I hadn’t come down to London with her, she would have cut me off!’ he laughs. ‘I made a good choice.’

That last statement is true for more reasons than one. Not only did it preserve his relationship, it also brought Neil under the mentorship of Bruno Loubet – one of the UK’s most influential and revered chefs. ‘I went all over London doing trials,’ says Neil. ‘I was getting offered good positions, good money, but I didn’t feel heart and soul from anyone. I remember I did a trial with Bruno and had a chat with him – he actually offered me a position down from what I wanted, but he was so honest and passionate, I felt like I could believe in him. He explained that he was opening Grain Store in a year's time, and that if I proved myself before then, he would make me the sous chef there. So, I took a position down, did a year with him at Bistro Loubet and then went to Grain Store.’

Neil would stay at Grain Store from the day it opened to the day it closed, starting as sous chef and finishing as head chef under Bruno. ‘His senses were incredible,’ he says of his old boss. ‘One day he came into the kitchen and he smelt burning pepper. We weren’t using pepper that day, no one had any pepper anywhere but he was adamant, so we all had to stop and look for the burning pepper. Sure enough, there it was in the back of an oven – a tiny bit of pepper left from brunch. Sometimes he would come into your section and make up a new special on the spot at 11.30pm – we saved everything at Grain Store, so he would go through waste and create these beautiful dishes from almost nothing! He was very inspiring.’

Neil’s four and a half years with Bruno at Grain Store finally gave him the culinary identity that he had been searching for his whole career. ‘I realised the beauty of simple, waste-free cooking,’ he says. ‘If you go back in history, cooking is eating and eating is cooking. It’s about survival, and that involves not wasting anything. It made me very humble.’ That humility and respect for food comes through in all aspects of Rovi too – food waste is either used in dishes or turned into ferments and pickles, with half the menu being completely plant-based and the other featuring sustainably sourced meat, fish and seafood.

Mussels, cascabel chilli oil and hay-smoked Jersey Royals
Jerusalem mixed grill with baharat onions and pickles

Dishes are hyper-seasonal and imaginative. There’s asparagus with skordalia (a Scandinavian whipped potato dip) and capers, and runner beans with peach, goat’s cheese and smoked almonds. The Ottolenghi influence is clear too, in plates like the celeriac shawarma with fermented tomato and bkeila (a Tunisian spinach condiment) and the Jerusalem mixed grill, which comes with baharat onions and Neil’s regularly changing selection of house pickles. Neil purposely works with smaller suppliers and farmers, helping to support and showcase their produce, and even sends his staff out to them so they can see what goes into the growing of produce before it turns up at the restaurant. ‘It’s about culture, treating our staff right and showing them that we can’t live in a throwaway world. It’s not just because of the money – it’s also a waste of time for us and the supplier.’

I ask how Neil feels to have gone from working with one legend of the UK food scene in Bruno to another in Yotam, and he grins. ‘I couldn’t have asked for anything more,’ he says. ‘I could have taken so many other jobs, but I just looked at what was real and true to me, and those other jobs didn’t fit that. I felt it would be a waste of my time at Grain Store to not go out and find someone with the same ethos as Bruno.’ If you’re still mourning the loss of Grain Store, perhaps Rovi should be your next port of call.

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Ones to watch: Neil Campbell


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