Ones to watch: Amber Francis

by Henry Coldstream 26 July 2022

Amber Francis began her career in the kitchen at the revered Ritz, and since then has gone on to develop a cookery style driven by seasonal British produce. We caught up with Amber at Zebra Riding Club, a largely self-sustaining restaurant within the grounds of Hertfordshire retreat Birch, where she is now head chef.

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Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

The term ‘seasonal British’ is so commonplace these days, you could argue it’s almost lost some of its meaning. Yet while the term may get thrown around a little too freely by some chefs, there will always be others who truly take seasonality to heart, allowing it to dictate their menus entirely. This is undeniably the case for Amber Francis, who has made it her mission to cook as seasonally as possible, ever since she staged at the legendary French Laundry. 

Somewhat a protégée of Robin Gill, having spent some time in the majority of his kitchens, Amber shot up the ranks relatively early in her career, and recently became head chef at Gill’s Zebra Riding Club – a hidden-away restaurant at Hertfordshire hotel-cum-retreat Birch. This has given the twenty-six-year-old chef the chance to put her own stamp on the menu, serving refined dishes that take inspiration from what’s growing around her, while also working closely with local and onsite producers to ensure she’s serving the best produce around whilst it’s at its peak.

‘When Robin got in touch with me to discuss this opportunity, it just made total sense,’ says Amber, who previously worked at Gill’s former restaurant The Dairy for three years, before joining the team at The Bermondsey Larder, ‘it just ticked a lot of boxes for me, with the close connection to growers and the focus on seasonality. I literally get a text every Tuesday telling me what’s come up in the garden and then I decide what I want to cook with it. Then when the guests arrive, I can tell them that the carrots they are eating came out the ground only five hours ago – it’s amazing.’

The grounds at Birch don’t just play host to vegetable patches though, there are chickens on site for eggs, and even an on-site forager, who seeks out all the hidden gems growing wild in the hotel gardens. ‘Things like my relationship with our in-house forager George are what make this job really special,’ Amber explains, ‘he’ll do tours for the guests and afterwards he’ll come to me and point out what he’s found, and then we’ll work out how I can use it.’ Amber’s enthusiasm for the style of cookery she now champions is infectious, but behind that passion is also a huge amount of drive – something that’s been there right the way through her career.

Growing up in the countryside around Bristol, Amber’s interest in cookery was first piqued when she started doing cake decorating classes aged fourteen. By the age of sixteen she was already doing stages at the likes of The Hand and Flowers and Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in her half terms. Throughout this time however, Amber was also excelling academically and was still considering university until she was offered a place on the Royal Academy of Arts Scholarship programme in Bournemouth.

‘From a pretty young age, I was always pretty driven,’ smiles Amber, ‘if someone didn’t think I was able to do something I’d want to prove them wrong. You meet these old, wizened chefs who would try and deter you from the industry, so I thought, ‘well I’m going to do it then, and I’ll do it really well’. Even now, as a young female head chef, I feel that I’ve got more to prove; you always get reminded that it’s unusual or different but that just makes me want to push even harder and do even better.’

Amber is currently head chef at Zebra Riding Club, which is located in the grounds of Hertfordshire hotel Birch.
At Zebra Riding Club Amber serves a seasonal tasting menu, driven by the produce growing on site.

Amber’s formative years as a chef were spent training at The Ritz, where she developed a grounding in classical technique while spending time on a number of different sections, including six months on pastry. ‘Working there gave me such great background knowledge,’ she explains, ‘it also definitely gave me a pride in refining my food, but I think ultimately I wanted to be somewhere where I personally had more connection with the producers and suppliers than I could as an apprentice.’

The chance to do just that arose for Amber soon after she left The Ritz, when she travelled to California to spend a week staging under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. After witnessing the close connection the famed restaurant had with its growers and suppliers, she realised that she wanted seasonal produce to be at the heart of her cookery going forward. Amber returned to the UK and immediately had the chance to go and help out at the River Cottage spring fair, before a position came up at The Dairy and she somewhat reluctantly returned to London.

‘To be honest I’m just a bit of a country bumpkin,’ says Amber, ‘at so many points in my career, I’ve been tempted to move out of London but I always got drawn back by the opportunities. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to The Dairy initially, but I remember when I went for my interview and seeing the team gathered around talking about what they’d got from the farm that day and what they were going to do with it. Everyone from the commis to the head chef had input and I just thought it was such a cool way of working.’

Amber’s time at The Dairy marked the start of her longstanding relationship with Robin Gill who she has worked for almost exclusively (apart from a short stint at Brawn in East London) ever since, ‘I find Robin incredibly inspiring, not just as a chef but also as a business owner,’ she says, ‘so to have started at The Dairy, which was his baby, and worked my way up from there feels pretty special.’ This all culminated in her taking over as head chef at Zebra Riding Club – Gill’s only out-of-London venture – in 2022, where her style is now showcased through an ever-changing, seasonal tasting menu shaped by all the restaurants she’s worked in to date, ‘it’s obviously all very produce-driven,’ says Amber, ‘but I still like to bring a very refined approach, like I learnt at The Ritz. I don't see why food can't be both fine dining and accessible, and that’s my aim here.’

There aren’t too many chefs who have a clear grasp of the style of food they want to be cooking by their mid-twenties but Amber has known from an early stage in her career that she wanted her food to always be driven by seasonal produce. It’s this confidence in her approach that has got her to where she is already, but you don’t get the impression that she has any plans to take her foot off the pedal. For now, Amber’s thriving at Zebra Riding Club and pushing to win the restaurant accolades, but it would come as no surprise to see Amber running a successful, hyper-seasonal restaurant of her own in the not-too-distant future.