Ones to Watch: Anna Tobias

Ones to watch: Anna Tobias

by Pete Dreyer 10 May 2018

Anna’s simple, effortless cookery has been making waves for years now, and as a protege of iconic British chefs like Jeremy Lee, Ruth Rogers and Margot Henderson, she looks set to continue the UK’s proud ingredient-led tradition.

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Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

It feels as though London is in the midst of an ingredient-led revolution. Complex classical technique once ruled the roost here, but there’s a new generation of chefs in town, and they’re busy casting out their rotary evaporators and eBaying their centrifuges in search of something more humble and delicious.

Truth be told, this revolution started decades ago. The likes of Fergus and Margot Henderson at St. John and Rochelle Canteen; Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray at The River Café and Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum, amongst others, all blazed a new trail for British food, pointing us in a more honest direction. A whole generation of new chefs has been educated in their kitchens – taught not just how to cook but why we cook in the first place, and the importance of great ingredients – before spreading across the country like seeds in the wind.

As a result, we’ve all reconnected with the beauty of unpretentious food – the joy of a hearty pie, a well-pressed terrine with cornichons on the side, or a steaming treacle pudding with ice cream. The bone marrow and parsley salad at St. John – a spartan-looking plate of toast, grilled bone marrow and parsley – helped to change the face of food in London over two decades ago, and remains one of the capital's most captivating dishes, as does Jeremy Lee’s iconic smoked eel sandwich. This is the sort of food that survives the test of time, thanks to rock solid foundations.

Even compared to her pared-back compatriots, Anna Tobias is a purist. She is as close as you’ll find to a direct descendant of the aforementioned chefs, having worked with both Margot and Ruth during her career, as well as with Jeremy Lee at Quo Vadis, who is himself a protégé of Simon Hopkinson. By perfect coincidence, she is busy podding borlotti beans as we chat, sending them rattling into a bowl at frequent intervals. ‘Food is so trendy now, but I often think the trend supersedes the quality,’ she says, ‘and that’s a real problem for me.’ She punctuates her statement with the gentle ping of another borlotti bean. ‘Take fermented foods for example – suddenly half of London seems to be fermenting things, but I think you have to ask the question, is it appropriate? If you have a perfectly in season, beautiful, ripe tomato, should you ferment it? For me, the best thing to do is to slice it and put some salt and oil on it.’ She pauses briefly to reflect. ‘But I suppose everyone has their own style. I have to be careful because I don't want to be closed-minded to things just because they're new. You can learn so much from people doing things a different way.’

Anna’s cooking style sits at one extreme of the spectrum, and though she often pauses to reflect on her opinions, she admits that she can be ‘a bit of a dick sometimes’ when it comes to defending the straightforward food she believes in. Follow her on Instagram and you’ll often see her post food with an accompanying #brownfood or #beigefood hashtag – a riposte to the heavily-plated, over-complex dishes that are so popular on social media. ‘It was a direct dig at that trend-focused, over-the-top tweezery cooking,’ she says of her #brownfood hashtag. ‘I’ll always cook the food that I believe in. That’s it, really.’

Another borlotti hits the bowl in preparation for Anna’s latest guest appearance – dinner at the hyper-popular P. Franco in East London. The menu is typical of her – fried Taleggio sandwiches, rare beef with salt, lemon and olive oil and fresh borlotti beans with tomato and basil. It’s simple and elegant, but also a little risky at times – although many customers know what they're getting with Anna, sometimes punters expect something more cheffy. ‘The fear is that people will think you're a bit lazy because you're doing incredibly simple dishes. Or you'll get the classic, 'I could do that at home' riposte. A lot of people could cook my food at home,’ she muses, ‘but I think most of the time they couldn't get the same ingredients... and hopefully I could do it a bit better!’

Anna was a relative late-comer to the industry – she arrived in London at the age of thirteen, via Hong Kong, the USA and Germany – and studied modern languages at Oxford University before the allure of the kitchen became too strong to ignore. ‘It was all a bit of a punt at first,’ she says. ‘I wasn't sure if anyone would give me a job let alone if I'd be any good at it.’ She wrote to a few chefs she thought she’d like to work with, and received a reply from Jeremy Lee, then at the Blueprint Café. ‘Jeremy was one of the first people I applied to because I'd eaten at the Blueprint, and if I’m honest, I'd seen him on TV and I thought he was amazing!’

Anna would go on to work at two more bastions of the simple, European cooking tradition, first heading to The River Café before joining Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold at Rochelle Canteen. ‘Of the simple cooking restaurants, the River Café has to be one of the best, in terms of what it means to buy excellent produce and cook it to an incredibly high standard, so that was somewhere I always wanted to work. And then Rochelle offered me another experience and a huge leap in responsibility.’

When Anna became head chef at Rochelle Canteen after a year as sous chef, her star was firmly on the rise. Numerous national publications picked up on her as one of the UK’s brightest talents, and when she then left Rochelle Canteen to open her own restaurant in January 2017, the future looked incredibly bright. She was the next in line – from a great lineage of chefs – to continue feeding our obsession with simple food. And then… nothing. Anna seemingly disappeared, and the restaurant never emerged. ‘Sadly the whole thing went really wrong,’ she says. ‘I had to deal with some quite dishonest people who were particularly nasty, and walk away from a project I loved. It was really sad.’

Anna spent a few months travelling and cooking around France and Italy after her restaurant fell through in 2017
Anna's #brownfood hashtag celebrates the beauty of brown and beige food.

The loss of her restaurant was a loss for us all, and Anna – having left a job she loved at Rochelle Canteen – left the UK for a while. She spent a couple of months travelling around France and Italy, visiting farmers, wineries, salumi-makers and working in a few restaurants on the way. Since returning to London, she has been working freelance between some old haunts, as well as doing pop-up dinners in various locations. ‘I’m doing my best to keep my name alive I suppose!’ she says. ‘I feel a little frustrated on one hand – it’s been eighteen months now since I’ve had regular employment, but it’s given me loads of great opportunities to work in different places and experience things in different countries.’

If 2017 was a year of some uncertainty for Anna, 2018 is a year of new hope, and she speaks with renewed determination of regaining the things that were taken away from her over a year ago. ‘I really want to start something,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t necessarily need to be mine, but I’d like to partner with people to open something where I can be in charge of the menu and creating a team, cooking lovely, simple food.’ London seems like a natural location for such a project, but the myriad difficulties of opening a restaurant in the capital have encouraged Anna to look further afield for opportunities, to cities like Bristol and even Berlin, where she will soon host a dinner at the Michelberger Hotel. Anna’s journey back to the helm of her own kitchen is still in progress, but judging by the queues at her pop-up dinners, no-one has forgotten about her exemplary cooking in the time she has been away. Wherever she ends up, the locals will be incredibly lucky to have her.