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Ones to watch: Oli Marlow

Ones to watch: Oli Marlow

by Pete Dreyer 01 December 2018

With a CV that includes The Fat Duck, Quay, Eleven Madison Park and Maaemo in Oslo, Oli Marlow worked in some of the world’s best restaurants before returning to the UK and winning a Michelin star at Roganic.

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Clare Smyth may have grabbed all the Michelin headlines this year, but take a closer look, and you might see there was another big winner on the night – albeit one who avoided the limelight. With both Rogan & Co and Roganic scooping Michelin stars (along with L'Enclume's ex-head chef Mark Birchall winning a second star at the fantastic Moor Hall in Lancashire), Simon Rogan all but cemented his legacy as one of Britain’s most important and influential chefs.

The UK boasts many superb chefs, but Simon’s work over the last few decades might just be the most significant. When he launched Roganic the first time around in 2011, he introduced true farm-to-fork fine dining in London – following his own lead at L’Enclume in Cumbria – and ushered in a philosophy that hundreds have tried to follow since. Roganic re-opened at the beginning of 2018 with Simon’s name on the door but a new face – Oli Marlow – in charge of the kitchen. Eight months later, Oli was on stage at the Michelin awards, receiving a Michelin star.

‘We were definitely striving to get a star, but you can never expect it,’ says Oli. ‘It’s good to have the recognition – the Michelin Guide, the AA Guide, these are accolades that people respect.’ Roganic also came in at number twenty in the Good Food Guide, ahead of some very esteemed restaurants – Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Midsummer House and Marcus, just to name a few. ‘All the guides look for different things – and you can’t always please everyone,’ Oli shrugs. Still, Roganic seems to be doing a fantastic job on all fronts thus far, especially for a restaurant with less than a year under its belt.

As one of four siblings with two working parents, Oli grew up in a busy, non-stop household. ‘My mum was an amazing cook, but she worked long hours,’ he says, ‘so we all took it in turns to cook dinner from the age of about eight. I think I made chicken fajitas for about four years straight.’ Every evening, the family would gather around the table for an hour of sacred family time. ‘‘You couldn’t leave until you finished your plate,’ Oli laughs, ‘and if you didn’t finish your plate, you sat there until midnight! She'd throw it in the bin and you wouldn’t get anything else for another two days.’

Oli doesn’t pinpoint a moment when he fell in love with food – it was just a constant presence in his life. ‘I knew from the age of fourteen I'd be a chef,’ he says. ‘I used to work in the kitchen at a local pub four nights a week – I’d go straight from school. My mum hated it – she was a teacher, so she wanted me to study and do my homework. She’d drag me home at half past ten kicking and screaming.’

From there, Oli spent three years at college, learning the basics of cookery whilst apprenticing at the five star Chewton Glen in Hampshire, just south of the New Forest. ‘I was nineteen, and I thought I was the best thing,’ he laughs. ‘Then I went and staged at Le Manoir and The Fat Duck, and I realised I knew nothing!

‘Seeing Jonny Lake at the Fat Duck at the time, it was incredible. He was so calm, so talented, so respectful. I wanted to be just like him.’ Feeling that he wasn’t yet ready to work at that level, Oli packed his bags for Sydney and worked with Peter Gilmour at Quay, before returning to a chef de partie role at Roganic. The original pop-up blazed a new trail for casual fine dining, and Oli was right in the middle of it. ‘The philosophy was amazing,’ he says. ‘Everyone says they’re farm-to-table and seasonal, but very few restaurants actually are. Simon definitely practices what he preaches – we still do now.’

‘I was still only twenty, twenty-one years old,’ he continues. ‘I was learning so much, taking on different kitchens, working with different chefs.’ Determined to keep learning at a rapid pace, Oli threw himself into some of the world’s best kitchens – first, the military precision of Daniel Humm’s three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park, then Esben Holmboe Bang’s transcendent restaurant Maaemo in Oslo. ‘I’ve worked for a lot of different people, but never met someone as passionate and driven as Esben,’ Oli says of his old mentor. ‘I’ve never seen someone want something so much. He’d often be first in and last out of that kitchen.’ That drive got Esben three Michelin stars in just five years, making him the youngest three star chef in the world in 2016, but it took a toll on Oli – his sous chef at the time – who hit a wall after two years of intensely hard graft. ‘I lived at the restaurant, basically,’ he says. ‘It got to the point where I couldn’t do anymore – I was totally drained. I’d do anything for that restaurant, but when you care about something so much and you put so much into it, sometimes you just need a fresh start.’

Oli’s fresh start came at The Fat Duck, where he fulfilled his dream of returning to the restaurant. He was very happy and comfortable at the Fat Duck, he says, but the chance to work with Simon again was too good to pass up. ‘Working with Simon is great,’ says Oli. ‘He trusts his chefs, he leaves us in charge of everything. Whenever he comes in I feed him and give him what he wants to eat and he’ll give us good feedback. He’s very intellectual – he never swears, never loses his shit. I’ve seen him in situations where things are completely out of control, but he’s always calm. He’s just a great person to work with.’

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Roganic serves a variety of tasting menus, with two or three dishes changing every week.
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Oli devises new dishes with his sous chefs, depending entirely on what produce is arriving from Simon's farm that week.

The menu at Roganic is ever-changing, with two or three dishes rotating onto the menu every week depending on what’s in season at Simon’s farm in Cumbria. Having worked at three-starred restaurants all over the world, Oli has seen his fair share of amazing produce, but even he admits that the crates that arrive from Cumbria each day are pretty special. ‘It’s easily some of the best produce I’ve ever worked with,’ he says. ‘It literally gets picked and then comes straight down to us from the farm, so there’s no need to over-complicate things – we let all the produce speak for itself.’

That phrase – ‘letting the produce speak for itself’ – is one we’ve heard many times before, but it makes sense at Roganic. The dishes are delicate, minimal, but absolutely packed full of flavour – a combination of intelligent cooking and outstanding ingredients. The menu simply gives you a hint of what’s to come, whetting the palate with ideas of the flavours involved – lamb belly, honey and capers, or celeriac, whey and garlic, for example – but some of Simon’s old favourites remain, like the grilled salad that has been so popular at L’Enclume for many years. ‘A lot of our recipe development is totally organic – ideas for new dishes will just pop into our heads,’ says Oli, ‘and then we’ll tweak them over time.’ They don’t always work out, he admits, but when you’re working with the best produce in the country, dishes rarely end in disaster – ‘they just don’t always reach the level that we want,’ he says.

With one star in the bag after less than a year and a decade spent in three-starred establishments, it’s not surprising that Oli is pushing on for more. ‘You have to have a goal in any industry,’ he says. ‘At Eleven Madison Park, every single time we had a team meeting, Daniel (Humm) would say, “I want to be number one in the world.” It’s all he’d say. Everyone was working towards that goal.’ Sure enough, Eleven Madison Park won a third star after Oli left, and then became the number one restaurant in the world shortly after.

‘I’m not stupid – I know unless a miracle happens, or Simon turns around and gives us fifty chefs and an unlimited budget, we’re not going to get three stars – but I think you still have to push to be the best. What’s the point in coming to work otherwise?’

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