Ones to watch: Rose Ashby

by Pete Dreyer1 March 2019

As head chef at hyper-sustainable Spring in Somerset House, Rose Ashby and her team are blazing a trail for the industry into an eco-friendly future. Pete Dreyer caught up with the young chef to find out more.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

Step into the dining room at Spring and it’s hard not to be struck by the grandeur of the place. Light pours in through towering windows at the back of the room, flicking off the marble-clad bar, pale blue grasscloth walls and snowy white tablecloths. Clusters of frosted globes hang four metres overhead in chandelier formation, like grapes on the vine. Swap some of the tables for couches and this could be a Roman villa. Funny to think the room was once a tax office – it couldn’t be further from the gloom of Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue now.

Just as impressive as the dining room is the ambition in the kitchen behind it. Not content with serving beautiful food in a beautiful setting, Spring patron and founder Skye Gyngell is determined that the restaurant will do that whilst simultaneously eradicating food waste and single-use plastics from the kitchen. It’s no mean feat, but with twenty-nine-year-old protégé Rose Ashby at the helm, Spring is making great strides towards both.

‘Eliminating single-use plastics was a big challenge for us last year,’ says Rose. ‘We worked out we could’ve gone all the way to Scotland with the amount of cling film we’ve used since we opened, so one day I bought a whole load of lids for all the gastros and we just went cold turkey.’

Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say, but the strategy worked – Spring is now free of single-use plastics, a considerable step on the road to totally waste-free working. The restaurant is also setting an example for others to follow when it comes to food waste too – Spring’s ‘scratch menu’ is a three-course set menu made entirely of food that would otherwise be thrown away, from knobbly fruit and vegetable peelings to stale bread. Developing tasty food on the fly with leftovers requires a certain degree of expertise and ingenuity in the kitchen, and in Rose, Spring has exactly the right chef for the job.

The dining room at Spring is arguably one of the most impressive in London, housed in the new wing of Somerset House on the Strand
The space was designed by Skye Gyngell's sister, Briony Fitzgerald

Growing up on the south coast on Devon, Rose’s time in the kitchen started early thanks to her mum, who would rope her into various peeling and chopping tasks to prepare for dinner parties. ‘Initially I really hated it,’ she laughs, ‘but my mum is a really good cook – she taught me a lot of what I know and it got me cooking very young. Forcing me into it eventually led to me really enjoying it!’ By the age of sixteen, Rose was working in the kitchen at the Dartmouth Apprentice – a charity-sponsored restaurant in nearby Dartmouth that would take on kitchen apprentices. It started as a way to raise money for her year abroad, but she quickly discovered that she had a genuine passion for the job. ‘I’m definitely someone who learns by doing, so I loved the practicality of it all,’ she says, ‘and it was a wonderful learning environment. The restaurant was in an old converted church, really beautiful on the inside. It was just a really perfect first kitchen job.’

Inspired by her first taste of the kitchen, Rose left school and embarked on her gap year, before returning to Leith’s School of Food and Wine – the west London culinary school that has trained the likes of Henry Harris, Matt Tebbutt and Gizzi Erskine, among many others. Even at this relatively young age, Rose was set on a career behind the stove. ‘Maybe I thought about it for a minute,’ she muses, ‘but I don’t think any alternatives really crossed my mind – I’ve always wanted to work in the kitchen in a restaurant, and I was willing to work really, really hard for it.’

Rose started at Spring five years ago, and ascended the ranks from chef de partie to head chef in the space of just three years
Rose runs the kitchen at Spring, but Skye is a constant presence too, providing advice and guidance to the team

That hard work took Rose a long way in a very short amount of time. Rose graduated from Leith’s with flying colours, and spent some time working in mass-catering and cooking for McLaren Racing, before joining the brigade at Petersham Nurseries, where Skye was head chef. Petersham Nurseries had just received a Michelin star, and Skye’s simple, plant-focused cooking and sustainable methodologies made a big impression on her young charge. ‘I was a bit in limbo when I started working for Skye,’ says Rose, ‘but I realised that the way I love cooking is so similar to the way Skye cooks in that we both value balance of flavours and purity of produce.’

That realisation was the beginning of Rose’s career in earnest. When Skye left to pursue her own projects, Rose stayed at Petersham and worked with Greg Malouf, before turning to private cheffing. When the opportunity arose a few years later to team up with Skye once again – this time at Spring – Rose grabbed it. In the space of just three years, Rose went from chef de partie to head chef of Spring, and today, protégé and mentor are virtually inseparable. ‘She’s always up for a conversation about burrata, or a new vegetable we’re getting from our farm,’ says Rose of Skye. ‘She has a huge amount of knowledge, and she’s always so generous with it and gives it so freely – she’s been a huge inspiration for me.’

If Skye remains a motivational figure at Spring, the other great inspiration must surely be Fern Verrow – the sixteen-acre biodynamic farm in Herefordshire that supplies Spring exclusively with fruit and vegetables. ‘We get two deliveries every week – it’s like Christmas every time it comes in!’ Rose laughs. ‘We get the most beautiful ingredients – it’s just incredible what they bring us, and it all tastes so fresh. Everything is ethically grown, ethically sourced and tastes the way it should taste.’

Parsnip soup with collard greens and new season's olive oil
Crab salad with blood orange and puntarelle
Monkfish with savoy cabbage, white beans and lemon relish
Yoghurt panna cotta with grapefruit jelly

Lots of restaurants claim to 'let the produce do the talking' these days, but few do it as well as Spring – Skye, after all, has always been a paragon of that philosophy, and the Fern Verrow trump card puts Spring’s produce head and shoulders above most. It transforms parsnip soup with collard greens and new season’s olive oil into a revelatory thing. Monkfish comes wrapped in savoy cabbage leaves which were picked mere hours previously, and a garnish of white beans and lemon relish. Yoghurt panna cotta slumps perfectly on the plate, and sports a shiny cap of grapefruit jelly. Whether you’re eating off the à la carte or the scratch menu, dishes at Spring have a funny way of surprising you – you think you’ve ordered something familiar, but instead you discover a purity of flavour you didn’t know existed.

Not everyone has access to that sort of produce of course, but there is a lot to be said for simply eating within the seasons. ‘There are so many reasons for it,’ Rose explains. ‘If you’re buying strawberries in winter they’re obviously not going to taste good, and you’re adding to the pollution of the skies by importing a strawberry from Peru. Go buy your strawberries in summer when they’re juicy and delicious! Lots of people still don’t think that way, but hopefully if more chefs cook seasonally and work from the land more, it’ll bring awareness to it.’

Rose loves encouraging people to think seasonally, whether it’s friends and family or guests at the restaurant. She admits too that she would love to own her own restaurant down the line, and keep raising awareness of sustainable, seasonal food. ‘One day I would like to put everything I’ve learned into a really fantastic restaurant,’ she says, ‘and hopefully make it a success!’

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