Despite starting his career in one of Britain’s top private banks, Coutts, known as the bank used by the Royal Family, no less, restaurateur Oli Barker wanted to follow his dream. A country boy at heart, although, as he says, he is equally at home in London and the provinces, he loves fresh produce and the process of preparing, cooking and serving fresh food. He has just opened a new hotel restaurant in one of southwest England’s leading holiday destinations near Salcombe in Devon. Overlooking the tiny harbour of Hope Cove, Hope Cove House offers breathtaking sunsets and extraordinary views of one of South Devon’s beauty spots, with its distinctive red cliffs, green woodland and thatched cottages looking out over the glistening sea.
Oli has been in the vanguard of contemporary British cuisine, opening small restaurants serving high quality, fresh food. Brawn in Hackney’s Columbia Road flower market in up-and-coming London’s East End and Six Portland Road in swanky Holland Park in west London are two examples, both of which have earned top ratings from leading newspaper restaurant critics.
But it’s been a long road. For eight years after leaving Coutts, Oli spent time working in restaurants in the US and around Europe, learning from the chefs and building a network of contacts. Then he began managing restaurants and gastro pubs and progressed to opening them, enjoying the fact that many small UK restaurants were ‘chef driven’, with the chef choosing menus based on the quality of locally sourced, seasonal food. Oli talks about the network of chefs who support each other despite the fierce commercial competition and which stood him in good stead in building his own restaurants, in finding jobs in his early days and staff in the restaurants he has set up. He became a partner in Terroirs restaurant and wine bar round the corner from his old bank, just off Trafalgar Square in London.
Forty years ago, as a popular rhyme once put it, “Hell is where the cooks are British.” That has all changed. Cooking in Britain is a respected profession and leading British chefs such as Fergus Henderson, founder of ‘St John Restaurant’ in Farringdon in London, have had a huge influence on younger chefs. Some of the most respected chefs in Britain are women like Sally Clarke of ‘Sally Clarke Shop’ and Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray (who died in 2010) of the River Café. Nowadays, British chefs are often highly educated and embark on their cooking careers straight out of university or following highly successful professional careers.
Fine dining can be found all over the UK and not just in London but Oli’s passion is natural food, sourced from local farms, rivers and the sea itself. Hope Cove House offers locally caught fish and seafood, milk and dairy produce is from local farms and even the potatoes come from a farm just up the road. British wholesalers mark their fish (L) for locally caught and (A) for produce from other areas. (A) may be okay for frying for fish and chips, said Oli, but not for grilling and roasting.
So, what next for British cooking? Street food is on the rise, with stall holders offering freshly cooked food in markets and at popular gathering points. However, as in so many other areas, the uncertainty of Brexit is posing a staffing problem, as young chefs and restaurant workers from the continent are less enthusiastic about taking jobs in British restaurants but fortunately, British-born chefs are filling the gap. The leading trend is seasonal cooking with more and more small restaurants offering good fresh food based on what is in season and, where possible, sourced from local suppliers. With Hope Cove House, one of the most beautiful parts of England is now graced by one more beautiful restaurant and its delicious food with Oli Barker in the lead.