Chef Interview: Ryan & Liam Simpson-Trotman, Orwells (Nov 2021)

Posted on: November 22nd, 2021 by Simon Carter

Since 2007, Ryan & Liam Simpson-Trotman have successfully combined their relationship outside of work with their professional lives as top end restaurant chefs.  With contrasting paths to mastering their craft, each brings a temperament and skill set to balance the other.  Indeed, the output from their kitchen demonstrates a consistent balance and harmony on a plate, a maturity of composition and a mastery of numerous cooking techniques.  Here Ryan & Liam discuss their work and lives with Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide.  

[Liam, left and Ryan, right]

Ryan Simpson-Trotman grew up in Nuneaton with parents and brother Callum.  His original work experience was following a dream to design cars at Jaguar but was quickly influenced one summer by a trip to France with his aunt: the food and lifestyle were so appealing that he was enrolled in Hinkley College to start his culinary training, the final two years of which was to be in Roanne, France. In all Ryan spent six years in France covering the great kitchens of Le Maison Troisgros through to Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire.  The latter allowed him to return to the UK at The Gallery Restaurant at Sketch.  A sous chef opportunity arose at The Elephant in Torquay under Simon Hulstone which had a Michelin Star. 

Liam Simpson-Trotman tells a more homegrown story; born and bred in Liverpool, the son of a fruit and veg market trader, he was originally inspired by a geography teacher at school and considered teaching as a profession.  However, having passed all his GCSEs, two more years at school did not appeal.  By this time Liam was cooking three course meals at home with his brother and sister as waiters and dishwashers, “I’d prepare some soup, chicken and made the best chocolate fondant,” exclaims Liam, smiling.  Three years at Liverpool college followed, which he enjoyed as “you were treated like an adult rather than a naughty school boy.”  Gary Manning at 60 Hope Street was his first head chef, whose restaurant had three rosettes.  At the age of 19 Liam left Liverpool for Dartmoor and at the time, the Peter de Savary owned Bovey Castle.  Living on the moor, walks, trips to the beach and meeting Ryan within the first two years are his abiding memories. Liam was also inspired as a customer by the fine dining experience of the Michelin One Star John Burton-Race at The Angel in Dartmouth, where the quality of the seasoning stood out. “It wasn’t until I was twenty-one at Bovey Castle that I really got seasoning,” explains Liam, “taste, taste, taste, I was told by the head chef and one day I just came into work on garnish and seasoning just fell into place.”  Ryan’s perspective on seasoning came at Le Maison Troisgros, “I’d always thought of seasoning as salt and pepper but here the balance of salt, sugar and acidity with appropriate texture became clear to me,” he explains.

Ryan and Liam are in agreement that the older generation have proven the most inspirational mentors, starting in their childhood, where family time sat round a table for dinner was the norm.  Watching parents, aunties and uncles, or grandparents being creative with food.  Liam’s grandmother would always be boiling or stewing, fish or pork, through to making dumplings or even pancakes for Shrove Tuesday.  Ryan’s family enjoyed hunting, shooting rabbit and game or fishing and he experienced game pie and fresh fish. Reflecting on cooking generally, Ryan suggests, “I might have just cooked an omelette as a kid, but the pure love of food has always provided an inspiration from within.”   Years later, when Ryan & Liam met, they shared in common the inspiration of owning David Everitt-Matthias’ book Essence. Ryan adds, “I loved going to Books for Cooks in Portobello Road,” and also enjoyed the published work of Michel Bras and Bernard Loiseau.  The quality of what they cook today also comes from an accumulated respect for the chefs they have worked for combined with respect for the natural ingredients – whether it is produce from the garden, through to a piece of fish or meat, they pride themselves on delivering dishes that exhibit the best of their true flavours.

In 2007, the pair were six months into their relationship, when they briefly moved together to Winteringham Fields in Lincolnshire, before in 2008 joining The Goose at Britwell Salome, Oxfordshire, which achieved a Michelin Star within 18 months.   Since 2010, with £15,000 scraped together from family and friends, Ryan & Liam took on the lease from Brakspear of Orwells. The property had the benefit of living accommodation upstairs.  They have transformed the former pub into an award winning restaurant. Located in Binfield Heath, between Sonning and Henley, it is  best described as somewhere off the beaten track.  However, in true Michelin parlance, Orwells is well worth the detour. The nod to the red guide is intentional – a ‘brigade’ of two chefs, delivering exemplary output service in service out to maybe thirty covers – all of which is complemented by an ever growing satisfied customer base. When considered together these observations make the omission of a star by Michelin quite a baffling one.  This is not lost on most who visit, including those in the kitchen.  “We’ve never cooked better food, we’re at a high level, so much better than over ten years ago at The Goose (where we had a Michelin Star),” suggests Ryan.  In terms of produce, they will source the best available; sometimes this involves local artisan suppliers and an accent is placed on these, although sometimes it will be from abroad and where fish is concerned there is a preference for line caught or day boat. “We’ve got a great relationship with our suppliers and that makes menu decisions easier,” explains Ryan.

In terms of menu rotation, it is more than seasonal at Orwells, should a dish last a full three months then it will have evolved significantly over the period.  Ryan & Liam prefer to be constantly challenging themselves creatively and providing new dishes to guests on a regular basis.  This means that as well as rotating more than seasonally, they eschew the practice of maintaining three signatures per season.  Indeed, the old school ‘Michelin Institutions’ might go the step further of bringing back sixty percent plus of the menu year on year.  Ryan considers it a myth that their practice makes mastery of consistency more difficult; “we take the best produce available at any given time, whereas were we forced to maintain a dish for an extended period, then the quality of produce may vary, which will affect the level of consistency,” he explains, “as one example, Turbot has a period where it is full of roe, so it would be a compromise were it a signature during that time.”

The pair now have a significant amount of profile raising media work under their belts, having appeared on Great British Menu (GBM) five times between them (Ryan three times and Liam twice) but their favourite appearances have been with James Martin.  “It’s relaxed, Ryan and I just cooking, chatting about Orwells and really having fun with James,” says Liam.  In other media encounters the chefs have got to know Wolfgang Puck and Pierre Koffmann, an opportunity that both have enjoyed.  Liam’s overarching view of media work is a sense of pride, in particular having represented the North West (Liverpool) twice on GBM, “I was actually quite emotional about it, it was a real honour to be in that position!” He says.  As well as TV, digital and print media and word of mouth are all seen as crucial in equal measures.  “We take good care of our customers and seek to harvest and protect the word of mouth enjoyed by the restaurant,” considers Ryan, “The Good Food Guide has been very good for us, too” adds Liam.  Giles Coren, Tom Parker-Bowles and Kathryn Flett have all visited, the former led to their joining the Sustainable Restaurant Association.  In addition, social media has become increasingly important, “particularly Instagram for the visual imagery and Facebook for a variety of customer demographic,” suggests Liam.  The pair also maintain a distribution list of over six thousand contacts for a regular email update newsletter

[Orwells Interior]

Ryan’s infectious enthusiasm and general excitement about his daily routine breathe confidence that the pair would achieve whatever ambitions they should choose to pursue.  As Liam points out, “Ryan has his dream of owning and running a fine dining restaurant, I always dreamt of having a high quality pub.”  By the spring of 2022, the pair plan to make both dreams come true as they schedule the opening of The Plough pub, having acquired the freehold of the now derelict Plowden Arms, a stone’s throw away in Shiplake.  The venture is very much in the planning stage and the message is watch this space for updates as the project completion date draws closer.  In terms of the future, the pair believe they can increasingly contribute to the development of young chefs.  They see with 16-20 year old chefs, that one of three things can happen; they experience far too rough a time in kitchens that puts them off the profession, second, they want to rise through the ranks too quickly without mastering the fundamentals, third that they have a pre-(mis)conception that hospitality is not a viable career or profession.  Ryan & Liam feel they could offer the knowledge and experience to fix all three of these things and provide high quality personal and professional development for would be apprentices.  This may involve working alongside colleges or providing their kitchen as a training ground. 

So, while Orwells goes from strength to strength, the future is full of growth and opportunity, one that their loyal customers look forward to, as the culinary journey offers a satisfying and rewarding experience.  Ryan & Liam will continue to develop their cooking, as a natural professional evolution is in their nature, leading to the exciting expectation that the next visit will exceed those ever impressive meals that have gone before and long may that continue….