Ryan & Liam Simpson-Trotman interview: "Being back in the kitchen has felt like being 16 again"

The married chef couple discuss how they've coped during the pandemic, sustainability, and their ambitions going forward

Updated on • Written By Henry Coldstream

Ryan & Liam Simpson-Trotman interview:

Working alongside your other half isn’t something for everyone; in fact, the idea for some is probably quite inconceivable. However, for others there isn’t anything better than sharing the the same ambitions, dreams and struggles as your partner. Liam and Ryan Simpson-Trotman, owners and co-head chefs of award-winning restaurant Orwells near Henley-on-Thames, are certainly in the latter camp.

“It’s very harmonious working together. We’ve spent more time working together as partners in business than partners in life” says Liam, who lives with now-husband Ryan above the former pub. “When I met Ryan, he had the knowledge and the skills but unfortunately he’s a messy bugger in the kitchen, and I had the organisational skills” he jokes.

The two chefs first met while both working in Devon (Liam at Bovey Castle, and Ryan at The Elephant in Torquay) but up until that point had followed rather different paths. Ryan, who in his early life briefly had a career designing cars for Jaguar explains “I had always loved food and had always wanted to travel the world. I got the opportunity to work abroad in France at some of the best restaurants in the world and learnt the trade there and it became a passion. Then I came back to the UK and worked in some decent restaurants like The Langham and at Sketch.”

In contrast Liam, who initially wanted to become a geography teacher, took a slightly different route into the industry: “It was quite humble beginnings I had, when compared to Ryan who went to France and worked for all of these Michelin-starred chefs. My dad was a fruit and veg delivery guy so we always had fresh produce around and he’d cook for us daily. Then from the age of 12 or 13 I started doing the cooking. Eventually a friend of the family got me into the best place to work in Liverpool at the time – a place called 60 Hope Street. They had three rosettes but at that time I had no idea about Michelin stars and rosettes.” This eventually led to an opportunity to move away from home and work in Devon, and as he puts it “the rest is history”.

The couple’s first major success working together came at The Goose where they won a Michelin star after just 18 months of running the kitchen. However, due to a disagreement with the owner, they ended up walking away from the restaurant shortly after this: “When the star came the owner wanted us to the cheapen the brand. He wanted us to stop making bread, to stop getting fish from the best suppliers, to add extra tables, but we said “We’ve won a Michelin star for what we’re doing now not for what we’re about to do, so we need to stick with what we’re doing.” Eventually we made the decision that we were all going to leave. It was upsetting.”

After taking three months off to plan their next step, during which they “signed on and lived on porridge”, with two generous friends providing financial assistance they opened up Orwells in 2010 and have never looked back:  “We’ve been going now for nearly 11 years at Orwells and we’re cooking the best food we’ve ever cooked in our lives, even than when we got the Michelin star 10 years ago at The Goose. How the hell we got that I don’t know. We didn’t deserve it; I don’t know why we got it. Then you were almost living up to your expectation of what a Michelin plate of food looked like, but now it’s all driven by quality of produce.”

“It used to be about ticking boxes for accolades or for guides, but it’s never been like that at Orwells” adds Ryan, but this hasn’t stopped the Simpson-Trotmans from achieving four AA rosettes, a Gold award from SquareMeal, and a regular place in The Good Food Guide’s top 50 restaurants in the UK.

A new normal: the Simpson-Trotmans talk lockdown, takeaways and a brand-new refurb

This year should have been Orwells’ 10-year anniversary, which was set to be celebrated by guest chef series featuring the like of Ellis Barrie and Pierre Koffmann. However, these celebratory plans were scuppered by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the March announcement on the closure of restaurants imminent, Ryan and Liam took the difficult decision to close Orwells after the second guest chef night, having already seen a wave of cancellations. “On the 18th we just said that is it - last service, and we had operation Loch Ness, as Liam called it, because it was about keeping our heads above water” Ryan says.

Quickly, they began offering ready-made meals, as well as Sunday roasts in a box: “We immediately put a menu together on our site and it looked a bit ropey, and you had to phone to order. Then our restaurant manager turned around and said why don’t we do an online shop, and within a day we had a shop. It was one of those ta-da moments! By the Sunday we’d served over 300 roasts for Mother’s Day, some of which were in bin liners because we’d run out of packaging.”

Over the course of the lockdown, the chefs also developed as variety of different takeaway options. Liam explains “Someone asked Ryan about the fish and chips we used to do, and asked if we could bring them on the takeaway menu. We only had a small table-top fryer so we got another one in. We advertised it on a Wednesday and had sold 150 by the Friday. The next Friday Ryan was like, “we’ll see if we can do 300” and from then on, we did 300 fish and chips every Friday between five and eight o' clock."

On top of this, they decided to buy a pizza oven during the summer and start serving pizzas, which Ryan describes as “a hit straight away”. During the most recent lockdown they added a further string to their bow – fried chicken to take away, inspired by a dish on the tasting menu called The OFC, which sees fried chicken topped with caviar. “You might have heard of a little restaurant towards Notting Hill called Core by Clare Smyth. She has this chicken dish with caviar on top, which we were doing about five years before her, but apparently it’s her signature dish” they joke. Regardless of who the dish truly belongs to, their Thursday night chicken shack, called Smokey’s, proved yet again to be another huge success.

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However, even providing a takeaway service requires a huge amount of work as Liam explains: “It was good but it was hard; we’re not used to working seven days a week. It was almost like starting the restaurant again, and we never knew how busy or successful it was going to be. When the orders started flooding in though, we realised that this wasn’t just a restaurant doing takeaway, this was a lifeline for some people. A restaurant is a commodity but this was a necessity.”

The success of the chefs’ successful lockdown business meant that they were able to wait until it felt right to reopen Orwells properly: “When restaurants opened on 4 July, we just thought ‘we’re not ready for this’. We can’t just open the restaurant, and let people in, because it didn’t feel right. We didn’t have any clear messages from the government. After a bit, it almost started to feel like there was a bit of pressure to reopen but we still just didn’t feel ready. We’ve built Orwells up to an experience now, so when you visit it’s not just me and Liam cooking, it’s about the service and the ambience, and it just didn’t feel right” says Ryan.

“We constantly engaged with our customers and asked them if they were ready to go back out, and they said no. So, we thought, what is the point in opening the restaurant when we’ve got a business that’s quite successful with the takeaway and the shop.” adds Liam.

Eventually they decided that it was time to reopen Orwells but not before giving it a major refurbishment: “We wanted to say right we’re back and we’re going to come back with a bang, so we thought let’s make it cleaner and have a good tidy up. It started out with us just saying that we’d do the ladies’ toilets up, and then we thought we’d do the men’s. Then we thought we’d get new leather chairs, and take the bar out. It became a full three-week refurb. We’ve now got a brand-new restaurant downstairs and we’re so pleased with it.”

When the time finally arrived to open the doors to the restaurant once again, the chefs had somewhat of a new lease of life: “We’d been cooking every day but it’s different when you’re cooking food that you really love. It was almost like we were sixteen again being back in the kitchen, the flavour in our bellies and the butterflies. That first month we were back just flew by – we were pretty much full every single service.” Liam remarks. Yet it’s clear that they’re all too aware that not all restaurants have been so lucky: “We’re one of the fortunate hospitality businesses who have done well out of it, which sounds horrible to say because there are friends of ours who are actually thinking about closing their restaurants and struggling daily."

The bigger picture: the Simpson-Trotmans on sustainability

It’s clear that sustainability is a large part of what the chefs are doing at Orwells – 75% of the fruit and veg they use is grown on site, and they even keep their own bees. However, do they have any larger ambitions when it comes to changing things in the industry?

“I think one of the biggest ambitions I’ve got is to change the way that people think about food particularly in the sense of fish. I’m very passionate about fish. You try and sell a langoustine to the everyday person and they wouldn’t be able to say that it’s actually scampi. They’ve eaten it in frozen form from a bag from Iceland. So, I think it’s just the education of fish just a little bit more and trying not to go further afield to source it” Ryan explains.

How does he think this problem can be solved though? “I think with the more high tier restaurants the problem is that, when you go to a Michelin star restaurant and have, say, the sea bass, it looks a certain way – it has certain edges to it and is very clean, and you’ll go back two weeks later and it looks exactly the same. So, I think we’re put under pressure as an industry by guides to have consistency in how food looks when it should be about consistency in flavour. It should be more about quality and where it’s coming from rather than how it looks on the plate but sometimes, I think that’s looked at more. Therefore, people go to Norway and Iceland because they can get the same fish week in and week out and it’s still nice and fresh, but what it’s doing is wrecking the British industry.”

Liam clearly shares the same frustrations when it comes to sourcing produce: “For us, what we want the next generation of chefs to appreciate is that we are an island. We’re so lucky. Scotland has the best larder in the country, the South has the best fish. There’s just some amazing produce and we shouldn’t have to go over land and sea to get the best. There are a lot of chefs who a lot of other chefs look up to, who champion fish from non-British shores and we’re like, why? There’s amazing produce on our doorstep.”

Looking forward: future plans for the ambitious chefs

There’s no doubt that the past year has been one of the most unusual and difficult in history for the hospitality industry but it seems that for the Simpson-Trotmans, it has only reinforced their passion for food and drive to succeed. In fact, it seems that one of their lockdown projects could have even fuelled a future idea: “We’re possibly looking at another property for a fish and chip shop because we’ve seen the potential that could bring to our portfolio. There’s just such a big demand.”

However, aside from a potential fish and chip shop, have they got any bigger plans going forward? “We were also due to sign on another pub, two days before lockdown, but our investor had to pull out of that. It’s only a couple of hundred metres down the road so the idea was to keep Orwells as high end and then give the community back the pub that they need. Everywhere opens up restaurants and then tries to go to the next level rather than just being good in their field and that’s where we’ve lost pubs. Our business model down the road was going to be just to do a good moules mariniere, a decent steak, a cracking bit of fish. Don’t go fancy with the sauces, or with the chips. It’s still for sale though, so maybe we’ll still make a move.”

Does this mean that they’re still optimistic for the future of pubs, despite such a torrid year? “Pubs are the backbone of British hospitality and I’d like to think that after this lockdown, where we’ve not been the social mammals that we should be, that maybe the rise of the pub might be the next new influence in Britain” predicts Liam.

The fact of the matter though is that Orwells remains the priority for the couple: “Our biggest ambition is just to continue to put a smile on people’s faces who come and dine at Orwells, and to make sure that we have a successful restaurant that we can keep going for the next ten years at least.” Liam smiles. “Watch this space!”

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