“What we wanted to do was to set up our own place and be able to create our own dishes and do our own thing. It’s every chef’s dream,” says Emily Roux happily, a sentiment warmly echoed by her Italian husband, Diego Ferrari. I am talking to the couple in Caractère, their first restaurant – located on a peaceful street in London’s Portobello – which they opened in October 2018. Although both Emily and Diego spent years living and working in France, the British capital felt the natural choice for this venture explains Emily; “For me it’s home and Diego has been here many times over the seven years we’ve been together and fell in love with the food-scene which is amazing. There’s nothing quite like it in Europe and so we just thought it would be an ideal place because there’s such a buzz and people here love food, love going out and we wanted to be part of that scene.”
It took a lot of effort to get their restaurant up and running, reflects Emily, who project-managed the process: “I was very lucky because I organised my diary to be 100% focussed on this, so during the build I was sourcing plates, glasses, everything, while Diego was still working at Le Gavroche until August. So, while I was sharing information with him, I was the one really looking after it. Thank goodness I had that time because I honestly don’t know how we would have managed otherwise. We often get asked if we’re going to open a second restaurant and the answer is ‘not tomorrow’ as I honestly don’t know how we’d fit it into our schedules! It’s super hard work.” Putting together a good working team for both the kitchen (six staff) and front of house (seven staff) was essential. “We had half the team in place when we started, so we were on solid ground, and tried to source different elements to fill the gaps and try to make a good team. I think they’re well looked after. They want to learn more, they want to be the best which is great, because that’s what we want so we work hand-in-hand to make it happen.” The sense of supportive teamwork also extends to Emily and Diego, as a married couple working together in their own business. ”It’s very much a work environment but it’s great to have someone you can rely on and trust 100% and who, if something’s going wrong, can cheer you up and say tomorrow’s another day. We move forward together and help each other very much.”
For both of them, this restaurant is a very personal project. Caractère is French for character or personality, explains Emily: “That’s something Diego and I have a lot of – we’re told that we’re stubborn. So we said okay, let’s play on this. If we have it as the name of our restaurant we want to be characterful throughout, so our cutlery is a bit different, the lighting’s a bit quirky; we have lots of things that come back to our character traits. We have maps on walls – Monaco over there which is where we met, Milan in the middle where Diego was born, London here, Paris on the other side – all places that we’ve worked or lived in that we have a connection to.” The idea of character is carried through into the menu, which, intriguingly, is arranged by character traits: Curious, Subtle, Delicate, Robust, Strong and Greedy. “We wanted the traits to be our character traits as well as food categories,” says Emily. When it comes to translating these traits into food, she explains the thinking. Subtle dishes, for example, ”don’t have any fish or meat protein”; Curious is based on unusual ingredients, such as moscardini (baby octopus); Delicate for fish; Robust for meat; Strong is for a monthly changing cheese while Greedy is for dessert.
With its striking lights, distressed mirrors, bare brick and plaster pink walls and mossy green and blush pink seating, the restaurant feels both elegant yet comfortable. “We wanted something friendly, somewhere that we would both like to go out and eat at, somewhere relaxed but still grown-up, a friendly atmosphere, good quality food, not fussy,” says Emily. She cites Elystan Street as a London restaurant that inspired them: “We liked the feel of the room, the different textures, beautiful chairs, but a simple environment.” Caractère’s single dining room, which seats sixty covers, has a pleasant, intimate feel. “We’ve had lots of comments saying that it was great that we could hear each other and have a proper conversation. I feel that every table has its own speaking environment, though I wouldn’t say it’s a quiet place on a Saturday night!”