Foodie Features

Caractère-ful Cuisine

By Jenny Linford

An interview with Emily Roux and Diego Ferrari on the opening of there brand new restaurant Caractère, in the heart of London’s Notting Hill district.

“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!”


Caractère owners, Emily Roux and Diego Ferrari. [Image: Jodi Hinds]
Ingredients at Caractère. [Image: Jodi Hinds]

Recipes

Slow cooked veal shin ravioli at Caractère. [Image: Jodi Hinds]

Foodie Features

While both Emily and Diego are trained chefs – indeed they met while working at Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monaco – at Caractère it is Diego who is in the kitchen during service, while Emily does front of house (though she does happily help in the kitchen if a hand is needed). The dishes, however, are created together. Seasonality, as befits their French and Italian heritage, is an important starting point. “When something is in season not only is that when produce is at its best, but it’s also at its cheapest,” observes Emily practically. “We sit down together, we say, okay this is coming out of season, this is coming into season. How shall we change the menu? So soon we’ll be putting a Morel Tart with Braised Onions and Wild Garlic on the menu.” The menu is kept deliberately short: “The kitchen is small; we literally buy in every single day fresh, so we couldn’t have a large menu. Also, if a customer goes for the tasting menu, they choose a dish from each trait and for that reason, too, we need to limit the number of dishes we offer.” Ingredients are predominantly sourced from Britain – including Herdwick lamb, fish from the Cornish coast, Goosnargh duck – but also from other European countries, such as Italy and France. “We tend to start in the south where the weather is warmer and work our way north. For example, we’ll start with Gariguette strawberries from France, then move onto British strawberries when they are in season.”

Both Emily and Diego have an impressive background of training and working in classic French haute cuisine restaurants. With this, their own restaurant, however, they feel they are offering a cuisine which is personal to them. “What we tend to do is put little French touches on a plate – like a French jus – on Italian cooking. Our food is a mixture of our cultures,” says Diego. “As a chef, it’s important to learn the classic techniques first and then you can play.” One of the Caractere’s signature dishes is the Celeriac ‘Cacio e Pepe’ with Extra-Aged Balsamic Vinegar’. “The idea came from Emily,” says Diego proudly, “because every time we were in Italy my mum used to cook Cacio Pepe and Emily really liked it. We wanted to do something with this dish which we both enjoyed and we found that the celeriac is really similar to pasta in texture and appearance, but brings a vegetable flavour.” “There’s an earthiness to it which goes really well with the strong cheese,” comments Emily. Desserts are a forte of Emily’s. For example, Arlettes mille-feuilles is made by rolling puff pastry “very tightly like a sausage”, slicing it finely, flattening it and baking it “so it’s very crispy”, and served with crème diplomat, poached Yorkshire rhubarb, a rhubarb compote and rhubarb sorbet. “It’s not oversweet, I’m not keen on sweet, so we always try to get freshness or acidity or sharpness.” Reflecting on how to describe the food they serve, Emily says “A review said it was very honest food and I think honest is a very good word to describe our food. That’s essentially what we’re doing, we’re not playing with the food too much, no foams – roasting, searing, great ingredients, nice sauce, dressing. I like that word.” While the dishes are beautifully presented, Diego is clear: “our food has to look tempting, but we are more focussed on the taste. The pictures you see on Instagram [run by Emily] is how the food looks; we don’t make it look different for social media.”


Emily Roux and Diego Ferrari's - Seared cod, globe artichoke, spinach, pickled red onion and buckwheat. [Image: Jodi Hinds]
Emily Roux and Diego Ferrari's - Banana tarte tatin, hazelnut praline and The Balvenie Whisky Ice Cream. [Image: Jodi Hinds]

Following a soft opening week during which they served family and friends and took on board their “useful feedback”, the restaurant opened in October. “We were busy in the evenings from the get go,” says Emily with satisfaction. “We had every possible newspaper and journalist in the two months that we opened, then it was Christmas which was very good.” Running a restaurant for the first time has been a learning curve: “I’ve learnt a lot in that process in the sense that I’ve never really been in an office or checked invoices daily or done contracts; I pretty much do all the paperwork here. That’s been really interesting. It opens your mind to a whole new area of a restaurant. Managing a business is something I’ve never done before; it’s very different from just being a chef in a restaurant. Seeing it from the other side is also very rewarding. When food arrives with an invoice or a delivery note, Diego goes through it first, then I process it so it’s double-checked. There’s a lot of checking involved, making sure we’re getting the best price for products. We are both very careful with everything. I think that’s important.”

Despite being just a few months old, the restaurant has already gathered a loyal, local following. “We’re very lucky because we have so many returning customers who live just around the corner. It’s become an inside joke between us that there are so many corners in Notting Hill, because so many people say ‘Oh, we live just around the corner!” We’re very happy with that local vibe.” While Eugenio, their manager, is very good at recognising faces at once, Emily admits candidly that it takes her longer to spot a regular customer. “With me it takes more time – ‘Aah, yes, I DO remember you!’ – but again that’s something you learn over time. Sometimes there are five tables in our restaurant of people who’ve been before and that’s very satisfying.”

For Diego, opening a restaurant was a big step. “It takes a lot of time, dedication, but at the end of the days when I come upstairs from the kitchen the customers are happy and they’ve enjoyed their food it’s very satisfying.” There is a palpable contentment to the couple at having their own restaurant. For Emily, the whole adventure of opening Caractère together has been a positive experience. “All in all, we’re very proud of what we’re achieved and where we’re at.”

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