Tomato and herbs smoulder in the pan as I arrive to experience an hour in Chef Roy’s kitchen at the Consulate Hotel, Main Street on 3rd August 2021. Crispy, soft cheese rolls are just being removed from the big ovens and set aside to cool for elevenses. They are perfect.
You could mistake him for a ‘hairy biker’ or a heavy metal enthusiast. At the age of 17, Roy Richards decided that he wanted to go into the hospitality industry and become a chef. His Father and Mother both enjoy culinary competence, although he suggests his Dad is more adventurous when it comes to recipes.
He didn’t wait to complete his exams before enquiring about jobs and once exams were wound up, he was offered a job at Haute Cabriere in Franschhoek, South Africa. A fine dining establishment, so Roy’s training would be gruelling to meet the requirements.
In the early days, he worked with one of South Africa’s most famous chefs Matthew Gordon.
The team are heads down as there is much to do before the service bell goes for lunch at noon in the Consulate. I squeeze into the corner to avoid getting in anyone’s way as I enquire whether Roy runs a Gordon Ramsay style kitchen. Whilst things can get quite frenzied at times, especially for group bookings and Saturday brunch, the entire consulate doesn’t hear profanities being thrown around like noodles in a sizzling wok.
Roy removes one of his knives and chops onions expertly, no fuss. I think about my own onion chopping and the annoying moments when the onion splits and bits go hurtling to the floor. There are chefs and then there are chefs. Like any craft, the preparation of food also requires spirit for best creativity.
After working in various establishments, he joined the RMS St Helena in 2003. He was the second choice but got the job and there began his devotion for the Saints and the Island. With the odd bowl of soup being dropped twice before service (and he had to quickly rustle up another one from scratch) and a whole pot of lamb stew going on the floor just before lunch, disasters were rare. He talked about how well stocked the RMS always was, how he tried to re-use the ingredients which was never servedto limit wastage and how pleased Saint Helenians were with their island cuisine. Whilst first class dining was available, Saints were often just happy with their bit of curry, stew or pea soup.
As he stirs the tomato paste in the pan, we talk about the tastiness of such a simple recipe. It seems surprising that no one has bottled it up and sold it in masses yet. Or have they? Roy says that when he first heard about tomato paste he thought, “What’s so special about something that sounds like tomato puree?” Then he tasted it………
When the RMS sailed away for the last time, Roy secured a job working at the Mantis Hotel in Main Street. He talks about the logistical challenges of having the kitchen in the basement and how tiring it was for the waiters and waitresses. With no service lift, the work was exhausting.
At one point, Roy thought that he and his partner Michele might have had to leave the island when his time at The Mantis Hotel came to an end. Thankfully he found a bolthole in The Consulate Hotel and the food that he now serves is far more affordable and personalised, rejection is often redirection. He has good ventilation at the Consulate and this ‘Gentle Giant’ needs all the space he can get. He is extremely grateful to the owners, Hazel and Peter for their support in setting up shop.
Roy admits that he loves cooking so much that Michele has only ever cooked for him five times in the ten years they have been together. I’m sure many partners would quite appreciate this setup. Lucky Michele!
Every afternoon, Roy wonders the shops to see what ingredients he can find. He never decides on a menu the day before (and we love that the menu is suitably-sized so that we are assured of fresh vibrant flavours every day). He only decides in the morning. He proudly shows me an island pepper which has been ripening nicely, his local supply chains is vital to the viability of the business. He doesn’t often go without the main ingredients because he honours his suppliers every week and uses the seasonal vegetables smartly. Maybe the world at large could learn something from those establishments that source locally and seasonally, maybe there wouldn’t be as much wastage. Unfortunately, the journey from food source to plate isn’t as economically or logistically simple as that, especially when the word profit pops up.
Property rents and rates can at times be a kill-joy for businesses, hence why the customer ends up paying through the nose for good food (or not so good food) in nice venues. His favourite restaurant is a tiny little Portuguese cafe in Botriver, South Africa called Mannys. The food is affordable, well apportioned and truly tasty. Roy doesn’t like hiking prices when business costs slightly inflate. He understands customer loyalty and knows more than ever that every penny counts to a society which is ‘making ends meet’.
Stephen, Roy’s number two rolls the fishcakes perfectly, another delicacy of the island. Every country has their version of fishcakes but we are so fortunate to say our fishcakes are made with fresh, sustainably-sourced fish, packed tightly with herbs and fried beautifully. I often forget how fortunate we are to have access to prime tuna and wahoo and Roy suggests that he would like to work with a wider species of fish. On the odd occasion he cooks for vegans and always has vegetarian alternatives attached to his menus. He doesn’t advertise his menus through island media portals, customer satisfaction do the leg-work.
We laugh about how we islanders sometimes ‘cremate’ meat and fish, relinquishing the product of its natural flavours. Any chef will tell you that to hear a request for ‘very well done’ brokers a huge sigh. Roy loves cooking everything, there are no signature dishes, as long as the food is well received and brings people together to have fun.
Group bookings require a personal touch, so Roy will appear before and after the meal to show his appreciation for the experience. He gains as much satisfaction out of preparing the meal as the person who laps it up. Providing a service is so much more palatable when customers leave with a grateful heart. Although Roy is very glad of tourist trade, his focus is on local trade as it is the local market that has kept his business going through the challenges of Covid.
We didn’t realise this, but it is a year on this very day of my visit that Roy first opened his business in the Consulate Hotel. Roy is very keen to attract youngsters into the business and he suggests that he has offered to visit Prince Andrew School to raise awareness of how rewarding a career as a Chef can be (albeit a lot of hard work for sometimes small monetary rewards). Hopefully, he will get a response to his offer. He currently has Callum training as a chef. He has had a few people work with him over the years and really hope that more people (when they move on) will go and work in countries where their talents can be realised and they gain first-class experience with a variety of cuisines and establishments. We already have islanders working in top-class hospitality; could we see these folk coming back one day to start up their own businesses on the island?
Roy’s potential has not yet been fully realised on the island and he knows this as he suggests that in time, perhaps he could also immerse his business into food production for sale domestically and internationally. It is this lateral thinking which I believe will be the basis to a successful economy on the island in years to come. Roy doesn’t see his job as just a job, for him, its life, it’s the thing (bar Michelle we should highlight) that gets him up in the morning. I understand, I feel the same about writing these stories. Yet some days, I can’t find my ‘mojo’ and Roy doesn’t have that luxury with hungry mouths to feed.
I’ve written a few stories recently and every person that I have spoken to feels a deeper connection to what they do. Roy, like those other people that I have chanced to listen to is talented, humble, caring, generous, understated and innovative.
As Roy squeezes the cream out onto the pastries, the heavenly creamy smell mixed with the freshly baked aromas wafts right under my nose and I stand with an ‘Oliver the Twist’ expression on my face so that when Roy cuts the pastry in two, I’m a winner. Who needs other pleasures when you can have one of Roy’s delicious pastry extravaganzas?
Elevenses? “Yes please” or bookings via Tel: +290 22962