My dad said: 'No daughter of mine is going to be a chef' London's iconic Michelin-starred restaurant The River Cafe, is celebrating its 30th birthday with a book of recipes from the past three decades. Head chef Sian Wyn Owen told Abbie Wightwick how growing up in Wales fostered her love of food...
As co-head chef at the River Cafe, London's iconic Michelin-starred Italian-inspired restaurant, Sian and her team create new menus every day and part of that routine is her bike ride.
Sian, who grew up in Wales, has been at the River Cafe for 18 years. She dreamed of becoming a chef as a teenager after cooking for her family at home in Cowbridge and enjoying childhood holidays abroad trying the finest foods.
While few of us can probably recall what we ate aged seven on holiday, Sian can almost taste the memory.
"I ate duck a l'Orange at the Sydney Opera House aged seven, zucchini and lobster mousse aged 11 at a hotel in Holland and fish soup at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm," she says with a laugh.
"My parents exposed us to a lot of food and as I got older I loved cooking."
Sian's parents, Professor John Wyn Owen and Elizabeth, entertained and cooked a lot at the family home and were part of what Sian describes as "the Robert Carrier generation" before being a foodie was fashionable.
When Sian and her younger brother Dafydd were teenagers, Elizabeth, a social worker at Velindre Hospital in Cardiff, became disabled by arthritis so Sian took on the cooking.
When she told her parents she wanted to train as a chef, her father, former head of the NHS in Wales and now a member of the Learned Society of Wales, didn't hide his dismay at first.
"My dad was like, 'No daughter mine is going to be a chef. It's a rubbish job and rubbish pay,' but he has come around to the idea now after 25 years, bless him.
"It was the 1980s and being a chef was not a trendy job then. My parents made me finish high school and then I started studying law, but just wanted to be a chef."
After leaving Cowbridge High, Sian studied for a BSc in human nutrition and dietetics at King's College London before training to be a chef. Staying in London, she was part of the team responsible for the openings of Sir Terence Conran's Bluebird Restaurant in the Kings Road and Sartoria Savile Row. She was also a chef at Harvey Nichols' Fifth Floor Restaurant - all trendy eateries at a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when people in Britain were just beginning to wake up to good food.
It was an exciting time but, like most trainee chefs, Sian worked long hours for little pay.
Then there was the aggressive style of male-dominated kitchens. Sian recalls being hauled before a head chef and fearing for her job after mistakenly binning a PS200 chunk of white truffle wrapped in tissue and left by colleague on a kitchen worktop.
"I have worked with aggressive chefs where there were serious derogatory expletives every day and people do speak like that in some kitchens, but when you are a young, female chef, you have to keep your head down. I would like to think the River Cafe is nothing like that."
The River Cafe's style is indeed very different. The restaurant was owned and run by chefs Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray until Gray's death in 2010, since when Ruth has been the sole owner. The establishment is unusual in having a kitchen which is 50/50 men and women.
Sian, who is co-head chef with Joseph Trivelli, says: "We are really fortunate in that because it is a male-dominated profession.
"I always thought if I got to be a head chef I would not be aggressive but polite and respectful. We are all open-plan here, so your work can be seen from the table and it's not our style here to be aggressive. It is pressured but not aggressive.
"I think if you know what you are doing, you have confidence. If you don't know what you are doing, you are more likely to get cross with people. Chefs here are confident and don't need to fly off."
It's clear from how she talks about the owners and colleagues that Sian loves the restaurant she joined in 2000 - even working shifts, nights, days and weekends is a way of life she prefers.
"I can't imagine working nine to five. Shifts give you flexibility," Sian says.
But she admits she couldn't do it without the help of her partner Jamie Vilhena, who used to work in the wine business and is now a stay-athome father looking after their daughters Allegra, three, and Pearl, nine. In return Sian does the cooking at home as well as at work.
"I will cook something simply at home. Cooking good food is not difficult if it is fresh. You don't need anything but salt, pepper, olive oil and something fresh and you are away!" She is equally relaxed about the River Cafe retaining its coveted Michelin star. While some chefs have returned Michelin stars, saying it is too stressful to keep up, Sian is confident her team knows what it is doing.
"The River Cafe got a Michelin star before I started here in 1999. The star is with the restaurant, not with you. We feel proud to retain it. I don't think we'll get two stars because the service is quite informal.
"It's not stressful having a Michelin star because you have to think as long as you keep doing what you do and it works, then you'll retain your star - and I am confident of that.
"Some people say two Michelin stars is a poisoned chalice because it can put people off. We are very happy to have one."
Returning to Wales often, Sian is also proud of the Welsh products served at the River Cafe - lamb from the Rhug Estate in Snowdonia and beef from the Cabalva Estate near Hay-on-Wye - and what she sees as a blossoming food scene in and around Cardiff, despite criticism from some quarters.
Although her Welsh-speaking parents didn't raise Sian or her brother, now a businessman in Australia, to speak their language, she wants her daughters to know about and be proud of their Welsh roots.
When she returns, she likes to eat out and has been trying, without success, to get a table at the Hare & Hounds in Aberthin, somewhere she enjoys stopping for a pint and is keen to try the food.
She also stocks up on her favourite comfort food - Black Bomber cheese from Snowdonia, along with fish eggs from Italy.
"I love fish eggs and a smoked fish roe called bottarga from Italy, which you grate on to pasta. If I was going to have a meal on my own, I'd have that."
Food, she believes, is central to life and should be a joy. She hopes she can share some of that joy with a new cookbook she released this week with River Cafe owner Ruth Rogers.
The book, River Cafe 30, celebrates the restaurant's 30th anniversary and features simple, modern Italian recipes from the past three decades.
Sian hopes it will help people realise you only need a few simple but fresh ingredients to make good food.
| River Cafe 30, by Ruth Rogers, Sian Wyn Owen, Joseph Trivelli and Rose Gray, is published by Ebury Press
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Oct 7, 2017|
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