Getting to know Leon Rothera, chef to the stars
Shoreditch-based chef Leon Rothera has catapulted from working at Michelin star restaurants to creating the film set catering company Honest Foods. His health-conscious menus have catered for TV series such as Fleabag, The Crown, Whitechapel and Broadchurch as well as feature films, including Bohemian Rhapsody and No Time To Die.
How did you get started in location catering and how long has Honest Foods been going?
Honest Foods started in 2006, when I was 24, as a cafe in Brixton. It actually started as a crazy quality, British deli but Brixton wasn’t ready for that! In about 2009 a friend who owns a location catering company got in touch with me and said he had a job that was too small for him; I think it was a Play Station commercial shot in someone’s house in Streatham. It just kinda rolled after that and the week that I was handing over the keys to tenants to take over the cafe I received a call offering me three weeks’ work catering for an indie film called Bashment.
The name, Honest Foods, really captures your ethos of using healthy, fresh and organic ingredients and your menus are truly inspired; tell us a bit about that.
The answer to this is bigger than the question! My very first head chef Douglas Jordan said that there is one thing that a chef should always be and that is honest. So many chefs don’t think about eating the plate of food they are serving; you should always ask yourself if you would eat it yourself. Be honest.
You seem pretty hands-on and still very connected with the cooking aspect of things, which is impressive considering the size of Honest Foods and all it entails. You also have another company, Fyte Food, and you’re doing a series of YouTube videos. What’s your secret to managing it all?
Honest Foods grew to the right size for me to start on a whole other bunch of projects. I get bored easily and what I enjoy more than anything is dreaming up new ideas and getting them off the ground.
Fyte Food piggybacks on the smaller branch of Honest Foods by using the commercial kitchen space in the evening to provide proper dietician-checked meals in and around Shoreditch. It’s currently undergoing a rebrand, something that I see as equally exciting as starting Fyte Food in the first place. You have to be prepared to change all the time in business.
I have been trying out a few different videos over the past couple of years, really just getting a feeling for what it is I want to film. I’ve now just started a project to produce and present a ‘Best of’ East London series. All the videos will include some familiar faces and big influencers. That’s all I can say for now but we’re filming in March so check back after that on my YouTube channel!
What chefs have inspired you?
I’ve never been nerdy about chefs really. I’m self-taught from the age of 21 so that took up all my swotting time. Back in the day, I was a fan of Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller, who are Americans. I always dreamed of their access to year-round produce and on-site growing. I love the self-sustainability vibe.
Nowadays I’m just as impressed by someone’s amazing food truck as I am by the next crazy tasting menu.
Talk us through a day in your life on location.
We roll into the base around 3.30am and set up the truck to have breakfast ready for 7am, then from 8am its full speed ahead to get lunch done for anywhere between 50 and 500 people, depending on the shoot. That’s the short answer; other than that, it’s about us getting really creative really fast, as we are known for not repeating one dish in six weeks (apart from on request). I don’t think there’s many other areas of the industry where you get to cook so much different food all the time.
What’s the most challenging project you’ve had so far?
We just did a stint before Christmas on the new series Bridgerton. That was super crazy. We had to take over from a previous caterer (they didn’t cut the mustard) with three days’ notice. We drove to Gloucester for the first few days and were hitting 500 people on some days.
Do you have any amusing, behind-the-scenes stories that you can share?
There is one famed fable, known as ‘Kipper Gate’, that circulates the film sets. About seven years ago, we were catering for a big ITV drama; it was actually one of our first big jobs and meant a lot to the team. We would do a different breakfast special every morning, such as huevos rancheros, eggs benedict or, on quieter days, kippers and poached eggs. On this particular dark day, the rather grumpy director came up to the front of the breakfast queue and announced it was his birthday and that he would like kippers. We said sorry as that wasn’t todays special. What happened next is ridiculous. He started going mad at us, ranting like an angry clapper board and threw his knife and fork into the kitchen, narrowly missing one of my chefs’ heads. There was a lot of shouting and swearing but I’m happy to say that the production team were on our side as well as the two main cast members, who took me to one side and gave us their support too. Haha!
What’s your most memorable moment so far?
We had just finished catering for the first series of Fleabag and were going onto the final series of Broadchurch. I picked up my phone to a call from the producer of Broadchurch saying that Olivia Coleman had requested that we cater. She didn’t know we were already booked so she got what she wanted anyway. That was a cool moment as Olivia Coleman is loved by everyone on set.
Imagine a film being made of your life. Would it be a comedy or drama and who would play you?
I think it would have to be one of those gritty British movies with tears and laughs alike. I’d have Paddy Constantine play me because he’s an absolute beast of an actor. No idea if we’re alike!
And, lastly, do you cook on your day off?
I always cook, sometimes three times, on my day off. I’m always planning meals days in advance for my daughter and my partner or tending to my Kombucha home brew. I’d be lost without cooking.
Images courtesy of Leon Rothera