A quiet revolution: in conversation with Rosie Healey, chef and founder of Alchemilla.

Two years ago, Rosie Healey opened the doors to her restaurant, Alchemilla for the first time on Argyle Street in the hip eating district of Glasgow. Praised for her food by Guardian food critic Jay Rayner, “Everything at Alchemilla is seriously good,” and lauded as a-chef-on-the-rise by the Sunday Times in 2018, Healey’s restaurant has evolved from a ‘wine bar with food’ into, according to Healey, “A fully functioning restaurant.”

As an art school graduate and former disciple of chef Yotam Ottolenghi, Healey is now part of a quiet revolution currently afoot in restaurant culture which challenges the way professional kitchens are being run and proves that success can be achieved by less conventional routes.

“Kitchens can be such horrible environments for people to work in,” says Healey, “At the end of the day, we’re cooking food for people to eat. It really doesn’t need to be this life or death experience that you find in so many places.”

When the pressure is on, Healey does not believe that the answer is to lash out, “In my kitchen, I don’t shout or get angry. My team can get very stressed about food coming out on time, and I always say, you do what you can, to the best of your ability.”

Celebrate the cook

In pushing back against chef culture, Healey celebrates the role of the cook, “I refer to myself as a cook,” says Healey, “Because that’s what we do, we cook food”

Simplicity sits at the heart of Healey’s menu, “I try to cook incredibly delicious food that people will enjoy,” says Healey, “There is a different way of working when you are a cook.  The food we make lacks ego because it lacks technique and that is a very deliberate thing.”

Healey’s approach allows the ingredients to sing, “If you make gels and foams or souvide something at 60 degrees, it’s not necessarily about making the food better, it’s more the chef showcasing their skills rather than cooking good food.”

Referring to her favourite restaurant The River Cafe as a case in point, “They make delicious food in a completely traditional way.  It’s not about the chefs and it’s only about the ingredients and what is good to eat,” says Healey.

Challenging old systems

Not only is Healey shaking up the way we think about restaurant food, she is also challenging the system.  “I don’t believe in the hierarchical system of chef and that doesn’t exist in Alchemilla,” says Healey, “It’s me and my sous chef and then everyone else is equal.  Even within that, I try not to use that power because I want equality.”

A communal agenda isn’t necessarily an easy option. “It’s actually really hard to do,” says Healey, “Sometimes people don’t listen to you and you have to find a balance.”

However, Healey is on the right track, “My team is creative and we work hard – it’s a happy place to be with a very low turnover of staff.”

During two years of trading, Healey has lost just two members from her team. This, in an industry renowned for haemorrhaging staff, is an incredible achievement.

Ditch the double-shift culture

“I spent a year working six days a week in a restaurant and you just lose your will to do it anymore,” says Healey, “You begin to not want to be there and lose your creativity.”  Double shifts are banned from the kitchen rota at Alchemilla. “I think it’s a really unproductive way to work,” says Healey, “You just hate your job, you’re so tired – how can you have care and make nice food when you’ve done three double shifts in a row?  It really perplexes me that this is expected in the industry.”

I’m chatting to Healey on the phone whilst she throws sticks for her dog in the park. Clearly time out and balance is of value to her and helps to safeguard against a common catering complaint – burnout. “It’s not that I don’t want to be there,” explains Healey, “Rather, it’s that I don’t want my life to be just this one thing. My restaurant is really important to me and I think it is also really important to have balance.”

“I work very, very hard,” says Healey, “And sometimes I worry that I don’t work hard enough. But the way I run my restaurant means I don’t need to be there all of the time.” Summing up her ethos, Healey tells me, “People need to feel like they are of worth, that they are well paid, not over tired and that they’re doing it for me.”  She adds, “People care because I care for them. I do believe that.”

Starting blocks

Healey’s path into food gathered pace after she wrote a letter to Ottolenghi six years ago, asking to work in his kitchens. With little experience and no professional training, it was her drive alone that got her through the door, “Ottolenghi was looking for interest and passion and his team could teach you all the rest,” she recalls.

Healey was one of the few female chefs to make it into the main kitchens. “It was really hard to get into the Savoury section,” says Healey, “You get given all the rubbish jobs when you start and especially as a woman, you need to prove your worth, show that you’re fast enough, strong enough and can lift heavy boxes.” Nonetheless, Healey’s determination paid off, “It gave me confidence and made me feel like I could really cook. To be given the space to do that was wonderful.”

In her advice for those keen to embark on a career in food, Healey says, “Don’t be intimidated and stand your ground. It’s awful but you do need to do it. Be confident in your ability and be nice. And write a good letter to Ottolenghi!”

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