Not like this in my day

Rebel turned top food writer and head chef of the successful Kensington Place restaurant in London; Rowley Leigh tells what student cuisine was like in his day

Rowley Leigh started, but never finished, his degree at Cambridge just after the year of the Grosvenor Square demonstrations in protest against the Vietnam war; when many people were walking out of finals and drugs were first coming into mainstream use amongst the student community.This was a time of social rebellion, and Rowley embraced this attitude which was not only apparant throughout his time at university, but lingers today in his busy brasserie-style restaurant, “Kensington Place”. This leads us to ask the question; does the bad boy image go hand in hand with being a chef? “Not at all. I think it is the opposite in fact. Chefs used to be considered as part of the servant class, but during the 80’s cheffing became more acceptable”.

Rowley’s culinary experience at university was not a typical one. “I didn’t eat in halls, but in restaurants. I hated halls as much for social reasons as for gastronomic ones. Halls were full of the ‘straights’- law abiding and boring people. I rebelled against that”. To us, living off restaurant food would seem an extravagance. “I don’t know how I afforded it,” admits Rowley “I lived on curries. I could have written a consumers guide to Indian restaurants in Cambridge”.

Another staple part of Rowley’s student diet was the appealing sounding chicken livers and rice, “at only four and sixpence (about 24p today)”. The majority of students do not even know what they are shovelling into their mouths when they partake in the odd late night kebab or Fray Bentos atrocity; but even at prices like that, it’s still chicken liver. Yuk.

Nowadays, it in inconceivable for most students to be able to afford what’s on offer in the canteen, let alone wining and dining every night. Rowley’s eldest daughter has just started university in Leeds. Does he think she’ll be eating properly? “I expect she’s eating better than I did. There is a lot more awareness and consciousness about how to eat. I don’t think she’ll be living off curry”.

So, when did Rowley start viewing cooking as a profession rather than a passtime? “A profession? That’s rather grand. That’s doctors and lawyers and soldiers”. Sorry, a career then? “Well, it’s a job isn’t it”. Many chefs view cooking as a creative process. “There is a creative element to cooking, but there’s also a terrible danger to be precious about it. It is first and foremost a service. There are people who think they are involved in self expression, but you have to remember that it is to please other people”.

With the recent celebrity chef boom, cheffing has seen an increased popularity. Attempting to break into this world can be daunting. Competition can be be tough, standards are high. So what suggestions does he have? For all those aspiring chefs out there, the best thing you can do is “aim high, if you want to learn, don’t be afraid of knocking on doors of really nice places”.

For Rwoley's cooking tips and how to maser chicken liver and bacon go to