We meet Alessandro Frasca, the passionate executive chef at the Green Owl Canteen in Debden
Tell us a bit about yourself
I was born in Milan and brought up in a large, bustling extended family where our lives revolved around good food and mealtimes. None of the older women worked in the traditional sense, but they worked hard cooking for all of us every single day.
What is your earliest food memory?
When I was little my mum used to bake the most amazing apple cake, and I’d always be allowed to lick the spoon and mixing bowl clean. One of my grandmas would get up at 6am to prepare the vegetables and begin cooking a tomato sauce, which she’d keep going for at least eight hours. Then at lunchtime everyone who was home, or could make it back from work, would eat the sauce poured over homemade pasta. There were always around 16 or 17 of us at least, but two tables were laid, one for the children and one for the adults. As a kid I couldn’t wait to sit at the other table, to be part of the next generation, but all of us took good, freshly cooked food for granted. It was a very natural part of our lives.
How did you become a chef?
It was really by chance. I didn’t like being at school and when I was 17 one of my uncles, who had a business baking pastries and cakes for coffee shops and restaurants, needed an extra pair of hands, and I asked if I could help. At first I did all the menial tasks, then moved on to cleaning the trays, then making the dough. Eventually, as my skills and my uncle’s trust in me grew, I was given more responsibility and began making the pastries and opening and closing the shop, and I was only 18. But this instilled in me a good attitude to work; I recognise it in others and I know when it’s not there too.
I eventually got a job as a pastry chef at Pasticceria Bastianello in the heart of Milan. The Bastianello had, and still has, a reputation as a patisserie without rival. I was there for two years, learned a lot and then learned some more.
How did you end up at the Green Owl Canteen?
I was 29, I’d achieved my objective and was bored. One of my friends was a chef in London, so I joined him and spent the next four years working in hotels, always in the pastry section though. When I saw a vacancy for a chef in the Food Hall in Shoreditch, I applied and got the job. This was my opportunity to expand my repertoire beyond desserts. I’ve always cooked at home, but wanted to take it to the next level, and there couldn’t be a better training ground than Shoreditch. Now I was making everything from traditional pies and roasts to quiches, pizzas and salads. It was always a very busy lunch service, but that suited me; the busier it got, the calmer I became. Meanwhile, my partner Vitorija became the manager at a new restaurant in Buckhurst hill, the Green Owl Café & Deli. It was small, but its owners, Marc and Jane Linch, wanted it to become known as the place for good, homemade food with a twist. Sometimes, when they were short staffed, I’d help in the kitchen. I liked the way the café worked and Marc and Jane’s refreshing approach to providing excellent food at an affordable price. When I was offered a position as head chef, I was worried because it wasn’t London, but I saw this new eatery as an opportunity for me and took the job. A little later I employed two of the chefs from Shoreditch.
As the café became increasingly successful, I wanted to carry on and do something else, together with Jane and Marc. We all had our own ideas, but all of them involved having more space to make everything from scratch, so we started looking for a second location and came across the old post office in Debden. It was perfect. Here we could express our dreams.
How would you describe the food at the restaurant?
Classic and modern. A Shoreditch-style menu, combining some traditional dishes from around the world and adding a modern twist.
What sets the Green Owl Canteen apart from other restaurants in the area?
We make absolutely everything from scratch and I mean everything. All our pastries, even the croissants, breads and sauces, are made fresh every day, using only the finest ingredients. You can literally taste the difference.
How involved are you in the day to day cooking?
Too involved probably, but this is because the Canteen is very new and it’s important to babysit it so it grows well.
As executive chef, what exactly is your role at the restaurant?
For me it’s all about experimentation and the menus. I work closely with my head chef and like input from the managers about what our customers are saying, so we can make changes or trial new dishes. I review the prices to make sure we’re getting it right for our customers and for us. All the big decisions are made by Marc, Jane and me.
Do you have daily specials and how are these decided?
Yes we do, and we always change them every three to four days. I work closely with the chefs to make these decisions. We know what people like from the orders and front of house gives us feedback which helps. We need that communication.
What’s the atmosphere like in the kitchen on a busy shift?
We’re very organised. Everyone knows their jobs, goes to their section and focuses on their individual roles, and when it gets busy we’re prepared. Everything’s under control. The atmosphere is important, because it affects the staff.
What’s the best thing about your job?
That’s very simple: seeing happy customers. It’s not about me, Marc or Jane, I’m there for our customers. I want to make sure they enjoy the food, the ambiance, what we’re doing here. I don’t do this for the money or for ambition, it’s all about giving our customers the very best experience.