The co-chef-patron at Caractère hails from a famous and fearsomely talented fine dining dynasty. It’s a good job she’s inherited the culinary genius gene, then.
Having trained rigorously in France – including, notably, at Alain Ducasse’s three Michelin-starred Le Louis XV in Monaco – she and her husband, the dashingly named and ferociously talented Diego Ferrari, opened Caractère in Notting Hill in 2018. A relaxed neighbourhood restaurant with a playful concept, the menu is arranged not in the usual starter-main-pudding configuration, but according to the character trait of the dish. Hence then, punters can order ‘curious’ red Sicilian prawn tartare; ‘robust’ roast Pyrenean milk-fed lamb; and ‘greedy’ pear, vanilla, white chocolate and sesame biscuit. It is, unmistakeably, fine dining, and yet, equally, it’s unmistakably fun too. It had better be; this is a local joint where the neighbour happens to be the two Michelin-starred The Ledbury.
Emily tells us what it’s like to hail from gastronomic royalty; how she and Diego have harnessed the goodness of the humble celeriac to create their signature dish; and which chefs really inspire her.
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You hail from a line of legendary chefs. Did it feel like predestination that you would follow in the family footsteps?
Yes and no. I have always been involved in cooking, food and eating, which became a passion from a young age. However, my parents weren’t pushy in any kind of way. In fact; my mother probably would have preferred that I had chosen another career path.
Caractère, the restaurant you run with your husband Diego, opened its doors in 2018. Can you tell us a little about its ethos and approach?
When it was still at the pen and paper stage we both agreed that we wanted to create somewhere that we would like to eat at regularly. That meant great food, a comfy setting and friendly service. Hopefully we have managed to achieve that.
What’s your signature dish and what makes it so special?
The celeriac cacio e pepe has been on our menu since we opened. Some of our regular customers come especially for it. We use the delicious root vegetable that is the celeriac instead of the traditional pasta. Many have been fooled!
What’s it like to work with your husband – and did you meet in the kitchen?
Diego and I met ten years ago in the kitchens of the Louis XV in Monaco. We both started around the same time of year; pastry section for me and meat section for Diego. I consider myself very lucky to work with my husband. Although it’s not easy every day, we are always on the same page. We have one same goal and ambition, which makes work life so much better.
The menu is divided into sub-sections: curious, subtle and robust. Can you tell us more about the way you devised the menu?
The restaurant is called Caractère, which literally means character in French. We both have a lot of character (stubbornness being one of our traits) and would like to think our food has too. Cooking is also a great way to express feelings. The traits are always an ice-breaker with customers.
Post pandemic, how have you adapted? And do you feel that people’s mindsets have changed insofar as what they expect from dining out?
Quite a few things have changed. We have kept the 1.5-meter distance between tables, hence the reduced number of covers. This means customers still feel safe dinning with us. We have also shut on Tuesday and Wednesday lunch times, which helps our staff/rotas. I think customers understand that it hasn’t been easy for the hospitality industry.
You had a rigorous training in Monaco at Le Louis XV. What was that experience like?
It was very rigorous indeed, but extremely enriching. Everything is measured to the millimetre and precision is paramount. I was also able to discover the art of chocolate making, which was incredible.
You’ve also worked in restaurants in Paris. Is classical French food still the best in the world, do you think?
It’s definitely amongst the best in the world but I think there are some incredibly talented chefs here in the UK and all over the world. I really love Japanese, Chinese and Indian food, as well as French.
You must have a million early food memories – are there any that particularly stand out or still inspire you?
I had an amazing dinner with my parents at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago when we dined in the kitchen at the ‘Chef’s Table’. I must have been twelve years old and I was totally fascinated by it all. The buzz, the atmosphere and the food were outstanding.
What’s it like being part of such an amazing dynasty?
It’s a blessing and a hindrance. A blessing: I have always been surrounded by exceptional food, chefs and restaurants. A hindrance: people can be quick to judge or assume certain things.
When you opened Caractère, did you feel the weight of expectation, or do you feel that the critics have been open enough to recognise your separate identity?
Definitely felt the weight of expectation, but as would any chef opening a new business I think. Most have recognised the separate identity, but some still compare.
Your dad must be very proud of what you and Diego have done with Caractère. What words of wisdom has he imparted/ lessons has he taught?
We call him on a regular basis for advice! He’s always been a great supporter of Caractère and spreads the word whenever he can.
Which chefs – family aside – have you found most inspiring?
Alain Ducasse, Clare Smyth, Endo Kazutoshi.
And do you have any contemporaries you really rate?
Hubert Duchenne, Diego Delbecq, Florent Poulard and Enrique Casarubias are all super talented chefs and friends that I would recommend visiting.
And what’s the best part of your job?
Receiving positive feedback from customers is definitely a highlight.
What to you rustle up for a quiet supper at home?
We love a simple roast or homemade pasta. Nothing too fancy!
What are your very favourite recipes for spring?
Anything with fresh garden peas, morels and wild garlic.
What are you most looking forward to in 2022?
‘Normality’. Being able to plan and organise for future months in a way that just hasn’t been possible in the last eighteen months.
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