Alex Owens on the River Cafe, work-life balance and stepping out on her own

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Alex Owens knows a thing or two about Italian food. Having nurtured her love for the country’s culinary delicacies under the tutelage of executive head chef Joe Trivelli at the acclaimed River Cafe in Fulham, she’s just become the latest in the restaurant’s line of breakaway talents, joining fellow alumni Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Theo Randall. 

After four years cooking up the signature puntarelle alla Romana and infamous Chocolate Nemesis, this year Owens decided it was time to move on. And what better way to start a new chapter than by opening your very own restaurant? In partnership with hospitality company Spook London, Owens is now the culinary brains behind Archway — a new neighbourhood Italian restaurant situated under an old railway arch in Battersea.

“The River Cafe was like my home. But this was an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t say no to,” explains Owens. “It’s just down the road from me and I want Battersea to have a place like this, so it was perfect.”

We’re talking a couple of weeks before the restaurant’s opening on 3 March and Owens is in the kitchen preparing the first menu, which featured the likes of classic pappardelle with radicchio and scamorza, and wood roast scarlet prawns with nduja. Above all, it’s clear she hopes Archway will be the go-to destination for quality wine and fresh pasta in SW8. 

“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I just want it to be good food. It’s not fancy or fussy, just very tasty,” she adds. 

Owens started her cheffing career at The Ledbury when she was fresh out of university with an English degree. “My dad really wanted me to be a lawyer. I think it’s because he believed he should’ve been a lawyer, but I really wanted to be a chef,” explains Owens. “We had dinner at The Ledbury in Notting Hill soon after I left university. I was about 22, and I just asked if I could have a job and said I would work for free. And that’s where I started, it was literally a baptism of fire. I’d never worked in any kitchen and it was amazing. 

“The Ledbury is a phenomenal place. Brett [Graham] had so much patience but it was too much of an intense kitchen for me. I had a bit of a crisis and didn’t know why I was there. I also felt like people had wanted to work here for years and I’d just skipped in with no experience.”

With Owens’ wellbeing suffering at the hands of a promising career in a fast-paced, two Michelin-star kitchen, Graham offered her a role at sister gastropub The Harwood Arms in Fulham, which she was “so thankful” for. 

“But it just wasn’t busy enough,” she says. “I thought I was either going to be stuck in this kitchen, which is super intense and I love it but I cannot keep up with it, or I work somewhere else and I’m really bored because it’s not intense enough.” 

Luckily for Owens, this dilemma coincided with an invitation to join The River Cafe. A culinary institution overlooking the Thames, Owens was drawn to the restaurant’s relaxed style of cooking and famous set menus. “I went from a very male kitchen — often when I was at The Ledbury I was the only girl — to suddenly this female kitchen where the style was something I’d always wanted to cook. We used to go to Italy every summer when I was younger and eat at this restaurant where the chef did a set menu, you ate what you were given and it was heaven. I loved going there. 

The idea that you have to give your life away to food is wrong. You can give your soul away to it, but you don’t need to give your heart away.

Alex Owens

“The River Cafe was a wonderful place. It was so nice to be a chef and still have a life outside of the restaurant. The idea that you have to give your life away to food is wrong. You can give your soul away to it, but you don’t need to give your heart away.”

Owens left The River Cafe last November and since then has spent her free time curating an innovative food and wine menu for Archway. “The River Cafe only cooked classic Italian, which I loved, but as a chef it meant you could only cook with certain cuts of meat and certain cheeses, for example. Being able to use less classic Italian ingredients is so exciting. 

“We also want the menus to be super seasonal and I’m trying to use as much local produce as I can. I want this restaurant to be collaborative and am super keen to get the team and suppliers involved, and ask how they would eat or cook these ingredients. Asking the suppliers who work with this food every day is one of the best ways to know how to showcase food. They’ll probably know the best way to eat it — or their grandma will.” 

So how does it feel to be stepping out on her own for the first time? “Terrifying, but also exciting. I keep on looking at it as [if] my friends are coming round to my house and I’m cooking them dinner. I just want people to have a good time at Archway.”


Read more: Meet the chef: Shay Cooper of The Lanesborough Grill

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