Cat Ashton is fast gaining recognition for her innovative menus at Paradise by Way of Kensal Green, but for her the feeling is mutual when talking about living and working in North London
As much as I try to divert my attention, I can’t help but stare at Cat Ashton’s rather impressive tattoo that’s poking out from under her short sleeve top. Luckily, it does have relevance to our interview today. ‘I started it when I first moved to London,’ she says proudly. ‘It’s Alice in Wonderland as I feel like I have fallen down a rabbit hole.’
It’s certainly been quite a journey for Paradise by Way of Kensal Green’s Head Chef since she first moved to London three years ago. Originally from Australia, she caught the cooking bug thanks to our very own Jamie Oliver at 11 years of age, telling her family this was the career she wanted to pursue. ‘I remember at 14 being in line for a new Jamie Oliver cookbook release with all these 40-year-old mums,’ Cat laughs. ‘I had all these cookbooks back home. I got work in a bakery, pastry shops, whatever I could get into, before moving to Melbourne to become a chef.’
Setting herself up for a career in Oz, a chance phone call saw her offered a role at the acclaimed Petersham Nurseries in Richmond. ‘I had a Head Chef job at the time, two cats and had just confirmed a 24 hour phone contract – but I was told it was a Michelin starred restaurant set in the middle of a field, and it would be just a day-time job, so I thought “score”!’ she exclaims.
It was, Cat admits, quite a place for her first job in London. ‘It was a new way of cooking,’ she recalls. ‘I was walking into a place that had its own garden. Petersham was all about celebrating produce. I remember first eating there by the fountain in the summer. I sat there eating my own food – which is quite fun actually, I don’t do that too often – and thought the place was simply stunning. It started me off on my food journey in London.’
The fact that she took over the Head Chef role from firm favourite Skye Gyngell shows how highly thought of Cat was, but it didn’t stop her being tempted North to take over as Head Chef at Paradise at the start of this year. The fact that she is smiling throughout the interview suggests she made the right choice. ‘The neighbourhood feel really appealed to me,’ she says on the lure. ‘I wanted to do the food that I was doing at Petersham, but for it to be a little more approachable. I want to open people’s eyes to different things – and that goes for the staff here as well as guests.’
Visit Paradise and you can see Cat has settled in. The seasonal menu is wonderfully eclectic, from the stinging nettle and ricotta ravioli with Sicilian olive oil, to the baby monkfish wrapped in prosciutto, pearly barley risotto with wild garlic and spinach. ‘I like to create lighter food, where you can walk away and still taste the flavour,’ she says on the use of produce. ‘When I receive ingredients, I get inspired.’ She is also very aware of the popularity of Paradise today with North London locals, so classics like the sticky toffee pudding are still present and correct, albeit with a tantalising tweak.
Cat enthuses about North London in general and the food it has to offer – ‘Living in Melbourne you encounter a mix of cultures from all over the world, but London is a bigger version of that. Here I have a much bigger playground!’ – but also wants the love to go both ways. ‘I love teaching,’ she says on introducing masterclasses and supper clubs at Paradise. ‘It’s one of the best things about being a chef, inspiring people. To make cooking accessible is a fantastic thing.’
Although summer hasn’t really kicked in yet, I admit to waiting with bated breath for the introduction of Cat’s Sunday roasts in the autumn – with a real focus on sharing with others – and it’s obvious that there are lots of ideas bubbling away in her head. So, could Cat Ashton one day be as big as Jamie Oliver? ‘Everyone can dream,’ she smiles wide. ‘I always dream big, there’s no point in slowing down.’ Living in Wonderland, indeed.
Words: Mark Kebble
19 Kilburn Lane W10 4AE; 020 8969 0098; theparadise.co.uk