Sometimes a 12-month stay in London turns into 14 years.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about travel, it’s that plans often change. That’s what happened to Simon Gregory, executive chef at Ace Hotel London, when he moved to London from Australia in 2003. “I only envisioned staying in London for a year while working for Gordon Ramsay at his flagship three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, in Chelsea, and then traveling before heading back home to Australia. I got caught up with my work because I was learning a lot and being afforded some interesting opportunities,” said Gregory.
Next thing he knew, a year had passed and he kept extending his time by six months. After being in London for two years, Gregory met his future wife and continued to work for Gordon Ramsay for 11 years. “I was enjoying my life and I realized that I could go back to Australia whenever I wanted, so I decided to just take things as they came. Now, feel as though London is my home and Australia is where I grew up,” he said.
Over two years ago, Gregory became the executive chef of Ace Hotel London and is settled into London with his young family. He doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon, so we picked his brain for an insider’s look at a city that he’s still discovering after all these years.
Where do you like to go on your days off?
“I love the Natural History Museum; it is truly a magnificent museum, and in the winter they have an ice rink where I love to take my daughter. I mainly spend my time off with my family, going on day trips to the English countryside and around Surrey where we live. It’s very beautiful and is worlds away from the hectic pace of central London. We often walk along the Thames River or through Hyde Park on Saturday mornings.”
What are some of your favorite markets in London?
“I know it’s quite touristy, but I still enjoy a Saturday morning trip to Borough Market. My favorite stalls and shops at the market are Brindisa for Spanish goods—their chorizo is amazing—and Turnips has a wonderful array of the most amazing seasonal ingredients. Neal’s Yard Dairy for the finest British cheeses.”
Where else do you like to shop for kitchen tools or food-related items?
“I’m a big fan of Kin Knives because their products are beautifully crafted, imported from Japan, and they really focus on having the highest quality products available. I also love London Borough of Jam; it’s owned by a friend of mine, Lillie O’Brien. She's a fellow Australian and makes amazing jams and pickles at her little store in Clapton, East London.”
What are some of your favorite restaurants in London, and what are some must-have dishes?
“My all-time favorite restaurant will always be Chez Bruce. Not only is it an institution in the London dining scene, but I've been eating there for 12 years. My wife and I even convinced the owner, chef Bruce Poole, to create the menu for our wedding, so the restaurant will always hold dear memories for us and our friends. I love the pear and almond tart with clotted cream, as well as their cheese board, which has a fantastic array of seasonal British and French cheeses.
“Som Saa has a different appeal to me based on some of my early dining experiences in Sydney. It’s a Thai restaurant run by two very talented chefs, Mark Dobbie and Andy Oliver, who have created food that brings me back to eating Thai food in Sydney in the mid-1990s when I first started cooking. Two dishes that I really enjoy are the som tam Thai, a Bangkok-style papaya salad with snake beans, dried shrimp, peanuts, and cherry tomatoes, and the mu parlow, five-spiced braised pork belly with chili vinegar.
“Dishoom is where I regularly go for breakfast. I usually order the Bombay omelet with green chili and coriander but sometimes change it up and go for the bacon and egg naan roll.”
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
“You shouldn’t ask that! I try to stay away from sweet things in general, but I love a great eclair. Nothing beats The Counter at The Delaunay in Aldwych.”
Enough about food, we’re getting hungry! What are some great day trips from London that you’d recommend?
“There are so many beautiful spots that aren’t far from London and can be easily planned for a day trip, but Oxford and Henley-on-Thames are probably my favorite. Both places are in the county of Oxfordshire, which I think is one of the most beautiful counties in England.
“Henley is great for cycling or walking along the Thames River. A visit to the 850-year-old Stonor Park manor house is a must-see. It’s amazingly beautiful. During the summer the town hosts one of the most famous rowing regattas, which ends up being a massive party.
“In Oxford, you have to visit the university campus of course, and Oxford Castle, the Christ Church Cathedral, and the Bodleian Library—a place Harry Potter fans will recognize. I love exploring historical buildings and admiring the amazing craftsmanship from years and centuries gone by.”
What should people know about London that challenges some misconceptions about the city that they might have?
“I was always told that London is freezing cold, rains all the time, is expensive and the people aren’t very friendly. I can sort of see how this might be a perception of the city when looking from the outside; however, after living and working in London, I’ve found that’s certainly not the case. If you venture out and explore the city during your time off, you will find it to be one of the most amazing places in the world for culture, history, and food. What makes London very special and wonderful are its people, many of whom have come from all corners of the world, and the influences they’ve imparted in design, art, music, and, of course, cuisine.”