Meet Ollie Timberlake: a British chef in France

Jane Hanks talks to successful home chef Ollie Timberlake about her path to a life in Burgundy, how UK chefs’ reputation is changing and why France is food heaven

Published Last updated

Ollie Timberlake is an Anglo-Jamaican chef who was trained in the UK but has worked in France for the past 25 years. She works as a “home” chef catering for private and business clients, for events such as weddings and also runs cooking courses. She is based in Burgundy in the village of Accolay, Yonne.

She says that cooking in France is a real pleasure: “I really love it. There are so many aspects. Each meal I create is different and even if I write down a recipe, there is always something that means it is never quite the same.

“After all this time working as a chef, it still excites me to know that I am making people happy and healthy through my food. Trying new ingredients and dishes, creating cooking, sharing and tasting, is the most wonderful part of my daily life.”

Why did you come to France?

When I left school I didn’t know exactly what to do; but I wanted to do something in the arts, like photography. But my mother said that was not a proper job and I liked cooking so why not do that?

She was a typical Jamaican mother and she actually did nearly all the cooking but I loved watching her, so I applied to catering college in Sheffield and got my chef’s diploma. In my last year I did a three-month internship in France and loved it and that made me want to go back later.

After college I worked in Bath and then in Edinburgh, but I wanted to travel so I looked in The Lady magazine and there was an advert to work on barges in France.

It was a big change because on the boats you are alone in the kitchen and have to do everything; planning, buying, cooking, preparing veg and it was for 14 passengers and six crew so that was 20 people each time. So it was a huge learning curve.

In college we had been taught to allow 250g of meat per person, but I soon learnt that was far too much, especially as there were three other courses. I stayed there for three seasons and it was a fabulous and a different way to see France. I then went back to the UK to do business studies in Oxford with the idea of running my own hotel or restaurant one day. But I kept getting pulled back to the boats and France. I still do work for them from time to time.

On one of your visits back you met your husband and that means you are now based in Burgundy, and run your own business. What are the advantages of cooking in France?

One good thing about being here is that eating is still seen as important.

The French take time to eat and we as Brits can learn from them.

We all have busy schedules, here too, but the French will always stop for a proper leisurely lunch. For a chef, it is a luxury, to have clients who take their food seriously.

Another aspect I love is being able to use local ingredients and to get to know my suppliers. I go to the local markets, and I have a chicken man and a pork man and they will really try to do their best for me.

Before Christmas, I wanted two capons, but everyone said it was too early in the season. So I went to my supplier in the market and he said come up to my farm and we’ll see what we can do. He found two, which were a bit smaller than they would have been later on but it was perfect.

I have a wedding later this year and will need goats cheese in quantity so I have spoken to the cheese stall in the market and they will make sure there will be enough for me when I need it.

I feel blessed to be in a place where I have that contact and all the ingredients I need are here.

French trained chefs in the UK are in high demand because of the gastronomic reputation of France. However, the French still think the British are lousy in the kitchen. Is that fair?

No, and I don’t know why there is still that bad reputation when I think of all those wonderful restaurants and chefs I love in the UK, like Ottolenghi and the River Café.

You can still maybe get a better deal here with really good food at low prices such as the Les Routiers basic menus, but then again, I have friends who have told me that they eat really good pub meals in the UK which are not expensive. England is in fact so far ahead, and benefitting from a huge mix of cultures. Things are beginning to change here though.

Has the UK’s bad reputation ever made it difficult to get clients?

No, not at all and most of my clients are French. Some of them are not used to having a chef à domicile, a home chef, and are intrigued by it.

Recently, I cooked for the local mayor. He wanted to know what he had to do. In fact it is very straightforward. I sent him a choice of menu, which I made sure was not too far out of the norm.

I gave him three choices for each course and he chose the most classic, for example Tarte Tatin for dessert rather than Parfait. Both he and the guests were very taken with the meal and the mayor has asked if I am available for a village event later on in the year.

How would you describe your style of cooking?

At catering college we were taught classic French cooking and I like to take that but make it lighter and use local ingredients with a touch of the Mediterranean such as using olive oil.

I add a few little touches from my Jamaican background. I like using the Pimento berry (also called allspice), which is used for everything in Jamaica, not just for eating, but it is also added to rum and used for medicinal purposes. I always have a few berries added in with my pepper and I like serving it with foie gras.

The food I make is described as fresh, yet rustic and comforting yet, vibrant.

What do you particularly enjoy cooking at the moment?

I am making a lot of bread right now. I am always trying to find the ultimate bread, which will suit everyone, even gluten free. I think I have found one using maize flour. The difficulty is to make sure it is not gooey, but I have managed to get a result which is a lovely soft roll. I use sourdough and I always have a culture on the go. When I am catering I always take some for the staff, so they have something to eat before we start work; bread is such a feel-good thing.

Do you have a signature dish?

Not really. But the one people do ask for a second time is a dish where I roast a piece of salmon with oil and fennel on a very low temperature for a long time and it has a wonderful texture and taste.

You often cook at the nearby Le Château de Mailly and the owner Marion Smit has said that if you had a restaurant you would have several Michelin stars by now. Would you like to have your own restaurant?

Not really because the way I work now gives me freedom. A restaurant ties you down and I really enjoy creating meals to suit the client. A Michelin star is a great idea, but hey! I love doing what I do.