By Kat Hopps Catering for food fads of celebrities landed chef in a real life drama
Now chef to the stars, Leon Rothera has a taste for a screen role of his own
IT SEEMS that the old adage, go to work on an egg, is taken rather literally by some celebrities, according to chef-tothe-stars Leon Rothera who caters to every whim when it comes to feeding his clients. From juice cleanses to cider vinegar shots, Leon serves up whatever the customer asks for but reveals that eggs feature heavily.
“David Hasselhoff ate six fried eggs, occasionally poached, but fried eggs every morning for six weeks. I even took a photo of it,” says Leon, laughing.
And he was not the only egg fanatic the professional cook encountered – Johnny Depp was another.
The Pirates of the Caribbean actor, whose marriage to Amber Heard has been the subject of a high-profile libel trial, had one culinary request when he was on the set of film London Fields for a day in 2013.
“All he ate that day was boiled eggs, either four or six,” Leon remembers. “I expect he was bulking but it’s something that sticks in your head.”
As the boss of catering company Honest Foods London, he has dished up meals for film and TV sets for more than a decade.
Leon, who comes from Northumberland but lives in the capital, has worked with some of the biggest names in show business including Olivia Colman and Angelina Jolie’s ex-husband Billy Bob Thornton.
And during his time serving up countless breakfasts, lunches and dinners, he’s witnessed some shockingly bad behaviour plus plenty of faddy diets and strange requests from the rich and famous.
Now 39, Leon has been cheffing since he was 16. He’s an alumnus of the Michelinstarred restaurant 1 Lombard Street in the City of London and Knightbridge’s five-star hotel The Lanesborough.
It is the wonder of Leon’s cooking that has seen actors such as Colman specifically request him on acting jobs.
Meanwhile other celebrities are not always honest about what they want to eat until they turn up to the set.
TAKE Simon Pegg’s partner-in-crime Nick Frost, of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame. “We got told before the job: ‘He’s a real foodie, that’s why we want you on the job because you’re a proper chef and there’s not a lot of them in the industry’,” Leon recalls.
“Nick came on board and he would literally have a bacon sandwich on white bread or a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. But, you know, he’s lovely bloke.”
With a small laugh, he adds: “You do get a lot of artists who you think, ‘Well you just eat like a 12-year-old child actually’.”
Actress Helena Bonham Carter revealed a strange culinary habit at a swanky, star-studded dinner party Leon’s company laid on. “Everybody was getting drunk – and Helena Bonham Carter just drank glasses of milk.” He pauses. “That’s weird, isn’t it?”
Was he cooking up a spicy Indian feast of some description? Apparently not, it was a traditional lamb cassoulet dish from the bestselling Italian cookbook The Silver Spoon.
“Who knows?” Leon shrugs. “Maybe she was on some sort of protein hit or she had indigestion and was trying something alkaline.”
Whatever the whim, this talented culinary artist must prepare for it. “Catering to those with special dietary requirements has always been a big part of our selling point,” he says. “We choose the menus but before a job begins we’ll get a big list of dietary requirements.”
He doesn’t mind on the whole – it is his job obviously – but he baulks at unnecessary requests. “I’ve had artists who will only eat organic,” he sighs. “You think, ‘OK, so we have to get everything delivered from Waitrose just so that one person can have a special section in the fridge that is all for them.”
It transpires he is talking about the French actress Clémence Poésy, best known for playing Fleur Delacour in the Harry Potter film series.
Extremely down-to-earth, Leon won’t tolerate rudeness or abuse – something he was subjected to by a top TV director in an incident widely known as ‘Kippergate’ within industry circles.
“It was the director’s 50th birthday and he came up to the wagon and asked for kippers,” he says, opting to keep the person
in question anonymous. “They were only on the menu sometimes as a breakfast special so I said, ‘I’m so sorry, man, we don’t have them today’.”
The mood changed in an instant. “You could see his face just turning red and he shouted: ‘It’s my birthday, all I wanted was f***ing kippers’,” Leon recalls. “Out of his hand I saw a knife and fork go flying. They hit the sink and pinged across the kitchen and nearly hit me in the head.”
Then all hell broke loose. “I’m not an aggressive person at all but a switch just flipped and I leapt out of the trailer and went after him with two chefs behind me,” Leon says.
“He was a little guy and I’m not so he ran into the production cabin shouting, ‘Assault, assault.’ I didn’t touch him. I didn’t even nearly touch him but he was obviously petrified and the chefs were holding me back. It was all going off.”
Things calmed down soon after but Leon got a further surprise when he was approached by two of the main cast members.
“They said, ‘Don’t worry Leon, we’re behind you. He’s an absolute a ****** e’,” he says with a chuckle.” Aside from saying it was for a “big Channel 4 TV series about seven years ago”, he won’t divulge any names. Like many of his peers, Leon is at the whim of big hitters in the industry who can literally decide who gets the next gig.
“I’ve done jobs with him since where he’s been absolutely lovely to my entire team but completely blanked me,” Leon says. “I want to continue getting that work.”
His pragmatism stems from his bohemian childhood, growing up as one of six siblings in a small cottage on the side of a hill “in the middle of nowhere.”
He says: “It was very alternative, we were homeschooled until we were 10 and lived off the land. There were goats in the garden. My mum made cheese and bread, it was rural.”
His father had endured a strict upbringing so opted out of mainstream society to become a hippy.
“We took candles to bed and we had paraffin lamps,” Leon says. “We had a septic tank although we didn’t have a toilet to begin with for a long time.”
After the family moved to Newcastle he attended school, briefly under the name of ‘scarecrow’ because of his long hair, before moving to London to graft in kitchens.
The Lanesborough was a baptism of fire – “scary but cool” he says. His talents were quickly recognised and he was promoted to a position managing chefs 10 years his senior.
At the age of 21 he opted for a change of direction. He started his own cafe in Brixton, Honest Foods deli, using organic produce, but he ran into trouble after not reflecting that in the menu or prices.
“I was in a good £50,000 worth of debt,” he says. “I was really unwell. I remember my manager walked in the kitchen and I was curled up in a ball on the floor. She asked me what was wrong and I said I had been getting chest pains.”
He was rushed to the doctors where he had a panic attack and ended up in hospital having an ECG.
“I was in a real, real mess of trying to run this business by myself and bring up a small child,” he remembers.
HIS fortunes changed dramatically when he ended up providing the food for a Playstation advert in 2008. “They were all blown away,” he says. “I was giving them homemade pastries and good-quality sausages for their breakfast. At the time, the TV and film industry was really all starchy pie and mash.”
Leon, whose daughter Elise is now 13, has paid off his debts thanks to the success of his catering company.
National treasure Olivia Colman loved his cuisine so much on the first series of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s BBC comedy Fleabag that she specifically requested Leon cater for the entire third series of Broadchurch.
“The show’s line producer Gina Martin said, ‘I’ve just had Olivia Colman on the phone saying she would like to request you for Broadchurch’.
“I told her, ‘No problem, because we’re already booked’,” he laughs.
The economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic mean that his Brixton deli won’t survive but he is buoyant, excited even, about the possibility of new projects coming his way.
During lockdown he launched a food series called Leon Eats on Instagram, exploring his love of ingredients with celebrity guests. First up was Bake Off contestant Liam Charles. Now he’s after First Dates host Fred Sirieix for episode two.
“I’ve had a real burst of education through cooking at home in the past three months, maybe more than I’ve had in the past few years,” he says.
“I ferment my own kombucha, I have my own sourdough starter on the go, I have fermented vegetables in the fridge, amazing elderflower champagne I made during lockdown, I’ve always got chutneys, jams and sauerkraut.”
He’s even pleased to have had the break from cooking on sets saying he was feeling boxed in.
Now he’s had a taste of presenting, could we see him migrate to TV shows? “Absolutely, yes please,” he replies. It seems like this chef is ready for a crack at his own starring role on screen.
‘I’m not an aggressive man but a switch just flipped and I leapt out of the trailer and went after him’