Having risen up through the ranks of London’s most prestigious establishments, Swedish-born chef Roger Olsson now brings his creativity and flair to the kitchens of Hyatt Regency – The Churchill, writes Jenna Campbell.

Assured, gracious and affable, Roger Olsson is one the humblest chefs you could ever hope to encounter. When we meet on a fresh spring morning in early March, the Hyatt Regency London’s newly appointed Executive Chef has just finished serving almost 150 à la carte breakfasts in the hotel’s restaurant, The Montagu Kitchen.

This is a marked change from the usual buffet service, deemed unviable at a time when a global pandemic had begun to take hold across the capital. In spite of this, Olsson enters the room radiating positivity and warmth and whilst the breakfast sitting hasn’t been without its difficulties, he has become accustomed to weathering stormy waters and taking new challenges in his stride.

Born in Sweden, Olsson’s culinary career began whilst undertaking national service, working as a commis chef on a submarine. Not one to be caught up in the retrospective romanticism of a so-called kitchen calling, his memories of adolescence feature boyhood dreams of playing professional ice hockey or becoming an architect. “I never planned to be a chef, I had no aspiration as such, there is no beautiful story,” he confesses. Putting his dreams on hold to fulfil compulsory service in the Swedish Navy, over a period of 18 months he grew to love the creativity that cooking provided and a life behind the pass beckoned.

“I always thought I was going to be an architect, but I soon found out that the process is too long,” Olsson explains. “I felt that cooking held many similarities to architecture’s creative process but it was more fun and had a touch of rock n’ roll about it; it has the joy of bringing a smile to people’s faces, which is something I strive for.”

Apple & Black Tea Bar served at The Montagu Kitchen

Back on dry land, he secured an apprenticeship at the restaurant Coq Blanc in Sweden, where a visit from notorious chef Marco Pierre White, whose book White Heat became a culinary bible for a brigade of aspiring chefs, stoked a fire in a young Olsson. “I planned to go abroad for five years, but received the advice that if I went to England I could learn the same level of cooking without needing to learn a new language, so I came here and every time I tried to leave, something better came along.”

As London’s restaurant scene began to attract international interest in the 1990s, 23-year-old Olsson found himself cooking in some of the city’s most exciting restaurants. Whilst the young chef cut his teeth in some of the capital’s top kitchens, among them, The Square, helmed by widely admired chef Phil Howard and L’Oranger, where he honed his skills working under Marcus Wareing, it was an eight-year stint at Michelin-starred Pied-à-Terre, working his way up to senior sous chef, where he developed an appetite for fine-dining.

“I always thought I was going to be an architect, but I soon found out that the process is too long. I felt that cooking held many similarities to architecture’s creative process but it was more fun and had a touch of rock n’ roll about it; it has the joy of bringing a smile to people’s faces, which is something I strive for.”

Standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Tom Aitkens and Shane Osborne, this period of his career was characterised by results, high pressure and a relentless work schedule, but the chef believes it was necessary for developing resilience. With his trademark humility, he speaks both fondly and nostalgically of this time, always pausing to credit the individuals who played a role in shaping him into the chef he is today.

“I’m in a category of chefs who are inspired by the true greats,” admits Olsson. “Some claim to be independent in their style, whereas I focus on flavours and ingredients and try to implement my taste and most importantly my learnings.” As part of the team who helped Pied-à-Terre regain its second Michelin star, Olsson is notable for his generosity of praise, a trait that has gone on to serve him particularly well. “When Tom [Aitkens] called a month ago and asked if I could help his team during service on his 50th birthday at his new restaurant in Belgravia, it confirmed that the effort I made 20 years ago still counts.”

The Montagu Kitchen at Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill

The turning point in his career presented itself at a time when Olsson’s family dynamic was beginning to evolve and the opportunity to find a greater work-life balance became more pressing. “There came a time when my role didn’t match the responsibilities of a young parent,” he explains. Olsson’s foray into hotels appeared to be the natural next step and in 2007 he was approached by Peter Schoch, previously Executive Chef for The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore, who was helping to develop the Capella brand and asked the chef on board.

Uprooting to Ireland, Olsson took up the role of Executive Chef at Capella Castlemartyr in County Cork, allowing him to focus on both his family and food. However, due to the global recession in 2008, his first year in the role was far from plain sailing. Laughing as he recalls a particularly eventful weekend, which entailed bankrolling the produce order for the hotel’s first wedding banquet of 250 guests, partaking in the Taste of Cork Festival and the arrival of his youngest child, he still manages to find the humour in what many would regard as a rather unfortunate turn of luck.

“I’m in a category of chefs who are inspired by the true greats. Some claim to be independent in their style, whereas I focus on flavours and ingredients and try to implement my taste and most importantly my learnings.”

After three years, he returned to England, taking up the role of Executive Chef at five-star Bovey Castle in Devon where he worked for just over a year before making the move back to London as he set his sights on the capital. “It was a no-brainer for me in terms of getting the diversity of experience and a similar kind of platform,” says the chef.

Alongside chefs John Williams and Adam Smith, Olsson took up the position of Executive Sous Chef at The Ritz in 2012 and revelled in the quality of produce and the culinary clout of its brigade. “It was the best produce I’ve ever worked with, I really enjoyed that side of it,” he enthuses. The following year, the Executive Chef of The Dorchester, Henry Brosi, offered him a role as Chef de Cuisine at the hotel’s legendary Grill. Waiting until a vacancy for Executive Sous Chef opened up a few months later, Olsson joined the team, where he stayed for four years, developing a close bond with his mentor Brosi. “Henry is an absolute legend, kind and super funny,” smiles Olsson. “Talented and everything you could wish for in terms of guidance on how to navigate in a large hotel.”

His appetite to be part of a new venture was satisfied once more when he was asked to be part of the team that launched The Principal London, now Kimpton Fitzroy. Assuming the position of Executive Chef, Olsson came on board for the pre-launch in May 2017 and stayed until September 2019 before contemplating a move to The Singapore Edition. However, in another twist of fate, a bike accident in the Alps put the brakes on this plan, giving him further time to reflect and eventually leading him to accept a role as the Executive Chef at Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill, where he found his philosophy perfectly aligned with the brand.

Since the beginning of January, Olsson has been busy overseeing all of the culinary menus in the hotel including the British seasonal dining restaurant The Montagu Kitchen, the award-winning Churchill Bar & Terrace, and the in-room dining offering and banqueting menus. Overlooking the private gardens of Portman Square, The Montagu Kitchen takes its inspiration from the year-round gardens of Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill’s former private residence, a concept that the chef is keen to keep evolving.

“I like honest food that is refined, elements of fine-dining in an approachable setting, that’s not too pretentious,” notes Olsson. “What we try to do here is driven by Churchill’s life and whilst we don’t get our produce from Chartwell we take a lot of inspiration from it and focus on sustainability – how can you make those changes for the greater good, we have to do this, our guests demand it, they’re a lot more educated and aware.”

Pork Belly served at The Montagu Kitchen

The menu features dishes such as Golden Beetroot Salad, Roasted Celeriac and Canterbury Risotto as well as a strong selection of meat and fish including Dingley Pork Belly and North Atlantic Halibut, something that tallies with the chef’s desire to cook modern British food. “With the current crisis I am hoping to take this as an opportunity to align and develop a new approach, I feel we need to channel all our energy to improve and open up with a truly great offering.”

Not long after we speak, The Churchill, like many hotels and restaurants across London is forced to close its doors as a consequence of the Coronavirus outbreak. Despite this, Olsson is confident in his ability to steer his team whilst also supporting the restaurant’s suppliers throughout the crisis. “I aim to learn and understand more about Kent and how we can support growers and producers during and after this unprecedented time.”

From the palpable drama of the White Heat days to the current climate of openness and transparency, Olsson has seen the kitchen environment evolve significantly and is used to the trials and tribulations that come with working in challenging circumstances. “It’s not often that you get 90 days into a new role and then have to press pause for a significant amount of time, but I’m going to make the most of it with the team here at Hyatt Regency London.” As someone who refuses to dwell on the past, his skill, resolve and humility will serve him well in his latest post, no matter how uncertain the future may be.

Words: Jenna Campbell
Magazine: Supper 20