Gourmet Buzz: Prego

“I only ever wanted to be a chef, I was born to cook,” says Steve Cox, genial owner of Prego restaurant, London and the legendary Lone Star, Barbados.  Mick and Jerry, Tony and Cherie Blair, Stephanie Powers, Johnny Lodge and Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, James Caan, Matt Dillon & co. head for Prego located in tony Richmond, an olive stones’ throw from central London, in an area known as “Costa Kew”. Cox’s cuisine is basically Mediterranean, “Italian based modern Mediterranean cuisine in Britain,” is how he describes it. Pasta, vegetables and fish are the components for his signature dishes as in; Mediterranean vegetables with goat’s cheese (£6.50), tuna carpaccio (£7.50), homemade gnocci with organic sage, toasted almonds and olive oil, linguine vongole. Sea Bass is pan-roasted with olive oil and coriander and served on a bed of bok choy (summer greens to you and me) £15. Steak is char-grilled served on an egg plant parmigiano £11.50.  Confit of duck sits on horseradish mash, drizzled with a red wine jus. Pudds are sensational, as in Pear and Almond torta with home made ice-cream or Tiramisu (£5.50). Cheese wallahs will go for the regional Italian numbers, think Dolcelatte, Taeleggio, Pecorino with appropriate homemade grainy breads.  Prego has been a hip address for sixteen years, and clients come back so often that Cox, his chef Michael Savva and French-born Congolese pastry chef, Mobisi Migalnan (ex-Gordon Ramsay), a talented woman with a name I can’t pronounce, diversify the menus almost daily. The £12.50 lunch offerings are changed twice a week, there’s a lazy weekend brunch, with live jazz, including healthy chargrilled asparagus with parmesan and lemon at £7 or a set lunch at £12.50. Quel bargain! Who says London is expensive? It isn’t if you know where to go. Prego’s rustic courtyard is sheltered enough to dine outside, even in an English winter! A bottle of Sassicaia San Guido at £280 will wash it all down if you’re feeling rich, or a Via Nova Merlot at £11 if you’re on a budgie.  Kick off at Prego, with The Lone Star (dark rum, brown sugar, fresh lime juice) close your eyes and you’re in Barbados. That’s where Cox, and the staff who have been suitably nice to Cox at Prego, avoid those dark winter months. A unique boutique hotel, restaurant and bar The Lone Star is a beach resort where the above celebs fight over four air-conditioned suites with shady terraces and direct access to la mer.  This gaff has great schtick. The main building, constructed in the 1940’s, was originally a garage owned by car maven Romy Reid. At the time it was the only garage on Barbados’ west coast licensed to sell petrol, or I suppose Reid called it “gas,” which was a gas. One thing led to another and it turns out our hero was a dab hand at car-repairs and not slow with the entrepreneurial ideas either. He created the Leeward Bus Company, red London double-decker buses transporting locals and tourists over the island. Reid’s workshop still exists, forming part of the reception area of the Lone Star restaurant; and there’s more. During WW11 he built a coral stone air-raid shelter, to-day that’s the well stocked wine cellar!  At the temple of cool that is the Lone Star breakfast is served overlooking the ocean, as is lunch and candle lit dinner.  Watch the catch of the day, say dolphin, being grilled in the open kitchen, spiked with Caribbean herbs and spices and paired with sweet potato mash and a papaya salsa. Bliss darling.  What is clear about Cox is that for a boy from boring old Brum (Birmingham in the English Midlands, at the wrong end of the M1 motorway) he’s got oodles of design ideas, a regular Terence Conran. “You must change with the times,” he observes. And getting back to where we came in, his passion for cuisine got him frequent beatings from the Headmaster at school. “I didn’t want to do woodwork, or the usual boy things, I wanted to sign up for what was then called ‘Home Economics’, read Cookery,” he recalls. “That was considered really odd, as only girls took HE, so not only did the Head beat me up, I got shit from my classmates.” But even at 12 years of age Cox (who learned to cut up a cow from his grandfather, the butcher Horace Cox) was a determined little bugger, and with Dad and Grandad on his side, he got his way. “And then I was the envy of all the guys, being the only male amongst at least 12 horny chicks,” he chuckles. Leaving school at 15, Cox became an apprentice chef to Alan Mackie, ex-Savoy, London. “I started as a larder (pantry) commis, ended up as chef de partie with a prestigious City and Guilds certificate. My formation in hotels and restaurants that were strictly classic Escoffier-based establishments was so valuable even though I have created my own contemporary cuisine, you can’t build a house without foundations,” he observes.  Prego Restaurant106 Kew Road, Richmond, Surrey, UK.Tel: 0208 948 8008www.pregorestaurants.co.uk  Lone Star Restaurant & HotelMount StandfastSt. James, BarbadosTel: 001 246 419 0599www.thelonestar.comSuites from $350-725/night   Have fun, man! Born in Britain and now based in Paris, Margaret Kemp graduated from The Cordon Bleu and spent a year working and watching in the kitchens of top chefs from Sydney, Australia via Bangkok, Hong Kong, California, New York and France. Realising she would never win the coveted 3-Michelin stars, she decided to write about the people who do, the “disciples of Escoffier.”
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Born in Hampton, Middlesex, UK, Margaret Kemp is a lifestyle journalist, based between London, Paris and the world. Intensive cookery courses at The Cordon Bleu, London, a wedding gift from a very astute ex-husband, gave her the base that would take her travelling (leaving the astute one behind) in search of rare food and wine experiences, such as the vineyards of Thailand, 'gator hunting in South Florida, learning to make eye-watering spicy food in Kerala;pasta making in a tiny Tuscany trattoria. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Financial Times Weekend and FT. How To Spend It.com, The Spectator, Condé Nast Traveller, Food & Travel, and Luxos Magazine. She also advises as consultant to luxury hotels and restaurants. Over the years, Kemp has amassed a faithful following on BonjourParis. If she were a dish she'd be Alain Passard's Millefeuille “Caprice d'Enfant”, as a painting: Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe !