In a career that’s spanned the extremes of providing ultra-formal silver service for the British Royal family to working as a chef at the wildly hedonistic Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Brad Roe can now be found in an altogether different role back on the Isle of Wight. His current kitchen is idyllically set among the plants at Ventnor Botanic Garden, where he’s chef for the on-site edulis restaurant, Plantation Room cafe, and private events.
People were always telling Brad Roe that his colourful career would make a great book – so he rolled up his sleeves for the challenge, and in 2020 published From Cook to Chef, full of entertaining stories about his kitchen adventures and a hand-picked selection of favourite recipes.
There’s nothing Brad likes more than a challenge – and it’s that character trait that has led him to make some pretty adventurous moves in life.
Born in Essex, he moved to the Isle of Wight as a teenager, when his parents relocated the family, after having enjoyed holidays on the Island.
He became a pupil at Sandown High School and, with a thirst to see the wider world, was all set to join the RAF – until reality kicked in.
“I was actually signed up and all ready to go into the Air Force but my dad planted some doubts and made me realise it would probably involve being told what to do for quite a lot of the time!” he laughs.
Never one to follow a conventional path, Brad backed out and instead followed the example of a couple of school mates who had signed up for catering studies at the Isle of Wight College.
“At that point I’d never cooked so much as an egg in my life – and there was still a bit of a perception back then in the 80s that cooking was a woman’s job”.
What swayed adventure-hungry Brad was seeing chefs of the day such as Keith Floyd and the Roux brothers, who managed to combine their cooking with lots of travel – which was exactly what he wanted too.
He’s full of praise for the training he had at the IW College, where lecturers including Malcolm Smith and his head of department Christopher Stallworthy widened the horizons of the students by taking them to the mainland once a month, to gain invaluable hands-on experience as part of the two year course.
Cooking for Royalty
It was during those work placements that Brad recalls such memorable experiences as cooking for and serving members of the Royal family, at prestige events such as Ascot and the Chelsea Flower Show.
He also describes a glittering 90th birthday dinner for the late Queen Mother, at The Guildhall.
“The table set-up was amazing, with crystal and silver everywhere, and butlers running around with rulers, measuring the exact distance between placements.”
The late Princess Diana was one of the guests at the table where he was doing silver service, and he recalls the nerve-racking moment when he had to lean in and serve the Sole Veronique from a huge, heavy china dish without spilling sauce on the Royal finery.
Lottery of life
After college, he built on his experience by working at the upmarket Berkeley and Savoy hotels in London – working 70-hour weeks and then relaxing with “a pint or two” after work with the crew. But then a lottery ticket was to change his life.
“Back then they had a lottery for Green Cards to live and work in the USA” he explains. “I won one and couldn’t believe my luck.”
Ever hungry for travel and adventure, he looked at a map, decided where he fancied going, and wasted no time in writing to five hotels in Orlando, Florida. The best one – the five star Peabody Hotel – replied and put him up for two weeks to help him get situated.
“I got off the plane in Orlando with $600 and when I got to the hotel room on the 32nd floor right at the top, I looked out the window to a never-ending sea of trees, and thought ‘What the hell have I done?’ I even thought of getting the next flight back home!”
Thankfully, the Austrian Executive Chef made him feel at home, and there were also two other Brits working in the hotel’s restaurant, so he stayed – and after a few months of partying and working at the hotel’s diner, he was promoted to chef de partie, which involved creating daily specials and juggling five or six sauté pans on the stove during the evening’s busy period.
Living it large
“After a couple of years there, I decided to give LA a try, and then after a year working at an Italian restaurant in Malibu, one of the chefs told me that Vegas was the place to be for real cheddar!”
By this time, Brad’s father was living in Las Vegas so he knew he’d have somewhere to stay in the short term.
He arrived in the city and wasted no time walking the entire 2-3 mile strip in 110 degree heat, leaving his CV with human resources departments at dozens of hotels.
Within days, Lady Luck came calling again as the place he really wanted to work called and invited him along for a chat. That place was the Bacchanal restaurant at Caesars Palace, a kind of adult Disneyland where diners sit down to a nine-course feast while belly dancers and so-called ‘wine goddesses’ feed them grapes and wine.
Brad recalls that there were eight of them in the kitchen, cooking for packed houses of 200 people a night.
“My job was to cook the Filet Mignon and racks of lamb” he says.
“I’d told some porky pies in my interview to get the job and said I was experienced in cooking meats to correct temperatures.
“The first month, most of the meats were coming back either under or over cooked, with the Maitre d’ asking me on one occasion if that’s a medium rare in England, and holding a steak that was as brown as cardboard!
“Thankfully I learned, and was there for five years, learning fine dining cooking”.
After 10 years at Caesars – having progressed through the ranks of chef de partie at the Bacchanal, sous chef in Viale and then Head Chef of Raos – Brad finally got to where he wanted to be: Executive Chef of three restaurants inside the Paris Hotel, within the same corporation as Caesar’s.
As Exec. Chef he had 55 chefs working for him in the three outlets, one Italian, one French cuisine and a 24-hour bistro.
“The best part of the job for me, was juggling all the responsibilities and I thrived off it” he says. The walkie talkie in his top pocket would go off every three minutes, with a never-ending stream of queries and kitchen dramas to resolve – but he says he loved it.
By 2013 Brad was ready for a return to Blighty, where his mum was still living on the Isle of Wight and his sister Tina in the New Forest. He worked on the launch and for the first year at the new Carluccio’s restaurant at Portsmouth’s Gunwharf Quays, and began a new relationship with his now-partner Lucy, who was on the Isle of Wight.
It was only a matter of time before the Island drew him back, initially into a chef role at the Nightingale Hotel as it went through a major re-vamp, and winning it an AA Rosette within three months.
Then came the unexpected opportunity at the Botanic Garden – which could hardly be further away from Caesars Palace!
“I thought the gardens were awesome and having the chance to use some of the produce and more unusual ingredients from the garden in recipes was quite an exciting prospect” he explains.
Brad has subsequently developed a good friendship and working relationship with Head Gardener Chris Kidd, who, he jokes “tells me what’s poisonous and what’s not” from the garden.
“He will walk in the kitchen with a handful of something he’s picked – maybe cactus or Eucalyptus leaves, and I’ll then work them into a dish for the day. It becomes a kind of science!”
The other advantage of this job is that – unlike some of his previous roles – it’s mainly daytime hours, which allow for more family time with Lucy and the family of four children aged from six to 16.
Not that Brad is likely to curb his thirst for change and adventure. He’s already working on another book – this one a Mexican recipe book to reflect the passion for his favourite cuisine, learned at the hands of his Mexican co-chefs in the US.
“I’ve only found one authentic Mexican cuisine restaurant in the UK, and that’s in Henley-on-Thames” he says. “Although I don’t really fancy having my own restaurant these days, a taco stand has got a certain appeal.
“Over the years and after working in all of the various cuisines and restaurants, I would have to say that I would be most content and happy to end up with my own taco stand or truck one day…”