“The dragon rediscovers its fire” – The Gent

The GENT meets Ronnie Kimbugwe, Head Chef at Bel & The Dragon, Cookham.

As you approach its kitchen, and as the seductive aroma of roast suckling pig hijacks your every sense, it is hard to imagine that Bel & The Dragon was until recently unloved, run down and haemorrhaging money.

Yet a transformation has taken place here. And it is not a case of good fortune or a presumed upturn in the economy. It is the arrival of a chef, imbued with self-belief and possessed of an extraordinary talent, that has changed everything. For the good burghers of Cookham, it is no longer burgers tonight.

The man in question is Ronnie Kimbugwe and, ironically, he’s an accidental chef. The script in his childhood head had always said he’d be a doctor, but even at an early age he was creating food. His mum – a serial entertainer who would have 15 for dinner, twice each week – not surprisingly needed help in her kitchen. The young Ronnie started to take care of a course or two. She (with an eye on his career and, no doubt, dinner parties yet to come) suggested he take things further with a proper cooking course.

Ronnie says that something ‘just clicked’ and he enrolled in Culinary Arts Management at University College Birmingham with just £20 to his name. At least he could eat free.

Just as cream rises, so did Ronnie. After finishing his course he landed at the London Hilton and milked the experience for all it could teach him. Then came a leg-up: a job at the legendary Ivy in London.

It was hot, frenzied, full-on – and confirmed to Ronnie that this was what he wanted to do.

After the frying pan, you know what comes next. He joined Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-starred Claridges restaurant. He recalls now:

“It was crazy. Working alongside Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen four days a week was epic. He taught me the core of my cooking knowledge.”

No doubt it also extended his vocabulary.

However, four years in the Ramsay empire, including new restaurant openings and Ramsay’s TV project ‘The F Word’ took its toll. For a man who spends every waking minute preparing beautiful food, this 6’6” chef had nevertheless shrunk to 9 stone. He took a complete break, living life outside the kitchen and fully recharging the batteries.

After his return to the fray (where he was managing 56 people as Senior Sous Chef at Claridges), a long-held dream to work in the countryside came within his sights. The entrepreneur Joel Cadbury offered him the chance to turn around Bel & The Dragon in Cookham.

While competitors in Cookham offered fish & chips, Ronnie presented lobster. Instead of burgers came fabulous steaks from legendary butcher Jack O’Shea. Even the tables got a flash of inspiration; outside, the table tops are actually blackboards that kids can draw on while their parents enjoy some much-needed sustenance.

Roast chicken, suckling pig and Creedy Carver duck are also specialities, and the kitchen is equipped with a 600oC ‘Josper’ Grill, which Ramsay and Heston also swear by.

Ronnie comments: “My food has a modern twist and an element of surprise. But I champion the ingredient and use locally sourced produce. I buy the best produce I can, and cook it to the best of my ability.”

Which, as Cookham has discovered, is considerable.