The Ruined Garden café and restaurant in Fez is now open and in a very short space of time the beautiful garden setting has become a favourite haunt for locals and visitors alike. During the recent Fes Festival they were providing fine food, refreshing drinks and an air of tranquility for up to 90 visitors a day. The View from Fez caught up with the force behind the venture, the affable renaissance man, Robert Johnstone.
Back in September 2010 when Robert Johnstone first saw the space beside Riad Idrissy it was not a pretty sight. In his words, what he saw was "a rubbish dump". Yet, with remarkable foresight, he and his business partner, John Twomey, knew there was something to be uncovered.
"As soon as I saw it cleared," Robert recalls, "I could see the bones of the place. There were 12 broken columns, so we bought 12 big pots to put on them to give a sense of formality."
Formality it might have had, but Robert and John still had no clear vision of what the ruin might become. "Originally John and I didn’t have the idea to make a restaurant; only to offer private dining. The idea was to make the space as beautiful as possible".
The Ruined Garden project brought together all Robert's skills.
"I had always been a gardener, and I trained as a designer at Manchester Metropolitan University doing a degree in 3D design. When I finished my studies, I was given funding by the Craft Council to set up in business in Manchester. I did that for four years, making table top sculptures in resin. During that time I also worked at a French restaurant called Beaujolais. I was the greedy waiter. One day a chef was ill and they asked me to step in, because I was the one who had the most interest in the plates. It was a natural progression because my mother was a chef, so good food and dining was something we always did as a family".
After chefing in Manchester, Robert decided he needed some “front of house” polish, so he moved to London and started working at J.Sheekey – a fish restaurant owned by the owners of The Ivy. When the business was sold and the owners opened The Wolseley a café-restaurant in the grand European tradition, located in London's Piccadilly, Robert became the Reservations Manager.
“I wasn’t running things. There were 140 staff and I was the man who said 'yes', or 'no' - very politely.” He worked there for seven years.
Mike Richardson and Robert met as students in Manchester, and have remained friends. And it was at The Ivy that he and Mike became friends with a regular client, John Twomey, owner of the popular Ten Bells pub in Spitalfields. This was the point at which all the cast in the drama came together. Richardson would leave to start the now famous Café Clock in Fez and Twomey and Johnstone set out to purchase and develop Riad Idrissy.
When Robert started work on The Ruined Garden he was confronted with a number of challenges, not all of them bureaucratic. On the horticultural front the immediate questions were: how do you get soil here? How do you find a plant that will do well here?
It took a while to visualize the garden. "Garden centres here in Fez are supplied by garden centres in Rabat, so there is only a narrow palate. So I grew a lot from seed; lovage, rue, tomatoes", Robert says. "We are on the edge of hardiness for what I want to grow and the thing that’s different about this climate is that it feels like Spring, but it takes a long while for the nights to warm up".
|Najia Elamrani in the outdoor kitchen|
The secret treasure behind the cuisine on offer at the Ruined Garden is Najia Elamrani. Once she was the housekeeper for the riad's former owners but now she works with Robert creating the dishes for the restaurant. "Although most Moroccan women can cook, we are very lucky to find someone who was prepared to be innovative," Robert says. "We have a good relationship. She will make something and ask me, is this good? What should we change?"
Once the garden began to take shape, Robert started running private dinners, but as he explains, "I always wanted to do a café that served Moroccan street food. We’ve adapted that, such as with the “popcorn macoudas”.
There is no cultural preciousness about the food, Robert says. "For example our salada tafya - caramelized onion, apricot, cinnamon and chickpeas - we serve as a starter or with the lamb mechoui."
And then there is the Ruined Garden's extraordinary refreshing take on the bagel - svenge with smoked salmon and an egg. "I always wanted a smoker, and when we were developing the chimney it seemed like a good opportunity to make one. I noticed (at the place that made the svenge) that sometimes people asked for them to be half-cooked, and wanted to know why. It’s because they take them home and put an egg in them. I always liked the idea of salmon, carbohydrate, eggs and things".
|1,900 year old recipe - Chicken Volubilis - with fresh figs and Moroccan salads|
|Super-tasty sardines and Moroccan salads|
But is it "Moroccan food"? Robert is quick to respond, "We are offering Modern Moroccan food – same ingredients, different treatment".
As the popularity of The Ruined Garden grew, so did the need to have an outdoor kitchen. During the last Fes Festival they opened the 50 seat capacity restaurant and gave the new kitchen a test run. It worked superbly. "It’s been really nice since we’ve opened the restaurant. People staying in the riad want to be in this space. I don’t guide people in any way, but people tend to come down to where there’s a bit of life".
There are also a number of discrete spaces in the garden where those wanting privacy for intimate conversation can relax amidst the beautiful surroundings. Apart from the occasional strolling oud player there is (thankfully) no background music being played.
|Just the place for an intimate conversation|
The View from Fez does not believe that for a moment!
Open to the public every day except Wednesday from 12 PM to 9.30 PM.
Closed during August.
The Ruined Garden
Text: Sandy McCutcheon
Photographs: Suzanna Clarke