Maria Elia is the new head chef at the Gallery Dining Room at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. It opens next week (14 April) as contract caterer Vacherin's first public restaurant. Yesterday (9 April) Elia's first book The Modern Vegetarian was published. She spoke to Chris Druce
Caterer How do you feel about having your first book on the shelves?
Maria Elia Really proud. It's been an extremely interesting and lengthy process, with plenty of ups and downs. I was originally approached by the publisher Kyle Cathie not long after I left Delfina Restaurant in October 2007. I had some profile already from TV, and the publisher asked me if I'd consider writing a vegetarian cookbook, although I'm not vegetarian myself. I'd actually accepted a job heading up a vegetarian restaurant destined for London's Brick Lane, so I thought: perfect.
Caterer Did it go smoothly?
ME Not exactly. Although I'd been for three interviews and all the heads of department at the new restaurant had been recruited, it turned out they didn't actually have a premises. We spent nine months preparing for an opening that didn't happen and were made redundant in July 2008. It was a huge shock, and it also meant I was trying to write my book without an commercial kitchen.
Caterer What were you trying to achieve with The Modern Vegetarian?
ME I was trying to write a vegetarian cook book that appeals to people that are not necessarily vegetarians. I think a lot of the public view being vegetarian as laborious and boring. Eating out can be dull as well, as the only thing that ever seems to be on offer to vegetarians is mushroom risotto. I wanted to entice people to eat vegetarian food with a collection of recipes that are tasty and appealing.
Caterer How did the Vacherin job come about?
ME I met one of the directors, Phil Roker, last September at Billingsgate Market in London at a London Food Link event. He asked me what I did and I said "nothing much!". I took his card and thought nothing more of it, thinking Vacherin was probably some big corporate company. They then called me to invite me in for a chat and I realised the business was anything but.
Caterer Whitechapel Gallery reopened on 4 April, how did it go?
ME Really well, it was very exciting and we had lots of visitors. We're actually running a 50-seat café on the third floor, which we'll also use to cater for events. The 40-seat Gallery Dining Room opens on 14 April and will serve lunch and dinner every day other than Monday and Sunday evening. I have my sous chef Daniel Ferreira with me from Delfina and I couldn't ask for a better chef, he often knows what I'm thinking before I do. We'll be serving a seasonal menu featuring British produce, although not necessarily in a straightforward style.
- Thanks to publisher Kyle Cathie, we have five copies of The Modern Vegetarian to give away. E-mail email@example.com with your full postal details and "Modern Vegetarian Giveaway" in the subject line before 20 April. Five winners will be picked at random. Caterer readers can also buy the book at the special price of £12.99 inc. free p&p (UK mainland only). To order your copy, ring: 01903 828503, quoting ref. KC CH/MV, or e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org