Though her dishes may be light, rarely fried and frequently feature flowers, Silvena Rowe has cultivated a rugged and rampant style to reach the top, as Hilary Armstrongdiscovers
A quick glance at the digital recorder confirms it: we're precisely one minute and two seconds into our interview and Silvena Rowe, true to form, has already brought up the subject of sex. Great food, says the Bulgarian chef, award-winning author and TV personality "is like having really, really good sex. When you have it, you know this is it. You don't know how it happened. It just happened."
She's talking about her talent, her "knack for making taste happen" - something that will be on show at Quince, her first restaurant, opening at London's five-star May Fair hotel this June. For many, who know Rowe from her books or TV appearances (on Saturday Kitchen and This Morning), this will be a first encounter with her cooking.
But her reputation precedes her. Six-feet-two in heels, with peroxide blonde hair and a wonderfully throaty Eastern European accent, she's known for her saucy quotes and ballsy attitude but not yet so much for her talent as a restaurateur. She spent four years at Notting Hill's Books For Cooks and was until 2010 executive chef at the Baltic Restaurant Group. But Quince is different. It's her "baby", her opportunity to "practise what she preaches".
So, what to expect of the woman described in a New York Times profile as a "somewhat maniacal and disorganised visionary"? "I am the way I am," says Rowe. "If I'm slightly rugged and rampant as people say, my food is very much the same - but it's also about flavour."
Quince will bring to life Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume, Rowe's latest cookbook inspired by the food of the eastern Mediterranean and the Ottoman flavours introduced to her by her half Turkish father. There will be roasted king prawns with velvety pomegranate butter and "the most delectable, delicious" star anise flowers; there will be salmon shawarma cooked on a vertical kebab grill modified just for her; there will be falafel "not fat-saturated golf balls but made with beautiful crimson beetroot, crunchy spinach, watercress and swiss chard"; and there will be a 45-day-aged côte de boeuf "with a little pile of the most contagiously delicious za'atar". Rowe likes familiar notions she can "sex up". She likes her dishes to be light, her pilaf to be fat-free and for very little to be fried.
the feminine touch
It's a very female style, she believes. "I was brought up to believe I was a tomboy. I was rugged with scabby knees from my bike. Then suddenly I have this feminine cuisine going on. I don't even know where it has come from. Thirty per cent of the recipes in Purple Citrus use edible flowers. I never set out to do that."
It was her cookbook that got Rowe her big break in opening the restaurant, not the restaurant that got her the book deal as is often the case. In fact, Purple Citrus had a number of big name operators come a-wooing (she won't name names) but it was the May Fair's "alternative luxury" approach that won Rowe over. With designer of the moment Martin Brudnizki ready to sign up, they gave her a blank canvas and said, in her words, "here's the brush". This was just the kind of freedom she sought. "Impatient as I am, it had to be right. I'm a certain age now and won't sell myself short."
Rowe's journey to this point has been anything but conventional. She has done it all from cooking for Tina Turner to food consulting on a David Cronenburg film (2007's Eastern Promises) and winning a Glenfiddich for her 2006 book Feasts. She hasn't worked her way up the ranks in French kitchens; she has learned all she knows from her family, travels and exhaustive reading; and now, comparatively late in her career having already had a family (she has two boys age 18 and 22), she is raring to go, ready to be at the pass 24/7 if necessary.
Inevitably, her non-conformism informs Quince. When hiring staff, for example, she struggled to find good chefs via the conventional channels ("It's like being a woman of 35 looking for a husband. All the good ones are gone."), so has employed on her brigade a handful of ethnic "cooks" with traditional skills that she's working on translating into "modern, elegant, alluring" food. Her senior sous and right hand man, Robert Grandison, on the other hand, has been "properly, properly" through the ranks under Marco Pierre White, Bruno Loubet and Anthony Demetre. At the beginning, she had dreamed of an all-female team but discovered it was "too much to ask for. They're not around. They're not treated well." The team is small at just 13-strong for a 140-cover restaurant so everyone will be multitasking, not sticking religiously to conventional sections. Organisation will be key.
Rowe takes a "firm but fair" approach, laying down a few rules. "I want my recipes followed to the ‘t'. I don't want any sounds in my kitchen, nor shouting, nor music. I have certain rules to abide by and the rest of the time I'm easy," she says. "Most people round here are afraid of me. You'd be afraid of Heston or Gordon. Why would you not be afraid of a female chef who knows how to run her kitchen?"
For all that, she knows her limitations. "My bark's worse than my bite. I would like to speak firmly, but sometimes I say three or four words then on the fifth or sixth back off and that's not a good message. I'm very soft." If that admission sounds like a chink in Rowe's armour, it's not. She's at the stage in life that she's got nothing to prove. She just wants to get on with what she does best: making taste happen. "This has never been a hobby. It has been a life search."
She can discuss sex all she likes. It's not all she has going for her and she knows it. "No one can accuse me of being a blonde airhead."
SILVENA ROWE'S WORDS OF WISDOM
â- Years ago I moaned like hell [about being a woman in the industry]. Then I realised, "No one is listening to you. Shut up and get on with it."
â- Food tells your story. You have to stay true to yourself if you want to be successful.
â- One day, you come to a point in life when you know "this is it. I'm good at it." There's no going back.
â- I like discipline - remember I'm from a communist regime. Everything is written down and followed to the letter. It's like clockwork.
â- I'm about flavour. I believe in things that are not diluted. I want things so concentrated, it's just "wow".
â- A woman has to have balls to survive in this business yet she has to have femininity too. It's good to be a tomboy when you're young, but as you age you want to develop some level of femininity.
â- My principles are very simple. I treat people well and expect them to do the same for me.
â- I am not at all orthodox because I act on impulse. I do what feels right in my heart.
QUINCE AT THE MAY FAIR
Chef-patron Silvena Rowe
General manager Kate MacWhirter
Restaurant manager Luca Fametti
Bar manager Andrea Policella
Designer Martin Brudnizki Design Studio
Capacity 140 covers
Private dining room The Quince Salon, capacity 60 seated/100 standing
Menu Lamb - Ottoman spiced cutlets, tahini, lemon sauce, roasted cumin salt; crispy fried baby squid - Aleppo chilli, cumin and cardamom, Aleppo chilli salt, quince aÁ¯oli; veal and prawn surf and turf skewers - ground veal and prawn, sweet red pepper harissa; Island of Ghia halibut - golden five spice halibut, everything green, leaves, flowers, green harissa.
Price Sharing dishes from £6.50 to £8.50; large dishes from £14.50 to £22
Opens June 2011
Address Quince, the May Fair Hotel, Stratton Street, London, W1J 8LT
020 7629 7777; 020 7915 3892