Maria Elia is attractive, petite and has a smile that seems a permanent fixture. Her warm and relaxed demeanour is indeed a genuine facet of her character, but so is her consummate professionalism and thirst for excellence. She is a successful chef and she just happens to be a woman.
I asked Maria Elia about her childhood memories. “My earliest memory is in fact of food. My dad had a restaurant in Richmond, Surrey, and I remember being there and tasting things, absorbing the atmosphere. Mum, who ran front-of-house, would pick me up from nursery and take me there and I would sit in the kitchen and watch him cook. He would let me do little jobs like grating the parmesan, or feeding potatoes into the rumbler, and at four years old that had a great effect on me.”
What were Maria’s most memorable childhood meals? “I can think of some awful dishes!” Maria laughs. “My sister used to make chili con carne from a packet. Mum used to make shepherd’s pie and marrowfat peas. My best friend at school, her mum used to make a really nice shepherd’s pie with baked beans in it. My auntie in Wales used to make corned beef Cornish pasties – I loved going to Wales! When we were home my dad used to bring in a take-away of souvlaki in a lovely pitta bread – my favourite!”
Maria’s dad is Greek Cypriot and his culinary heritage has provided more food memories. “We would go to Greek weddings on Sundays because my dad always knew someone who was getting married. At the reception I would marvel at all those tables full of food! The best bit was at the end, when we left, and we were all given a little bag of sugared almonds or macaroons, and mum would give me hers, too – I loved that! So on Mondays my school lunchbox would always contain things like Greek stuffed vine leaves and those macaroons.
“So I’m lucky that I had a Greek dad and an English mum. She would cook traditional dishes like roast dinners, and my dad Greek meals, so I got the best of both worlds. I think that what you eat as a child shapes your appetite for the rest of your life. These days, of course, we are exposed to many more influences. My dad wasn’t from a family of chefs, but in his village in the mountains everyone knew how to cook the local produce, the pigs, goats and sheep – there were no ‘chefs’.”
Did having a chef and restaurant-owner father prepare Maria Elia for her hectic life in the professional kitchen? “There were times when my dad was not running a restaurant, and instead he was cheffing for somebody else or he had a butchery round, so I was always exposed to food and restaurants, late hours, everyone always at work, busy – I liked that. When I left school I was interested in taking a hotel management degree course, but I was a bit impatient and didn’t want to wait five years before I could be doing what I wanted to do. I found a scholarship at Trusthouse Forte, who at the time had the Café Royal, and a hotel in the City called City Yacht – fine-dining establishments. So I was really lucky to be one of eight taken on that year.
“I knew, at sixteen, that front-of-house was just as important as the kitchen, having done some waitressing, and I wanted to be qualified in both. I went to college, I think, with my eyes wide open, although the cookery part of the course was quite hard: they wanted to teach us, say, the French way which would take four hours, whereas in a restaurant kitchen you learn how to do it in maybe one hour!
“As an apprentice, of course I didn’t earn much, but then I was always at work: pushing the fat from saddles of lamb through the mincer, cutting the fins off what seemed like 250 trout with iron-age scissors that gave you blisters! You couldn’t complain, or show any signs of weakness, or else…
“In 1998, while I was working as a sous-chef at Delfina, I was lucky enough to get a stage at El Bulli, and that had a big impact. When I walked in I thought, ‘This is the show-kitchen, where’s the real kitchen? Oh, this is the kitchen!” I’d never seen a place like this before – all rounded edges, induction hobs, and there was no gas! Chef Ferran Adrià told me, ‘Nothing’s impossible; just open your eyes and start to think outside the box. Everything you thought you knew, throw out of the window, this is a different way. If it works and it tastes good, why not?’
“So when I came back from Spain I was made head chef at Delfina. I wanted to start afresh; I was trying all sorts of things, saying, ‘Taste this, taste this…’, and my goal was to create ‘food with no boundaries’. At the same time I became aware of the concerns over the sustainability of fish stocks around the UK. I looked at the balance between that and the air-miles involved in bringing fish like barramundi in from Australia, and decided that it was better to introduce guests to more unusual and plentiful fish, rather than giving them fish that they might eat at home.
“I was there for ten years, and every week was different. We turned Delfina into a dining ‘destination’. When it changed hands it seemed like the end of an era. I continued to work for them for a while, but I went for an interview for another job, and we were about an hour through the interview before I learnt that it was going to be a vegetarian restaurant! This would be a really big challenge. I went on holiday to Morocco and was really excited by the food there; I filled a notebook with ideas. When I returned, I found an email from Kyle Cathie inviting me to write my first cookbook – and it was to be vegetarian! (The Modern Vegetarian, published April 2009.) That was a great coincidence, and I got quite excited about the idea of the vegetarian restaurant. I worked out menus, costed everything, but in the end that project ran into planning permission problems.
“While doing a tour of Billingsgate fish market I was introduced to somebody connected with the Whitechapel Gallery; later I got a phone call asking if I would consider opening up the Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room and Café. Things do happen for a reason. Every morning we met in the boardroom to discuss things as a group, which was a totally different way of working for me, and it was refreshing. Whitechapel was more ‘modern British’, with great seasonal produce, totally different, so I took it as far as I could.” The restaurant received positive reviews and was awarded 2 AA Rosettes along with a mention in the Michelin Guide.
“I did some consultancy work while writing my book, and have been working with the Joseph stores at Joe’s Café helping to rebrand it. I finished my latest book last week, and now I feel like writing another one, and perhaps opening another restaurant!”
What kind of profile would you envisage for your own restaurant? Maria Elia muses on the future: “It needs to be pitched at the right price – à la carte at £28 for a main course is not going to do it. I want people to sit down in my restaurant, take the first mouthful and say, ‘This really is something! Wow, I’ve never tasted this before! I want to come back.’
“Working at a restaurant I normally use the kitchen door, of course, but at least once a day I walk in the front door to see the place as customers see it.” And I look forward to one day walking through that door to Maria’s own restaurant, where I will be assured of a delightful meal with just a hint of Greek herbs and a huge portion of warm hospitality.
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018