Friday, 1 July 2011

Interview - Silvena Rowe

On the day that Quince opens in the May Fair Hotel, I go to meet the self-acclaimed mad woman Silvena Rowe, the driving force behind this little bit of East in W1.

Walking into Quince on its opening day, there’s a tangible buzz in the air and the unstoppably enigmatic Silvena is making her presence known. Before I even reach the restaurant though, I’m turned away. I came via the May Fair Hotel’s main entrance, which is apparently the wrong thing to have done.

Around the corner on Stratton Street is Quince’s own doorway, which leads to a passageway lined with what must be close to eighty of the restaurant’s namesake fruits. I see now why my route in is important. The heady, rose-like perfume of the quinces immediately evokes only semi-comprehendible notions of exoticism, sun-kissed orchards and vast spice bazaars. Silvena explains it more simply: “That’s the smell of my childhood.”

As she continues to chat, it’s clear that Silvena’s childhood has been pivotal in the creation of Quince. Silvena was born in Bulgaria to a Turkish father and Bulgarian mother in a town close to Istanbul. “It was the Turkish and Ottoman influences that were strongest to me,” she enthuses before noting that “I’ve lived in Britain longer than I have anywhere else, so there’s certainly an influence from this country, too.”

“The purpose for everything.”

Silvena’s first restaurant experience was in Sardinia where she cooked for many years, helping out her brother-in-law. She then moved to London to start her own catering company, and had before long taken on the role of executive chef for the Baltic restaurant group, overseeing Baltic, Wodka and Chez Kristoff restaurants. Her position as resident Queen of Middle Eastern food has led to several cookery books, regular appearances on shows such as Saturday Kitchen and high-profile consultancy work for Waitrose, developing their mezze-inspired Delicameze range.

Silvena speaks of all of these activities with satisfaction, but it’s apparent that they’re no longer her top priority. “This is the first place that’s mine”, she explains, gesticulating around the restaurant and piling proud emphasis on the word ‘mine’. “This has become the purpose for everything,” she continues, “I’ve given my body and soul here, eighteen hours a day for the last however many months...It’s my baby.”

Speaking of Silvena’s passion for her restaurant is an opportune moment for the May Fair Hotel’s General Manager to walk in, making clucking noises and moving his arms in imitation of a chicken. A poultry shortage had been causing headaches ahead of service, but it appears the hotel’s other restaurant The May Fair Bar had accidentally claimed the delivery of Silvena’s chickens as their own. Problem sorted, Silvena grabs a couple of minutes to talk about numbers of covers, average spend per head and a mysteriously named booking which the hotel suspects might be a comic-minded critic. The conversation is a fascinating insight into Silvena’s business brain, and shows she’s very aware of the financial obligations that come with a restaurant in a venue such as the May Fair.

Though Silvena marvels over the location, and calls herself a ‘Mayfair girl’, it’s clear that being based in a hotel isn’t quite ideal. During the course of the interview, she bemoans the draught which comes from the reception door and politely yet firmly reminds a group sitting in the bar area that it is indeed Quince’s bar for paying customers, and not part of the hotel lobby. Her first day nerves come across as she does so, and it’s an endearing sight from a woman who’s just about as bold, outgoing and confident as they come.

“I cook the food I grew up with.”

Reverting to talk of the food which has brought us here, I pull Silvena up on the inconsistency with which both herself and her dishes are often described. I ask whether she considers it to be Eastern European or Middle Eastern, but it turns out that she considers it neither. “Geographically, I am from Eastern Europe and so is what I cook, but that makes everyone think of something more like Russian food, which is not what I do. I like to think of my style as Eastern Mediterranean, as my influences are from countries by the Mediterranean Sea.”

Silvena continues by explaining that the food served is very much the food she ate as a child, merging Bulgarian concepts with the flavours of neighbouring Turkey and the Mediterranean. “The food I grew up with wasn’t as delicate, but it was just as tasty. I cook here like I cook at home, only I ‘restaurantise’ it a little bit to give it more of a refined edge,” she explains, making up verbs as fluidly as she puts together her recipes.

“I would cook the lamb cutlets at home, but I wouldn’t use a tahini and black truffle sauce like I do here,” she continues, referring to a previously devoured plate of delectably charred chops that have already become a menu highlight. “I’m also conscious of people watching their figures or not wanting to go back to the office with indigestion,” she says showing an awareness of her Mayfair locale. “The baklava here have just one crispy layer of pastry and loads of filling. Back home you’d have a lot more pastry and a lot less filling. They’re delicious in different ways.” Served warm, fluffy and studded with fresh orange zest, the Quince baklava are indeed a dangerously easy eat.

“It’s all about art and passion.”

So, where did Silvena learn to cook like this? “I’m completely self-taught. I’m using very traditional Ottoman recipes with a modern European spin.” Of course there’s science involved with cooking, but to me it’s about taste, flavour and colour: it’s all about art and passion.” A case in point for this philosophy is the aforementioned baklava. “I created them to celebrate the love affair between Suleiman the Magnificent and Roxelana. – one of the most prolific loves and scandals in Ottoman history”.

“Most of my knowledge comes from experience and travelling and working with chefs abroad. In many countries like Syria, Jordan, and the Middle East generally”, she says with a touch of sentimentality, “In fact, I’d love to go back there, but I can’t go at the moment because of all the goings-on there.”

It’s not just the food which Silvena is passionate about. It’s the people, too. “I love the interaction,” she explains, and points to a table of very Mayfair looking men in suits. “These guys have come to us just because there was a powercut at Hakkasan. So how lucky are we? We chatted. We even talked about sex, would you believe. They’ve said it was fabulous and they’ll come again. I want to talk to my people. It’s good business sense but it’s also just me”.

“I remember years ago when I went to Gary Rhodes’ restaurant and he came out and he spoke to me. I remember thinking how important that is. To this day he is one of my idols because of that. I’m sure he doesn’t remember it at all, but I remember it and to me it matters”. She gestures towards the men in suits again, “These gentlemen aren’t foodies, but they love to chat to a female chef. I want people to go away and this be part of their conversation. I think I’ve made make their day a bit more interesting”.

“There’s lots of opportunities.”

Though it’s only the first day for Quince, Silvena’s plans are big: “I want to see lots of little Quinces popping up all over the place”. And she wants to set a new precedence for Middle Eastern cooking, as well: “London has lots of Turkish and Lebanese places to eat and people think they know the cuisine, but what is not known is that you can have very light food. I want to make it as sexy as Italian or French food”.

There’s no chance that Silvena is going to give up TV either, “I’m a celebrity chef and I love it,” she says honestly. “There’s a lot of opportunities, which I’d like to take up when I have the time. There’s something in the pipeline in a completely different continent, which I’m very cagey about at the moment. There’s a couple of big things that will come through later in the year”. She’s letting nothing on, but reinforces one more time that all of this comes second. “Quince is my priority right now. I’m going to make it work, and I believe it needs my presence to do so”.

Quince is now open for both lunch and dinner.
The May Fair Hotel, Stratton Street, W1J 8LT.

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