The MasterChef: The Professionals judge is poised to open her first restaurant, Mere, in Charlotte Street. We grabbed a few minutes with her to talk about food, family and Fitzrovia…
Q. What drew you to Fitzrovia? How would you describe the vibe there?
A. We used to live not far from here, near the British Museum. We’ve spent a lot of time walking around this area and eating here in the past. The vibe is that of a proper neighbourhood; it’s quite quirky as well. You almost feel like you’re not in central London. Charlotte Street already has an amazing selection of restaurants, so it’s a really great place for us to be launching Mere.
Q. How has the London restaurant scene changed during the time that you’ve lived and worked in the capital?
A. I’ve been in London 16 years and I’ve seen a huge change, mainly the switch to a more casual style of dining. The focus is on stripped back service. You’ve got some really cool places around this area, like Bubbledogs just down the street where you can eat hot dogs, drink Champagne and listen to loud music. It’s really cool. I want to find somewhere in the middle, not completely casual. I guess Mere will be at the higher end of relaxed dining.
Q. How important was food to family life when you were growing up?
A. Food and family is everything in our culture. Everyone eats together; no-one is allowed to eat in front of the television! Everyone sits down at the table together and has a proper conversation. The same rules apply in our home now.
Q. Who or what inspired your ambition to become a chef?
A. Travel. I really wanted to travel the world and learn about different cultures. I’ve always loved cooking; my mother taught me from a young age and I really enjoyed being in the kitchen. It’s where all the family used to hang out.
Q. What impact has Masterchef: The Professionals had on your career?
A. I’d say it’s had a huge impact on my public life. The programme has a huge following, bigger than I realised when I first started. I think it’s given me a public profile, which in turn encourages people to come and eat at the restaurant.
Q. When did the idea of opening your own restaurant first take seed?
A. It goes back twenty-five years – I think most chefs aspire to open their own restaurant and I was no different to the rest.
Q. What advice would you give to couples who are thinking of opening a restaurant together?
A. I’m not one to give advice to other couples [laughs]. If you want to do it, just do it!
Q. Who are your culinary heroes? Whose career do you most admire?
A. Clare Smyth [former chef patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay] is an amazing woman in the industry. For me, she’s one of the best talents that we have in British gastronomy at the moment. I’m super excited to see her open her own restaurant in 2017. We’ve had the likes of the amazing Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay, who have been a huge influence on how dining has evolved in the UK; they’ve done great things. Of course, I’m a huge fan of the Roux brothers’ legacy as well. And I love the Roka brothers in Spain, and Alain Ducasse, who I think is an extraordinary chef. Plus, it’s great that there’s so much young talent coming through in Britain – we’re inundated.