marți, 18 februarie 2014

Meet Rachel Sargent

I wrote so many times about how great the London Street Atelier and Bistro are and I think it's time to meet the woman behind this successful and innovative concept. Here's the story of Rachel Sargent about hard work, sorrow, dreams turned into plans and plans turned into reality: 

"My first cooking memory was as a four year old mixing up fresh yeast for bread with my Mum. My Mum’s extraordinary creative  skills have been my biggest influence – I don’t put pearl barley in bony stews or grow all my own herbs and vegetables but I do have a pretty bad leftover habit which in the main is a good thing but (the redcurrant jelly leftover pulp and pips body scrub) can get out of hand. Somehow I followed a career in finance always cooking for friends & family, always cooking at midnight always cooking gifts of jams and chutneys until triggered by  personal loss the light bulb came on and I decided to follow my dream.  


My first cooking memory is standing on a chair with a shiny blue apron (shiny was big back then) and mixing up fresh yeast to make whole meal bread with my Mum-  I was four. Mum grew  all manner of
 vegetables and herbs, scoured hedgerows for berries, woods for mushrooms and bottled and canned everything in sight – she still does. 
While my friends took white “Sunblest” bread sandwiches to school, crisps and cola I had to endure the embarrassment of eating my brown (“dirty”) sandwiches, dried apricots and nuts.  This sad packed lunch situation pretty much summed up British food in the 1970s.

I was taught to cook with a time line and a plan (after all Mum was a teacher of professional chefs) but encouraged to experiment, to create and I was allowed to fail (I’m still upset about my home made chocolate bar not setting age 10). I was expected to cook a family meal once a week. I learnt how to cook with (precious) leftovers and on a tiny budget when we had no money…which was quite often. Mum took me along as her helper to cookery demonstrations at cold village halls where  we helped the Milk Marketing Board spread the word about all nine British cheeses. She bought olive oil (“does she have earache dear?”) in tiny vials from Boots the Chemist and she put wine not gravy granules  in beef stew.

Holidays were always camping and always in France.  Mum, sporting an orange tie dyed headscarf and hoop earrings, would shop at the gutsy open air markets (a revelation) not speaking a word of French but chattering excitedly to all. Live crabs in Concarneau, drunken smelling melons in Marseilles, giant stuffed tomatoes in Nice,  moules in Quimper, sweet jambon in Biarritz and huge never ending plateaux of fruits de mer with funny seaweed which we loved to “pop” with our fingers, in St Jean de Luz and a cheese so rank and runny it had a real live maggot crawling out of it – magic! We were expected to try wine (with water) to develop our palates and I remember my little sister then age two snoozing off after inhaling the vapours at the Martell plant happily.

As soon as they could my parents sent me off exploring on holidays of my own. At thirteen I spent an entire summer in the Basque country of Spain and I kept a diary of what I ate: huge chunks of liver “that hung right over the plate”, fresh sardines at the sardine fiesta “I ate seven but Ana managed eight”,  cola mixed with red wine “we drank Kalimotxo with Ignacio”, tuna and chick pea stew “Ana’s mum makes it in the morning so it tastes better in the evening”, membrillo with cheese “I will make this when I get home because its my favourite” , tortillas in bread “we took the omlettes in bread up the mountain but they don’t put butter in the sandwiches” and fresh crayfish “we caught quite a few but I was bitten by a fly and now my ankle is swollen”.  I still adore the hearty honest flavours of Spanish food and yes I do indeed make my own membrillo. 

The following year I was sent to France and although it was more familiar I was entranced with making the “fromage frais” every day with fresh milk on the window sill and with the wine cellar of my French pen friend’s father.  Her mother was thrilled because while her own daughter was fussy and fickle I not only ate everything, including prunes, but I helped in the kitchen and wrote down the recipes too.  I can still taste the “epinards a la crème”  the “riz au veau” and the “tarte aux pommes” -there was no better introduction to French classical food (or French boys but that is another story!)

Of boys I was bored. I had plenty of them being the only girl at a Boy’s school between the age of sixteen and eighteen.  I had wanted to study engineering at University and I was at a Girl’s school with limited science compared to the results and good university places the Boy’s enjoyed up the road.  So I had petitioned the local education authority, gone to visit them by bus and explained my belief that I did not have an equal opportunity and could I go to the Boy’s school please? It was around this time my lifelong battle with chronic migraines started…entire days of pain and a brain so addled that at times it was hard to speak let alone think.  I put on a brave face….still do.

At University in London I spent way more time exploring food markets, esoteric shops and cooking than I did attending lectures. I was busy discovering authentic Italian delis (the taste of those sausages still alive in my mind today), Greek shops in North London for taramasalata and vine leaves,  Turkish kebab joints, the Chinese supermarkets of SoHo , the curry houses and market of Brick Lane, “Little Spain” where I could buy dried cod and eat little custard tarts and my favourite Iranian shop with the fruit and veg impeccably arranged, polished and freshened with water. I cooked for anybody and everybody that would eat my food. My extravagances were a Le Creuset casserole dish and a copy of   “Larousse Gastronomique” while I took great pleasure in cooking delicious food from humble ingredients: chicken livers, lentils, chick peas, pasta and tinned tomatoes featured heavily.

Having graduated I started a serious career in a serious company for I was bright, educated and expected to use my brain, make a contribution to society and generally be sensible and responsible. I guess eldest children often are.  I liked the competition, I liked commerce, I liked my colleagues and I especially liked partner lunches (where I could choose the restaurant…something that would consume me for days) but accountancy bored me rigid.  It was however a fantastic chance to travel abroad and explore a part of the world that had always fascinated and scared me: Eastern Europe.  Maybe it was reading too many books on post war history and the Cold War; “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit”, “I Am David”, “The Silver Sword” were well thumbed and then I precociously started on Solhenitsyn’s  Cancer Ward age 13 and so it continued.  I needed to get the whole thing out of my system.  I needed to go and make a difference and so in 1994 there I was in Belarus:  working for one of the Big Four Accounting firms and starting to understand and unravel gaping cultural divides and expectations.

I first visited Bucharest in a hot and dusty June in 1994 while working in Kishinev and still remember trying to find restaurants but settling for room service at the legendary (for all the wrong reasons) “Hotel Bucuresti”.  Still I wasn’t escorted out of the premises for meeting clients in the lobby so that had to be  a good thing. And my colleague and I found a retired trapeze artist named “Coco” whose commentary on our relationships and what we were doing wrong was almost as entertaining as her unorthodox exercise moves.  My Romanian teacher (a retired professor) shared blow by blow accounts of her trysts with her four lovers.  Bucharest was hot and steamy and I was learning a lot  but I was eating revolting cardboard cheese sandwiches every day for lunch.  And so I started visiting the food markets and everything changed.

As I worked around the region, I was privileged to work with some of the brightest and most open minded minds with a hunger to learn and earn their right to play on an international playing field.  Never mind the deals, the “firsts” in auditing regional banks to International Standards, the satisfied clients and the overnighters pulled to finish a report, those pale into insignificance compared to nurturing such talent.  I have to pinch myself sometimes to believe that I played a small part in opening doors (in fact almost being fired in the process but that would have been a small price) so a sister could receive life saving medical treatment in another country,  believing in a dream to attend Harvard Business School and watching it come to fruition,  clapping from the sidelines as the  first ACCA qualified accountant from Moldova went on to a top US business school, visiting a girl who dreamed about going to Wharton in Philadelphia and hearing how she did it and many more.

But I was able to do this and pass on the mentoring as I had the good fortune to work for and then with in my own company an extraordinary person who was my best friend, my mentor, my chief supporter and a rock. Geoff not only was one of the most intellectually gifted people I met but he combined it with being kind and kindness is not always in plentiful supply in the world of finance.  He had a way of seeing things from 360 degrees, of being reasonable and being patient…very patient.  In fifteen years of working together we never had a fight merely “strong opinions” and he never said “I told you so” no matter how many times I tripped up having failed to heed his counsel.

When I was incapacitated in 2003 with a brain hemorrhage that I was lucky to survive it was Geoff who managed the recovery.  While I fought inner demons of feeling as if I had let people down and left my colleagues unsupported   he stepped in and highlighted what a stroke of management genius it was giving them all so much responsibility.  While I fought the frustration of being physically unable to walk far, sleeping and sleeping so much it was incredible, not reading, not listening to music and  much less use a computer he joked how many people would love to have the opportunity to be so lazy - himself included.  I know now that he spoke to family and friends and that together they “plotted” how to support the unwilling patient make a recovery.  Recover I did with only mild side effects, ironically one being the inability to stand the sound of glasses clinking!

I had always been interested in healthy food and natural food but after this episode I started to see food as a way to nurture, love and recover yourself.  I started to listen to my body and is it a coincidence that I love eating fats and the brain is 60% fat? Who knows but I do believe in a few fundamentals and these shape how I cook: Good food rebuilds us, Nutrient rich food fuels us, Favourite foods make us happy, Sharing food creates memories and Cooking is an act of love.

By this time I was living and working in Istanbul a city that oozes food and hospitality at every labyrinthine turn. Turkish food is rich, varied and extraordinary.  Turkish people are a food obsessed nation in all the right ways: recipes are guarded jealously, regional dishes dominate and there is no tolerance for second rate food.  From the smallest street car serving rice and chick peas, to the “durum” stall to the artichoke man cleaning artichokes and serving them in small bags of acidulated water  (is that not civilized?) to the “kokorec” stalls to the “meyhane” to the freshest fish caught in the Bosphorous to the pudding shops to the patisseries and the hand made “yufka” paper thin pastry to the spice bazars the nuts and the dried fruits …this list could go on and on forever.  The kilos I gained are testament to some of the most wonderful food I have eaten in my life.

And so I returned to Bucharest and to finance.  I was  always cooking for friends, making jam at midnight in my hectic life and baking cakes for special occasions for people.  Many times my friends asked why I didn’t do something in food and I never took them seriously or considered the idea…follow what you do obsessively as a hobby full time? what kind of mad idea was that?  Finally, prompted by one of those friends emailing others about my bread and being forced suddenly to make thirteen loaves of bread one Saturday morning, on a whim I decided to start baking every Saturday and to see if people would come and buy the stuff.  And they did!  Although it was an exhausting rush and I would often go to the market myself and carry back heavy bags of all kinds of great things I loved it.

Geoff encouraged me every step of the way and one day he was able to come to one of my Saturday bakes and afternoon teas and was able to see for himself what I was doing. And then a couple of weeks after that he died.  Just like that…he was gone.   My life as it was crumbled apart.  But he had only been a positive influence in my life so I gave thanks I had known him and thought about what to do.  Life was short as had been painfully demonstrated to me and we only have one.  I decided to try and follow my dream.

And so I managed to extricate myself and handover the financial consulting business to people way more capable than me and I set up a restaurant.  The first location was a disaster. I had lovely and wonderful reviews but nobody could find the place.  What a painful lesson that was.  It was with a heavy heart I closed it and thought I had lost my dream.  I felt terrible. But slowly that flame or that streak of craziness burned again and I was able to find a new and better location and importantly work again with some of my original team.  The administrative burden is heavy on small start ups and sometimes I felt swamped and  wanted to give up but something inside me kept going…insanity…stubbornness…who knows what? So here I am…serving home made food, creating new recipes, making everything from scratch, using local ingredients in different ways and making Romanian ingredients “sexy” – for this is a country rich in heavenly produce . And when I see smiles on people’s faces or receive a “thank you” its all worth it." 

Now that you know Rachel's story, go and visit her kingdom on Putul lui Zamfir 15. You must try all her mouthwatering recipes!