Q&A: Allegra McEvedy on new restaurant Albertine and what she loves about cooking
Having co-founded Leon and run her own restaurant Blackfoot, Allegra McEvedy has returned to a restaurant with a special story. She tells us about its history, and how cooking was a form of coping after the loss of her mother
There's no doubt that food – both cooking it and eating it – is highly evocative. But for Allegra McEvedy, co-founder of Leon and former chef-patron of Blackfoot, it's even more so. She's recently returned to Albertine, the Shepherd's Bush restaurant owned by her mother in the 1970s, where she's given the kitchen a much-needed revamp. Here, she tells us what to expect, why returning to Albertine made so much sense, and how cooking helped her deal with the loss of a parent.
What's the story at Albertine?
Back in 1978 my mum and her cousin bought an old chicken shop and turned it into a francophile wine bar, which was extraordinary for the time and the area. They chose that neighbourhood because they had a few friends who worked at the BBC who were always moaning about how there was nowhere to spend their very large expense accounts, in the days of expense accounts, and so they set up this wine bar.
They ran it together for a few years, then the cousin took it over, and then it eventually ended up in the hands of a chap called Giles. The years went by, and when Giles came to retire, I managed to raise the money to take it off him through friends and family, and I put in a restaurant.
How does it differ to its 1970s incarnation?
It looks fairly similar, but obviously the menus are very different. We found a very early 1978 wine list – all French and a rioja that was very adventurous for the time – but now we've got wines from all over the world, including England and places that you wouldn't have thought could produce wine. It's now become a three-floor operation, whereas historically it was only ever one.
And the food?
It was very much a wine bar with a few bits and pieces on the bar back in the day, and now we still have those bits and pieces on the bar, and we have a sausage roll du jour, because I like silly things like that. Yesterday's was fennel and chilli, and the day before was with five spice and peanuts. Then there's the à la carte restaurant menu, five and five, and a bar menu that's got everything from chicken liver paté to smoked trout with beetroot and horseradish and moules dijonnaise. There's a slightly 70s feel to some of the food we're doing, although I'm not sure whether it was intentional. I think it feels like the right food for us to be doing.
What's your favourite dish on the menu?
Favourite dish on the menu – the simple things. There's a really simple torn roast chicken salad on at the moment. With these fantastic winter tomatoes that come from Sicily, really thick-skinned but really sweet and lots of flavour.
Do you feel added pressure because of your history with Albertine?
A kitchen is run like an army, but within that you can be an individual
I feel so at home there, and I always have done. I went on to become a chef, but it was my first experience of a commercial kitchen. I'd come home and my mum wasn't there, I'd dump the school bag, trot up the road, and go sit on a high stool in the Albertine kitchen, which is exactly the same it is now, and watch my mum make soup and do my homework on the side. There are real memories there for me.
My daughter is the same age now as I was then, just a little bit younger. So the first time she walked in the door – her nanny walked her up because these days you can't walk up on your own – I was standing at the stove, just as I'd watched my mum. I had this really freaky, out of body experience.
When did you decide you wanted to become a chef?
I just always did. I think the Albertine years somehow went into me – when I did my O-Levels, everyone went off afterwards to do a bit of work experience at their dad's newspapers or their mum's law courts or chambers, but I somehow convinced my mum to let me do two weeks at the greasy spoon at the end of the road, serving out double eggs, chips and beans.
I'd always be drawn to the cheffing life. I didn't go to university, I did a few not-very-brilliant jobs and then I found cooking. I loved the life and I loved the people and I loved the bonkers hours.
When you experience a big loss in your life, you do go through some really strange emotions and one of them can be a bit destructive, especially when you're teenage – to lose your parent is pretty massive. I think I had a very strong, explosive reaction to that, and it went on for a few years.
In kitchens, at least at that time, you were allowed to be a bit off the wall. You had to be there, you had to be on time – it's run a bit like an army – but within that structure, you were allowed to be an individual, and a slightly maverick one at that. It was very nice, it was very refreshing, after going through a very high-pressured, single-sex, best girls' school in Britain or whatever, to go and be standing next to a guy from the Ivory Coast who couldn't speak English but my god could he make a great curry. The egalitarianism of it really worked for me
Which chefs have been most influential on your cooking?
The chef that I single-handedly learnt most from was Rose Grey at the River Café. Not the easiest of ladies but a phenomenal cook. Every detail was crucial – she had such an incredible palate, everything mattered. She taught me simplicity, quality of ingredients, that less-is-more thing.
1 Wood Ln, Shepherd's Bush, W12 7DP; albertine.london