I just love checking in with myself, looking back a few years and thinking where I am at now. The reason why I love doing it is that it always brings as sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, of knowing that you have made progress and also gives you a chance to marvel at how coincidences can take you where you always wanted to be. These accomplishments can be small or major, but always meaningful to you. Try it, it’s quite eye-opening. The reason I am saying this here is that one of such marvellous moments is happening right now.
Those who know me are aware of my MasterChef addiction. Watching all of the editions religiously for the past 7 or 8 years, I have seen so many incredible chefs and cooks, got inspired to experiment in my own kitchen, honing my knife and presentation skills, but all that time I have never dared to think that one day I might actually get to cook with one of these amazing talents.
Some contestants inspire you and then fade while others really leave a long-lasting impression. The 2015 series of Professional Masterchef featured a contestant – Josephine O’Hare – who immediately evoked my admiration not only because she was the only woman to reach the semi-finals and an absolutely outstanding chef (as confirmed by the culinary giants on the show), but also the way she spoke about food and her love of cooking and feeding inspired a sense of keenness in me. Were it not for KinoVino, I probably would not have had any legitimate reason to get in touch with her (and would likely have sounded like a weird fan and Instagram stalker). So there we were having an incredible dinner (Gill Mellor’s residency at Salon Brixton) and chatting about film, food, cooking and feeding. Back then I was still shying away from the idea of cooking myself for they paying public and felt more comfortable filling the shoes of a curator and supper club host. For one reason or the other, our KinoVino plan has not materialised, while Joey and I continued to keep in touch. And finally, things have fallen into the right places. Joey and I will work together in the kitchen! As challenging as this seems to me, it is a real dream come true (or even ‘I could not even have dreamt about’) moment. Looking back at myself 2 years ago, I definitely marvel at where this new route has taken me and feel a great sense of accomplishment that I am where I should be.
Joey and I share a passion for vegetarian cooking as well as for cultured foods (to me this way of eating is quite natural, having grown up in Soviet and then post-Soviet Russia on a diet of kefir, kvass and fermented vegetables). So when we got together to plan the menu for our upcoming supper club in partnership with Our/London Vodka, the dishes came together so naturally and harmoniously. I really can’t wait to cook with this inspiring woman and learn as much as I can from her. But before we get busy in the kitchen, I wanted to ask Joey a few questions about her approach to food and her journey as a chef.
What inspired you to start cooking?
I’ve always loved food, and particularly big and bold flavours, and my mother was a wonderful cook for us as children growing up. I had a more complicated relationship with food in my late teens and become quite controlling, preferring to cook things myself. Luckily this interest in cooking transformed into something hugely positive, ultimately a career which I absolutely adore.
What was the push to get a professional qualification as a chef?
My first head chef at Rousillion inspired me to further my culinary qualifications with a degree from Westminster Kingsway – I had already been to Ballymaloe at this point, but it was great advice.
Has your cooking style changed and how since you were on MasterChef?
Yes – SO much! My god it would be brilliant to be able to do it again with what I know now. I’ve moved away from ‘cheffier’ food, in favour of lighter, vegcentric cooking. I’ve also discovered the beauty of working with fermented foods in the last two years and these play a role in my dishes.
What attracts you to concept of fermentation and cultured food?
For me fermentation is all about flavour. Yes there are numerous health benefits, and yes it’s a thrifty way to preserve a glut of something, but the complexity of flavour you get from the fermentation process is fantastic. I would go so far as to say that interesting vegetarian cooking, and vegan cooking in particular, relies on fermented foods, as these lend a complex flavour profile which can at times be missed.
What are the key ingredients that you cook with?
Seasonal vegetables are my go-to all the time! Their flavour is superior to anything out of season and it’s a better choice environmentally speaking. While I keep my veggies British and seasonal, flavour influences hail from all over. At the moment I am working with rhubarb almost non-stop, in both sweet and savoury dishes.
What do you cook when you feel lazy?
I love a good ‘fridge-forage salad’ and this is a breeze with jars of fermented vegetables to hand (another reason why I love fermentation!). I’ll use any odds and ends of veggies, throw in some leaves and some ‘smart carbs’ (I tend to have a little cooked spelt/quinoa etc left-over in a Tupperware), a good few handfuls of sauerkraut say, or spicy fermented cauliflower, and dress liberally with olive oil and live cider vinegar. It takes seconds and yet is something far more interesting than a simple raw salad.
As a female chef, do you feel the industry has changed in terms of gender since you started?
Yes, I think so. I think it’s better for us all, not just for women. But as a female cook one of the best changes has been the invention of Polka Pants! Chefs trousers for women which are comfy, functional and flattering!
Why do you prefer working as a freelance chef rather than working in a restaurant?
I like the flexibility of freelance work. At times I miss working with a team but I’m lucky enough to have planned lots of exciting collaborations this summer, and I find this a wonderful way to meet, share, and grow ideas, and to connect with other chefs.
Do you think fermentation is a new trend that will pass or is likely to become a staple in our diet?
Ooh – interesting question. I think the hype might dim slightly but ultimately it’s here to stay. It goes hand in hand with another current food ‘trend’ – a much closer consideration of food-waste – and both have staying power. We’re also only starting to fully understand the extraordinary role that the gut and biome play in our health, and fermented foods with their richness in probiotic goodness tap into this too.
What is the best meal you’ve ever had?
Hands down a recent dinner at L’Enclume with Felicity Spector. It was absolutely mesmerising. Every mouthful was sublime, and the dishes were delicate and beautiful. The connection to nature – and to Simon Rogan‘s farm not a mile away – was celebrated throughout the whole menu. It was head and shoulders above anything else.
Joey and I will cook together at Our/London Vodka distillery on 6&7 July. Click here for more details