Silvena Rowe looks down on the other chefs in her kitchen -- physically, that is, not professionally.
In her heels, this Bulgarian-Turkish-born chef tops six feet (1.8 meters) before you even reach the spiky blond hair that crowns her chiseled features. She’s glamorous and scary as she surveys her London restaurant, Quince at the May Fair Hotel.
Rowe previously headed the kitchen at Baltic. She’s worked as a consultant, cooked around the world, published books and made numerous television appearances before finally getting her own place, which opened last week serving eastern Mediterranean dishes. Has she faced discrimination as a woman chef?
“Look at me,” she says, arching her back and thrusting her chin forward. “I’m six foot, blonde, in your face. Not many people dare to stand up against me. There have been certain comments thrown here, there and everywhere, but nothing directly to my face and they know not to do it, you know.
“It’s a very physical job. I operate like a man in the kitchen, I really do. I create this amazing feminine cuisine but you do need discipline and I have a great team. They are all fabulous men and they work for me, and they work with me.”
Does she shout at them?
“No, because it’s an open-plan kitchen,” and diners can hear what’s going on, she says in the European accent that makes her sound part-Bond girl, part-Bond villain. “If I want to, I’ll take them down in the basement.” So that’s OK then.
The dishes at Quince are light and seasonal, yet with strong and distinctive flavors. Lamb cutlets come with tahini -- a creamy paste made from ground sesame seeds -- and za’atar, a blend of spices and seeds. King prawns are served with pomegranate butter and anise flowers. Labneh (a kind of yogurt) is made with paprika oil and nasturtium flowers za’atar.
“I’ve lived in this country a lot longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in the world,” says Rowe, who declines to give her age (and I daren’t ask a second time). She was born in Bulgaria, has a British husband and two sons, aged 18 and 23.
“I’m half-Ottoman Turkish, half-Bulgarian and mostly really British nowadays,” she says. “The food from my childhood was magical. It was food that made you so happy to be alive, that made me really ecstatic. I remember going on holidays and instead of writing about the weather, the sun, the sea, I would send my grandparents a postcard about the food.”
The restaurant is designed by Swedish-born Martin Brudnizki, whose projects include Soho Beach House, Miami, and the Club at the Ivy. The colors are warm and there’s a large open kitchen along one side.
“I said to Martin I want to create a kitchen that’s like my boudoir, because I’m a woman,” Rowe said. “Look at this sexy kitchen.”
Passion is one thing and success often another. Rowe faces competition from Nopi, the new restaurant of Israeli-born Yotam Ottolenghi, whose modern cooking encompasses Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines. Quince also follows openings from well-known male chefs, including Jason Atherton (Pollen Street Social) and Marcus Wareing (Gilbert Scott).
Is she nervous about the competition?
“When you put it like that, obviously I am very nervous. You’re putting me in the category of some amazing men. I have a very unorthodox, different form of training and my food stands its own ground. I rely very heavily on taste and texture and if you don’t get my food, then it’s not worth your coming here.”
Quince is at the May Fair Hotel, Stratton Street, London, W1J 8LT. Information: +44-20-7915-3892 or http://www.quincelondon.com/
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)