You can say home cooking is simple, but it's not an insult

You can't miss Silvena Rowe, she takes over a room. She stands 6 feet tall and has a shock of short, white-blonde hair. She's an admired celebrity chef in London, where she has the restaurant Quince in the very elegant May Fair hotel.

Her food is essentially Middle Eastern, yet it is far from the usual pita bread and kabobs. You have to imagine a love of the exotic: pistachios and cumin, rose petals and lemony sumac. Rowe is the author of Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume: Cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Where did you grow up?

Silvena Rowe
Silvena Rowe

Silvena Rowe: I grew up in communist Bulgaria, which was very shaped by Turkish influences. It still is, even today -- actually more so today. Basically, Bulgaria was part of the Turkish empire, the Ottoman empire, for 500 years. Five hundred years of influences do not wear off easily.

My father was from Turkish Ottoman origin and my mother is Bulgarian. I grew up in a family with amazing, delicious foods -- simple, yet very, very tasty. It was a taste that got you excited because when you're a child, there are very few things that could excite you in communist Bulgaria. There was no Disney, there were no toys, so food for me was a major source of excitement. Maybe I was an unusual child, who knows, but definitely at the time I could write a poem and sing opera about tomatoes, watermelons and peaches.

If you lived in communist days, you were restricted in many, many ways, but the food was abundant. It was something that the communists could never restrict. They could never restrict the growth of the most opulent fruits and vegetables you could imagine because our summers were so hot. The sun was shining so many hours of the day and you had amazing rain.

You had these contagiously sweet watermelons that I crave today. Occasionally I am able to buy them from the Turkish shops around in London when they're imported. The grapes are very special as well. For me, there are no better tomatoes than the tomatoes of the Eastern Mediterranean, Bulgarian and Turkish tomatoes. They were something else.

The Japanese talk about umami. I was brought up with the sheer quality of umami. My taste buds are still missing it. When they find it, they get very excited. It's because of this quality of umami. We never knew it existed then, we just knew that we had some strange satisfaction of eating something very delicious.

LRK: Is the food that you cook today essentially the food that you ate as a child?

SR: I have modernized it a bit because I've lived in the UK now for 25 years, and I wanted to cater for a Western palate. It sounds like a cliché to say you love what you do, but I get excited. I think a lot about it. I imagine how things should taste. I just love to make food that is Moorish that you want to eat and you just don't ever want to stop.

When I grew up, we lived in a block of flats. I would come home from school and these smells would start maybe 5-6 minutes before I actually entered the main entrance. I would be smelling them -- they would be coming from different balconies, from different ends of the block of flats. I would be thinking, "That is vine leaves, here is rice pilaf, there is some sort of kabob, and oh my God, this is like a fresh watermelon with feta cheese."

It was just simple, homemade cooking. I'm trying to do that at the restaurant. You're going to be amazed how many critics -- some of them have been great -- but one or two have been difficult saying, "Quince is all about home cooking." They simplify it; they're trying to be insulting. To me "simple" and "home cooking" are not insulting; they are precious, magical and inspirational. If you can manage to do that, you have done a great job. Let's be honest, there are so many fancy restaurants out there that don't have personality, warmth and passion.

LRK: What does the title of your book mean?

SR: I'm one of these people who my husband says, "Why say something with three words when you can use 300?" I wish I were a woman of very few words, but I am not. I wanted to have a very quick, snappy title for the book, but unfortunately I just couldn't find it.

In books about the Mediterranean, you have the toothless ladies selling herbs, you have the fishermen, you have the seagulls, the fishnets, the heartbroken boat lingering on a beach somewhere. I decided to not do that. I didn't want to use any clichés of the Mediterranean.

For me, purple citrus is not a description of sumac. Sumac is two things, it's purple and it's citrusy. Sweet perfume are the flowers they use. Because I had lost my father, I devoted the book to him -- he was like the sweet perfume of my life.

For me, it has a double meaning. I use a lot of flowers; I guess the Mediterranean people use a lot of flowers in their cooking as well. Even in Turkey, if you go to a regular supermarket, they sell nasturtium flowers, herb flowers, everything.

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