Leon co-founder and chef Allegra McEvedy talks healthy, sustainable food, how Leon was at the forefront of the quinoa trend and her top west London restaurants
Allegra McEvedy lives and works by the philosophy that there are more ways for a chef to make a difference than by winning Michelin stars, and that good food should be available to everybody. She admits she was kicked out of St Paul’s School ‘for being a loose cannon and literally escorted out of the building’ and had a few years ‘in the Wilderness’ before her late Dad, a consultant psychiatrist, suggested with great perspicacity that she go into restaurants. ‘From the start I loved the fire and brimstone and creativity,’ Allegra recalls. She worked her way through a clutch of London’s top restaurants including the River Cafe and The Groucho Club before co-founding healthy fast-food restaurant group LEON in 2004 which now has 17 outlets. Allegra remains a share-holder and her recipes including meatballs and superfood salad which ‘used quinoa way before anyone else’ are still stalwart blueprints on the menu.
I’m impressed by Allegra’s insatiable energy and desire to be involved. She reels off being patron of the Fairtrade Foundation, a Fellow of the RSA, a spokesperson for Compassion in World Farming, a patron of The Food Chain (a charity delivering hot meals to people with HIV and AIDS) as well as the Notting Hill Farmers’ Market and the London Gay Sumphony Orchestra. No wonder she was awarded an MBE way back in 2008 for services to the hospitality industry especially promoting healthier eating and ethical sourcing in the UK.
When we meet, Allegra is extolling her great enthusiasm for the healthiness and deliciousness of Middle Eastern cuisine inspired partly by ingredients from her neighbourhood gem Syrian Damas Gate on Uxbridge Road.
‘Damas Gate puts the fun back into shopping, I’m so lucky the Bush remains so mixed and edgy. I couldn’t bear to live somewhere totally waspish,’ laughs Allegra. Her regular purchases there include pickles, goat and feta-like cheeses that are brilliant with honey, moutebal (aubergine) and other dips, the best ever flatbread, sticky pastries and wonderful fresh dates, a choice of 10 varieties of radishes and the best pomegranates and herbs: ‘it’s a great place for a nosey.’
In similar vein, Allegra singles out Falafel 2000 at the Uxbridge Road end of the market for ‘incredible falafel, the most tasty I’ve had anywhere in the world. It is served with fried aubergine and fiery sauce, simply joyful and a regular Saturday lunch treat.’ She’s a regular at her local Polish delis too, for cured meats, mustards and ‘fiery horseradish with far more balls than you’ll find anywhere else.’ Tony at The Fishmonger’s Kitchen on Shepherd’s Bush Road gets Allegra’s vote for ‘the most smiley, knowledgeable and helpful man you can imagine, a chef’s dream who always makes me feel happy.’ Whilst for impeccably sourced meat, game and all manner of butchery advice, Allegra shops at both Macken Brothers in Turnham Green and John Stenton on Aldensley Road in Hammersmith.
Allegra is similarly adamant about the outstanding places to eat out in her neighbourhood. It’s Franco Manca for splendid sourdough pizza with daughter Delilah. For a great dose of nostalgia, she likes to go for a good bottle of wine to Albertine, the wine bar on Wood Lane which her mother opened with a cousin back in the 70s. ‘It was the first proper kitchen I knew’, remembers Allegra wistfully. Albertine was sold to Giles, in the early 1980s and he’s kept the original church pews and much of the décor 40 years on. ‘For me, it’s solid, reassuring and timeless. A lovely, cosy place to hole up and reminisce.’ Whereas for date nights (her relatively new co-habitating partner is food writer Jack Monroe, and her four-year-old son Johnny), she is fulsome in her praise of The Brackenbury, recently re-opened by Ozzie Gray (son of the late Rose Gray of The River Cafe) and serving really lovely and highly seasonal food.
Allegra raves equally about The Princess Victoria on Uxbridge Road as simply the best gastro-pub and singles out the beef scrumpet bar snack with gribiche sauce on the side. Her greedily evocative description sums up her exuburant, engaging, inscrutable and inevitably somewhat cheeky attitude to life: ‘it is marinaded brisket, braised for hours, then deep-fried: it is big, fat and dirty, absolutely phenomenal.’
Allegra’s latest book, Big Table, Busy Kitchen, is published by Quercus Books, £25.