Allegra McEvedy : 'I have a fairly extreme personality'

She was tipped as the female Jamie Oliver. Then it all went horribly wrong. Now Allegra McEvedy has swapped her chi-chi Kensington restaurant for a tent in Hyde Park. Has she any regrets?

How about this for starters. Ten weeks ago a swanky new restaurant called Good Cook, housed in a converted bank, opened on Kensington High Street. Last week it closed. Its chef was supposed to be the female equivalent of Jamie Oliver (hell, she even had the same scruffy haircut!) and to be destined for stardom. She had the obligatory cookbook, a newspaper recipe column and a TV series in the offing. And although she was said to be mouthy and sassy, she had a reputation for doing good deeds.

How about this for starters. Ten weeks ago a swanky new restaurant called Good Cook, housed in a converted bank, opened on Kensington High Street. Last week it closed. Its chef was supposed to be the female equivalent of Jamie Oliver (hell, she even had the same scruffy haircut!) and to be destined for stardom. She had the obligatory cookbook, a newspaper recipe column and a TV series in the offing. And although she was said to be mouthy and sassy, she had a reputation for doing good deeds.

Allegra McEvedy had run the Tabernacle, a cheap community restaurant in Notting Hill and then, at her upmarket Kensington establishment, had turned into the Robin Hood of restaurateurs, charging patrons an extra 2.5 per cent to be given to local charities. Previously in London she had cooked for Sean Connery; in New York she had worked for Robert DeNiro. She'd even been employed in Jamie's old manor, the River Cafe. And now she'd blown it. In fact, according to the knife-sharpening foodies, she was so down on her luck that she was cooking in a tent pitched in Hyde Park. Well, sort of.

It's Monday lunchtime and McEvedy is indeed to be found in Hyde Park serving meals to anyone with upwards of £3.50 to spare. And, yes, she is working from a "tent", even if this one was designed by the hot, British-based architect Zaha Hadid for the park's Serpentine Gallery - it was commissioned for a grand fundraising party and has to come down at the beginning of September. McEvedy has no cooker here, so all the meals are prepared off-site each morning. Her only running water comes from a hosepipe. The plates are polystyrene, the cutlery plastic. But she can offer you a chilled can of Sprite.

While she's busy serving the park visitors, I sample her fennel and parsley soup, and salmon with bok choi. Despite her simple surroundings, McEvedy still looks striking. Finally, as the crowd thins, she leaves her open-air "kitchen" and, armed with a large plate of brownies, settles down to explain how it all went so horribly wrong. Except that's not how she sees it at all. She's just glad it's all over.

"I had some real issues with my backer and I was just not happy with the dictums coming from above," she says. "The Good Cook is about good food at reasonable prices, and it's also to do with putting something back into the community. He didn't like the cheap prices idea and he didn't like putting something back into the community. If I had sat down with all the money people for an hour at the start we would have realised we were all heading for different things... he saw my book and thought we were going to get rammed from day one, but that's not how the restaurant business works," she says.

She also wonders whether her style of food - dishes from round the world, served in a simple unpretentious way (think halloumi and sweet potato kebabs, aromatic pork or even macaroni cheese) - really suited the opulent dining room.

McEvedy claims that takings were going up each week but that they were not enough for her sponsors, who had forked out over £400,000 to do the site up for her and needed to make £15,000 a week just to break even. In the end, she says, the backer was offered an enormous sum for the space and she had to leave. She claims the split was amicable, but there's some hurt there.

The thing that wounded her most were the reviews. Critics who had previously sung her praises and talked up her media potential, took no time in cutting her down again. The most damaging review came from Fay Maschler in the London Evening Standard. She described McEvedy's approach to cooking as "chalet girl for the millennium" and the food as variously stolid and misplaced. "Of course it hurts. She had been to the Tabernacle twice and given it good reviews. You do have to worry that there's been so much good press that there's going to be a backlash ... or perhaps she didn't have a good meal."

Just before the demise of McEvedy's Kensington restaurant, the Serpentine Gallery had asked her whether she would like to cater its tent for the summer. It was, McEvedy says, the perfect opportunity; somewhere she could cook bargain meals for the masses - well, at least the ones who like to swan around Hyde Park taking in contemporary art shows. So when the collapse came, she jumped.

Allegra McEvedy was born in west London in 1970 and, apart from a stint in the US, has lived in the well-to-do area ever since. Her dad is a retired consultant psychiatrist, her mum, who died when McEvedy was 17, was more eclectic. She wrote history books, did some picture restoring and opened a wine bar. "That's where I got my short attention span from," she says. Mum also happened to be a good cook and McEvedy has fond memories of hanging out in the kitchen with her, playing with flour and learning the basics.

Family has always been important to McEvedy: even now she takes dinner round to her dad every night; she flew back to England from the States when her sister became pregnant; and when her mum died, it hit her very hard and resulted in her being chucked out of her school, the fee-paying St Paul's.

"When my mum died I went off the rails. It's fair to say I have a fairly extreme personality." She's coy about the list of charges that ended her school career, but admits that some of them were valid reasons for her removal. Anyway, she's made it up with many of the teachers in recent years.

To get her A-levels she went to a crammer in Cambridge, then moved to Manchester, out of the sight of her dad, to "do some serious misbehaving". A year later, back in London, her father encouraged her to get a grip and, at 21, she enrolled at a Cordon Bleu cookery school where, despite irregular attendance, she passed.

Then began a series of brief stints working in the kitchens of some of London's best restaurants. Her CV went something like this: Greens (one of Connery's favourite dining spots); the Belvedere in Holland Park; The Groucho Club (where she was sacked for various shenanigans involving a shower, a bottle of whisky and a playmate); The River Cafe; The Cow ("my first head chef's job and the first time I had lasted anywhere longer than three months"); and Lola's in Islington.

Then came a trip to the US where she worked for Manhattan's Tribeca Grill, co-owned by Robert DeNiro, and a series of restaurants in California. Then it was back to the UK where she ran the Tabernacle restaurant, and managed to stay still long enough to get a manager, write a book, and make a TV pilot. The pilot has been enough to make several production companies very excited. That's no surprise: McEvedy is funny, direct, sexy, energetic

The collapse of the Good Cook in Kensington may prove the making of Allegra McEvedy. She says that she has learnt some important lessons about the trade and the fickleness of celebrity, and she seems tough enough to move on relatively unscathed - especially with the support of her family and girlfriend (an issue she now seems relaxed talking about for the first time). Numerous restaurants have asked her whether she would like to be their head chef: she's said no to all of them. If the rest of the year can just go to plan, she'll have a holiday, film her TV series and perhaps write her second cookery book.

The only concern has to be: will any of this make her happy? She claims to hate the endless comparisons with Jamie Oliver and says she wouldn't want to be famous or rich like him, but I'm not sure I believe her. But if the fame game isn't for her, if she really gets more of a buzz from living it large and cooking for ordinary folk, then she could be playing a dangerous game. You get the feeling, however, that McEvedy likes the heat and shouldn't get out of the kitchen - even if it is on a TV studio set.

The Good Cook at the Serpentine Gallery, Hyde Park, London, daily, 10am to 6pm. 'The Good Cook' by Allegra McEvedy is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99

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