How We Met: Claudia Roden & Allegra McEvedy - 'Her Middle Eastern book was my Bible'

 

Claudia Roden, 77

Born and brought up in Cairo, Roden (left in picture) finished her education in Paris, then moved to London to study art. Drawn to the subject of food as a way of recalling her lost heritage, she revolutionised Western attitudes to Middle Eastern cuisine with her bestselling 'A Book of Middle Eastern Food' in 1968. She has continued to write about food and the social and historical background of cooking ever since. She lives in London

I've known Allegra since she was very little, maybe five or six. I knew her parents and I'd often go to their house for dinner or for one of their lovely parties. It was a home where people cooked good food, cared about food; her mother at that time even had a bistro. Her mother died very young and Allegra was still at school, so I saw her father from time to time and heard how she was getting on. I was fascinated to hear about the things she was going through, even her wild youth.

When she came into my world, the world of cooking, I became very interested in her and in what she was doing. I was once at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts] with some friends for an art exhibition and we were thinking just how wonderful the food was. Suddenly, she came out of the kitchen and it was fantastic to know that she was the one who had cooked our meal. She started doing some great things, working at the Tabernacle [in west London], and when she opened Leon with Henry Dimbleby, people were queuing outside. I went in and there was Allegra in the kitchen, full of energy and doing her thing.

I consider myself very much someone who researches in the field, visiting countries, taking note of everything, researching exactly how they do things. I look at what the tradition is and how that varies through time. Allegra does the same but has her own take on food. She does Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Turkish and her take on it is always sensible and simple, but with much flavour, and it's tasty and healthy.

Apart from her cooking, there is another side of her that I really admire, which is that she is incredibly loyal and someone I could always rely on. One day I told her about my grandson, who was working in catering and wondering what to do next. She knew he wasn't the kind to be a chef but thought he could be an entrepreneur. She met with him, and he was completely taken by Allegra, because she told him about the challenges ahead and what he will learn along the way. That get-together made a huge difference to him and he is now an entrepreneur, making artisan ice lollies in New York, and even has a book coming out in the next few months.

She's my family; I feel so at ease with her, a true friend. It's nice to have a friend who's young and fun. I feel I'm young with her because she's so full of laughter.

Allegra McEvedy MBE, 43

After training at Cordon Bleu in London, McEvedy worked at establishments including the Belvedere and the River Café before landing her first head-chef role at The Cow in west London at the age of 24. The co-founder of the healthy fast-food restaurant chain Leon, her latest restaurant venture is Blackfoot, which opened in December on Exmouth Market in north London. She lives in Shepherd's Bush with her partner and their two children

We first met at the house I grew up in, in Brook Green [in west London]; she was a friend of my parents. It was during the great era of those 1970s dinner parties, and she made a real impression on me with her glamorous ways.

She's had an enormous influence on me. I can sort of map my cooking life through her books. When I worked at the River Café, there were only ever three cookbooks on the shelf and one of them was Claudia's The Food of Italy. There was a time when one of her Middle Eastern books was my Bible; my copy is held together by elastic bands because the spine is broken in about seven places. It just seems she has always been there with the right book at the right time.

I did a TV series on Turkish cooking and she is the absolute go-to woman on food from Africa all the way round to Spain. I remember once I had a fruity salad for my book Colouring the Seasons. It had pomegranates and pistachios and rosewater dressing on top and I couldn't think of a decent name for it. I called Claudia and asked her and she suggested "Salad Scheherazade". It went into the book and I adore it. That salad turned out to be the most-made recipe in that book.

Not only do I love her cooking, but she is also a great documenter. Wherever she goes, be it Egypt or Turkey or wherever, she eats and makes notes then comes back and makes the recipes. There are so many chefs out there trying to reinvent the wheel; she just shows it how it is, but of course in her own style. That's exactly what I've tried to do with my cooking.

When I travel, I carry food diaries – I now have 18 volumes that I've kept over my life and they're fat with notes and little drawings. That sort of chronicling I've absolutely got from Claudia. Using that to feed my recipes and books from places I've visited has definitely come from her.

Claudia has had a life a little bit like Elizabeth David – she's seen a lot, lived a lot and experienced a lot, and her cooking reflects that. The circle of people that she moved with are the people of legends, be it Rose Gray, Madhur Jaffrey, or Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, who she took up with in California.

What's fantastic is that our friendship has come out of doing roughly the same thing. Every chef who I rate, rates Claudia.

'Big Table, Busy Kitchen: 200 Recipes for Life' by Allegra McEvedy is published by Quercus, priced £25. 'The Food of Italy' by Claudia Roden is published by Square Peg, priced £25

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