This article is also published in the Financial Times.
The men around the table had had a hugely beneficial impact on how we eat and enjoy food.
There was Johnny Grey, the highly respected kitchen designer; Simon Hopkinson, whose book Roast Chicken and Other Stories has inspired so many; and William Sitwell, food writer and Masterchef judge. But these collective achievements paled in comparison with those of the women sitting between them.
At one end was Sally Clarke, whose restaurant has just celebrated its 30th birthday and who employs 40 staff in her bakery. Centre stage was Darina Allen, the voluble, highly effective spokeswoman for Irish food and long time ‘headmistress’ of theBallymaloe Cookery School. Close to her, and justifiably the guest of honour, sat Alice Waters, who now devotes her formidable energy to The Edible Schoolyard Project that over the past 20 years has established an edible education curriculum in almost 4,000 schools worldwide.
Over lunch, for which the fruit and vegetables had been tended by the pupils of five west London schools, Waters described how her restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, had recently entertained a delegation from the Vatican as Pope Francis seeks to put the agricultural land under the Church’s control to more productive use. Waters is also in discussions with Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California University system, about breaking the stranglehold the fast-food culture has over student diets via their control of the ubiquitous vending machines.
The young woman on my left was understandably quiet in such august company although it subsequently transpired that she is cooking for more people each day than anyone else. And her customer base, of 300 5- to 12-year-old children, is undoubtedly the most vociferous.
In August 2013 Maya Meron (pictured) established Quince Organic in a basement kitchen in north London to provide freshly prepared, hot organic school meals to the school her daughter was about to enrol in. Today, she is supplying these meals daily to three independent schools in the vicinity and is beginning to look around for extra kitchen capacity to meet the growing demand.
This is a significant achievement for a young woman whose career before Quince had been entirely musical. Highlights of Meron’s professional career have included performances on the viola and violin under the batons of Sir Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and of Daniel Barenboim as a member of the ground-breaking West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Meron recalled that her last performance was playing Shostakovich’s 15thviolin concerto at a festival in Germany shortly before she moved to London with her family. ‘I’ve been too busy washing dishes to play much recently’, Meron admitted.
But when we met again, shortly after she had despatched that day’s meals and had just put the phone down on her vegetable supplier confirming the celery order for the next day, I discovered that the roots of her passion for music and cooking have long overlapped. And that the driving force behind the impulsive move that led her to put a significant deposit down on a professional kitchen lies in the disillusionment she felt when she discovered just what her daughter, Alma, had been fed while at kindergarten in Germany.
Meron was born in Israel and grew up in Canada but cooking has always been an antidote to the stress of performing. ‘I used to bake cakes and take them to rehearsals and then invite groups of friends for an early supper before I was performing. Music has its own beauty but, by contrast, cooking brings immediate results’, she explained.
In the summer of 2013 Meron moved with her husband, violin-maker Stefan-Peter Greiner, and daughter to London without any intention of running a professional kitchen. But one day mother and daughter were in a food shop in north London when Alma needed the lavatory. Meron asked the shop attendant whether there was one and was told that although it was normally out of bounds to the public he would make an exception for the little girl and pointed them down the stairs.
‘I couldn’t believe what I saw. There was a large, professional kitchen, extremely clean and in great condition with no one working there. On the way up I asked someone what was going on and I was told that the shop owner had just put it on the market because he no longer needed it. I asked what the deposit was and I paid it there and then’, Meron continued.
This decision to start Quince was based partly on the realisation that Alma’s school fees did not include lunch. But her experience as a mother in Germany had made her particularly concerned. ‘This kindergarten in Germany showed photos of wholesome, organic food on the walls, but when I called in one day with a birthday cake for my daughter, I saw that the reality was just the opposite. I just didn’t want to let her down again.’
Meron now performs five mornings a week alongside a team of four, cooking and packing a colourful, balanced, hot main course, side dish and afternoon snack that are assembled on the advice of a nutritionist and despatched in thermal boxes at 11.40 am. Protein, vegetables and salads form the key components, as does a newsletter introducing children to ingredients they may not have tasted before. Classical music’s loss is cooking’s gain.