Leiths graduate Ayesha Kalaji is executive chef and co-founder of Queen of Cups, a 17th Century coaching inn turned modern Middle Eastern restaurant in Glastonbury. Ayesha draws influences from her Jordanian roots to create food that saw Queen of Cups awarded a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide within one year of opening.
How did you get into cooking? And what brought you to Leiths?
“I grew up loving food. It’s always been something I’ve adored but I never considered it a viable career option because I was always pushed down the academic route. So I did my degree in Middle Eastern politics, languages and history, and in my final year was lucky enough to do my year-long project on the semiotics of Middle Eastern food.
I remember years ago, I think I’d done the Leiths method for a roast chicken, something me and my mum had always talked about, and we were like maybe this is actually the right thing for me, so bless my parents, they said I could go to cookery school provided I finished my degree first.
So then I went to Leiths and I remember my first day there was a three-hour lecture on eggs and I knew immediately I was in the right place! That was it for me. I knew straight away, food was where I was meant to be working.”
What did you do after Leiths?
“While I was at Leiths, I did a stage with the Palomar, as part of my work experience, and I worked with them at Taste Festival. They offered me a job once I’d graduated and that was it, my first step into the restaurant world, and it was at the Palomar. They’d just won Observer ‘Restaurant of the Year’ so it was a really big year for them.
From there, I worked around London. I’ve mostly focused on the modern Middle Eastern area so I did Bubala, the Good Egg, then I also did a stint in the Michelin world in North Wales.
How did Queen of Cups come about?
“There was no way I was ever going to afford [to open my own place] in London; it was unfeasible unless you have the investors. But my business partner, she lived in Glastonbury and had a B&B, and she said ‘there’s a lack of places to eat here, why don’t you come and have a look?’ I viewed a few places, saw the place I’ve got now and said ‘that’s it, that’s the one’. I’d got no other connection with the area, so it was quite an ‘in at the deep end’ moment. I remortgaged my flat; I jumped in both feet first; and, yes, best decision I’ve ever made.”
What kind of food did you grow up cooking and eating?
“I never grew up with a very traditional Arab background. I’m half Jordanian, half English, and has some Middle Eastern influence when I was growing up but not a lot of it. We’d go on family holidays to Jordan and the South of France and I was fortunate to be exposed to different cuisines from a young age, but I never truly felt connected to my own culture and heritage. It was when I was at university, that I found that, through the food, I was able to create a sort of connection in a way I hadn’t before. I was reading 13th century cookbooks – they’re blooming great! – so many recipes still stand. It’s an area of the world that has such a rich food history and it’s so misrepresented as being grainy hummus from Tesco and a kebab.
Because my background wasn’t hugely traditional, my food isn’t either. It’s my interpretation of Middle Eastern food, through my lens, using classical French techniques and the best of local produce. I’ve got a farmer five miles away from me growing me Aleppo chillies and wild Syrian za’atar. In Somerset! Then there are elements of my food that are very family related. My pickles are my grandmother’s. They’ve not changed since day one and they never will.”
Can you give us an idea of what you’re cooking?
“One of my favourite dishes is monkfish confit in beef dripping with chanterelles, samphire, pickled gooseberries and an arak beurre blanc. That’s my Leiths training coming out! But using arak, an anise spirit that’s been made in the Middle East for millennia. It’s such a Middle Eastern flavour but in a beurre blanc with monkfish, from an hour away in Brixham. I’m very lucky with my suppliers. My butcher is five doors down, I can point at where the cows and sheep come from on the hill nearby.”
What are your plans and dreams at Queen of Cups?
“For this site, I’m happy with my Bib Gourmand. We’re a gastropub; it works for us here. Also I’m aware of the local economy, it wouldn’t be appropriate to put a two Michelin star restaurant in the middle of Glastonbury. I would love to expand and have other sites. Why stop here? I want to do breakfast TV, I want cookery books, multiple restaurants…I want an empire! There are not enough Arab women in the hospitality industry who are at the forefront.
I love that my team enjoy coming into work and are happy to come in. I want to see real change in our industry. I work with Be Inclusive Hospitality; I’ve got a mentee with them. So it’s not just about me building my empire, it’s also passing on knowledge, helping people in the industry. I want to make the industry a better, more appealing place.”
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