Devoted chef in north London needs more customers.
Ahead of my article next week about a remarkable woman in the British restaurant trade – Helen O’Malley, the 54-year-old mother of eight who is the public face of the Bo Tree Kitchen Thai restaurant in Belfast – here is another paean of praise to a second woman in this arduous business. A woman who in this instance has decided to go it alone – very much alone in fact.
Camille Tardieu is a 30-year-old Frenchwoman who was born in Avignon but has created Cérès restaurant in Newington Green, north London. Today she is the restaurant’s only chef; its plongeur; its breadmaker; and she is charge of all the administration, invariably in splendid isolation, in the basement kitchen of Cérès, her very own restaurant, opened in in November 2018.
Tardieu seems to have been obsessed by two things since childhood: cooking, a passion that had her working in kitchens from the age of 13, and neuroscience. It was the latter that brought her to King’s College, London eight years ago where she completed a PhD entitled ‘Establishing a Drosophila model for noise-induced hearing loss’. She supported herself through her fruit-fly studies by cooking professionally before she took to supper clubs and pop-ups.
The fantasies about establishing her own restaurant began to take hold and she had already focused on Newington Green, an area better known hitherto for its many Turkish restaurants but one undergoing a slow gentrification. With a limited budget of £70,000, 10% of which came from a round on Kickstarter, she saw the potential in a former café on Green Lanes. On 2 November 2018 Cérès, named after the Roman goddess of agriculture and motherly relationships, was born.
I have never been to a restaurant quite like Cérès before. While Camille was the only chef in her small kitchen we were extremely well looked after by the restaurant’s only member of the front-of-house team. Sarah Fregine is also French and in addition to possessing a particularly welcoming face also possesses the strength to carry all the plates of Tardieu’s food up and down a narrow flight of stairs complete with a nasty bend in the middle. She also has the sensitivity to be able to make a damn fine cocktail. Her watermelon margaritas and plum vodka sours certainly got our dinner off to a flying start. The sour is below, the margarita features in the next picture.
Cérès’s menu comprises 10 dishes, two first courses, half a dozen main courses described as sharing plates, and finally two dishes under the tempting heading of ‘something sweet’. We began with both first courses, an octopus salad with sweet-potato cream that was a great combination and four plump cheese doughnuts made using Blue Snow cheese, a creamy Swiss cheese, with red-onion jam that had the three of us round the table almost fighting as we tried to split the last one evenly.
We began our four main courses with a classic rendition of the Provençal favourite, a stuffed courgette with broad beans, ricotta and pistou (£13). This dish has now been changed on the menu with summer squash replacing the out-of-season broad beans but this is a dish which for Tardieu still brings back memories of her childhood. ‘And you always seem to underestimate the amount of work that goes into a dish like this because it is a dish that your grandmother used to make!’
Alongside this we enjoyed a dish of monkfish topped with clams and a rich prawn bisque (£15); a great duo of beef tataki and creamed aubergine enlivened by a sauce of plum ponzu pictured below (£14); and perhaps best of all a dish of rabbit tortellini with girolles mushrooms (£19). With this we enjoyed a bottle of Fleurie 2016 from Olivier Ravier (£29) from a list that is predominantly from Hallgarten. We finished by sharing a wonderful rendition of that other French classic, a rum baba covered with berries and an Earl Grey cream that gave the dish, in Tardieu’s words, ‘an English twist’ (£8). The rum baba is pictured way below.
On the night we ate there our table of three was the only table in the restaurant on a Thursday evening in late August other than another table for two. And that is the major dilemma facing Tardieu.
The kitchen is capable of doing more, she has a male chef of whom she speaks highly and there is someone to assist Fregine when required, but working out when these extra, expensive hands are to be called on is every restaurateur’s guessing game. ‘Activity can solve a lot of problems’, Tardieu explained, ‘and I would love to look after more customers. The evenings when we only serve a few customers can be quite depressing.’
Tardieu’s principles are those of any good chef today: to follow the seasons and to listen to her suppliers. But on top of these come her very own philosophy and a particular approach. ‘I never look at other chefs’ recipes and I cannot afford to eat out in other restaurants, for the time being at least. The simplest dishes on my menu are the ones that I have thought about for the longest.’
Dishes do not change that often on her menu, something that makes return visits in the short term unlikely. And the dining room which has the benefit of lots of natural light and can seat 26, can get quite noisy – Tardieu confessed that she wished that she had been able to raise a little more capital before opening to attend to such matters.
But Cérès does address, and more than satisfy, the requirements of any restaurant. Tardieu’s food is extremely good; her wine list is broad and fairly priced; and the service could not have been more congenial. That all this is the result of one woman’s obsession, a young woman prepared to work from 10 am until after midnight from Tuesday to Saturday – kept going by a lot of coffee, she confessed – gives Cérès a special feel.
When I ask Tardieu how much she takes from the business in return for all the hard work she puts in, her answer is extremely honest. ‘I have not taken a penny out of the business since we opened,’ she replies. ‘I am extremely fortunate to have a very understanding boyfriend.’
Cérès 74 Green Lanes, Newington Green, London N16 9EJ; tel +44 20 7689 0922