Taking advantage of the rare London sunshine, I spent a relaxing Friday afternoon visiting Walton Street’s newest cooking venture, Baity Kitchen. Palestinian-born Head Chef Joudie Kalla-Anagnou and her General Manager, Christina Mouratoglou, from Greece, joined me over one of their incredible triple chocolate-chip cookies and a cup of flowering blossom rose tea, to discuss blogging, business tips and all things related to their exciting project.
Tell me about how you started up Baity Kitchen together. How did it all come about at the beginning?
Joudie: Before opening here I had been running my own catering business, which I wanted to stop because it was just taking up too much time and involved too much running around. I started writing a food blog called Mood Food and from there ideas just started to grow. I was cooking all the time, interacting with other bloggers who were cooking professional, restaurant-quality food at home. I was speaking to my husband, who is Greek, (which is how I know Christina) and the whole concept of this place grew; it is a mixture of Greek and Middle Eastern food, with a few Mediterranean dishes from here and there. Christina and I discussed setting up our own place and agreed that it would be best if we worked together. You need somebody you can trust, who is also passionate about the business as well, passionate about food, and Christina is very creative. We bounce ideas off each other because it can sometimes get a bit stagnant in the kitchen; she is always making me do new things. While we were setting up, her mum came over from Greece to teach me some Greek dishes, and they have actually become some of the most popular dishes that we have here.
Which dishes are those?
Christina: It is a dish called Gemista and it is stuffed vegetables and stuffed aubergines, red peppers, green peppers, tomatoes with rice, tomato sauce and onions.
J: We do healthy big portions and people like it. Simple home stuff is the concept of the restaurant. Baity means ‘my home’; we are not trying to be fancy with small portions, the restaurant is more about grub, and the atmosphere is very much inspired by our background. The tables not so much, but the colour of the chairs is very significant; back home there are literally evil eyes everywhere, in the cars, the houses, on top of the doors, and this was the inspiration for the colour of the chairs, which also wards off negative energy. These paintings, too, are from a family friend; we tried to keep everything homely and family-based by using things that are relative to us not just random.
Christina, you are Greek, and Joudie you are originally from Palestine, how do the two different food cultures combine?
J: Well I think the Greeks stole our recipes… (laughs) but we actually have very similar foods with the same names and many of the same components. Each country has added their own ingredients, but the two types work very well together. We always have Greek dishes, but we also do a dish of the day which is mainly based on the Palestinian food that our mums used to cook.
C: We change our menu all the time according to the season and we also believe only in what is fresh and seasonal, produced direct from nature.
Can you get all your ingredients locally?
J: We get a lot of our vegetables from the New Covent Garden market. We have a lovely local butcher just around the corner and a nice fishmonger who will tell us if, say, the salmon isn’t good, and will send us something different instead. They know what we are looking for. We change our dishes a lot; we get a lot of requests so things go on the menu as we go. It is a bit of a hit and miss process; sometimes we sample a dish and it sells out, so it becomes a regular and stays on the menu. We have a Twitter account, so customers tweet us and ask for their favourites. It is great interacting with customers like that, and giving them what they are looking for.
So when you were little, did your mum show you how to do all these dishes?
J: Yes. My mum had 5 kids and she didn’t know what to do with anyone, so we’d all sit in the kitchen. We didn’t really cook savoury food though, more often cakes and biscuits and things. Then we grew out of it and became teenagers. But what started it again for me was when I was living in Paris; I was very lonely and I didn’t make friends quickly. I was doing a Masters and nobody spoke English, they just spoke French and it was hard to communicate with them. Even though I spoke French fluently, I just didn’t have a relationship with anybody. I used to call my mum every day and she started to teach me how to make things over the phone. I left my Masters halfway through and came back to go to Chef School for a year, and it just went from there. The Chef school was really not a good experience because it was very slow paced; the teachers were very strict and there was an uncomfortable environment, so I didn’t really learn that much. I think when you work in restaurants, repeating the work every day and every week is how you get the recipes drummed in to you: practice makes perfect. At school we would learn one recipe but then not make it again until a year later, so you forget it. Once I had my favourite recipes it was great to combine them with Christina’s; her mum is the Greek version of my mum! Really, I met her and I felt like I was meeting my mum!
C: It was the same for me. My family loves food, our lives always revolve around food and every night we used to sit all together, especially in Greece in my summer house where I go with my aunt and my grandma. We are always eating.
J: But always eating different things, never the same dish.
C:That is the fun of it. That was the main thing my grandmother did, she would ask ‘what do you want me to cook for you today?’, and then make it.
And Joudie, you trained with Gordon Ramsey? What was that like?
J: Well, not with him. I worked at his company, at a restaurant called Pengelly’s, but he wasn’t my chef. It was hard actually, it was really hard. Gordon’s style of teaching has definitely passed onto his chefs and it was not a nice environment. It was stressful, very on-edge with no breaks, very tiring. But it was good because it taught me how not to be with my chefs. I treat it as a good experience because you learn what not to do.
Are all the staff here like a big family?
C: Yes. Our manager is a very good friend of mine and when he heard about this project he loved the idea and wanted to be part of it. And the rest of the staff are now friends, we choose people that will fit in with our environment. We just want it to feel like home, and now we have some great regular customers. We change the menu every day, according to how we feel and the weather. Like now, with the sunshine, we are making more salads. We have a very nice watermelon and feta salad which is a very traditional Greek dish.
What are your other favourite places to eat in London?
C: We are both very big fans of Japanese cuisine and whenever we have time off, we eat Japanese food. I have discovered a little Japanese round the corner – it’s very cheap, very simple, the sushi is amazing, its so fresh!
How long did it take you from thinking of the idea to getting the restaurant open?
J: Not that long – We were talking about it in May 2010, then we found the property and converted the licence with the council which took about 3 months. Then on 9th September we opened! We had a very clear idea of what we wanted.
C: And we just went with what we felt looked good.
J: Christina found the guy for the chairs, I found the guy for the tables, we went to all these shops and markets and found the lamps, the olive oil bottles and the vinegar bottles. But we didn’t want it to be so much about the place itself rather than the food.
C: We didn’t want it to be too structured; we wanted it to be like a dining room in someone’s home.
J: The most important thing apart from the food and the place is the staff. I’m sure you’ve been to restaurants where the staff are a bit rude and don’t care about you. The staff here really care what you are having, they suggest things and they focus on you. We are really lucky that our staff are so nice; they remember everybody and everyone remembers them because they are so friendly. Most of our clients have become our friends actually, which is a really nice thing. We didn’t know any of them before. We are not trying to be anything other than a fun, relaxed home kitchen. We are not here to win any stars. It’s just a place to hang out and enjoy good food.
So what do your family think? Is this the first time they have been over?
J: Well it is the first time for one of my sisters and she loved it, really loved it. They have seen pictures, but it’s not the same. It is something that I have been talking about for a long time but I didn’t have enough experience. Not necessarily cooking-wise but just in how to be in charge of people. Everyone has their own personality and you have to learn how to talk to every single person differently, they are not just machines. We are therapists for everybody at work, everybody has problems that we have to help them with, as well as making sure they do their job and are healthy and safe and hygienic. Like everyone’s mothers really!
C: A successful business has to be healthy from the inside, not just healthy on the outside. As long as everybody is healthy and loves their work then that will be reflected to customers.
J: We are just waiting for Christina’s mum to come; she is the only one who hasn’t been yet! She saw the place when it was just an explosion of cement and bricks. We are still waiting to use our garden; we have strawberries and lavender growing and will have chairs out there as soon as we can get a licence. It looks a bit crazy out there at the moment because nothing has grown; that is what my mind looks like at the moment!
– Olivia Parker