Rebecca Mascarenhas has been running top restaurants for 26 years. Her first restaurant, Sonny’s in Barnes, soon became a favourite destination in SW London. In 1986 when it opened, Sonny’s was groundbreaking, offering a new way of eating top-quality food locally; you no longer had to travel into central London to eat really well. But you’d most certainly travel to eat at Sonny’s. It also provides a community base as you can pop in for a light lunch or buy food from their shop to take home as well as enjoy a great evening meal in the restaurant. I think you could mention Sonny’s to anyone in SW London and get a good response. My son’s friend Rob said last Friday when I was talking about meeting Rebecca, ‘That’s where we go for family celebrations.’
So, I wondered, what brought Rebecca into the tough life of running restaurants. She told me that she originally trained as an actress and enjoyed some success in her early twenties but the frustrations of the work led to her growing to hate it: ‘I had to have a job.’ She didn’t like having to wait for others to offer her work; she wanted to create her own project. Her husband was supportive and encouraged her to rethink her career. While she was thinking she got some work waitressing at Bob Payton’s Chicago Pizza Pie Factory; as an actress she’d done quite a bit of waitressing. But the temporary work which was supposed to fill a gap while she decided what to do turned into something much more. She made a big impression on Payton who told her she had a flair for restaurant work and sent her on a management training course. She credits Payton with encouraging her to make a success of working in the food business, and later Victor Lownes (of the Playboy empire) for whom she worked as a restaurant manager and then general manager. They were both fantastic. Rebecca worked like a demon, she told me, but she had some luck too. However, luck is what you make it and Rebecca has made the most of her opportunities, showing a strong determination to succeed and do well. She told me that she felt not taking the usual corporate route had made it possible for her to respond to challenges in her own way.
The decision to open her own business was brought about by the desire to find something that fitted in with family life. She and her husband wanted children but she was the main breadwinner. Having her own business would enable her to adapt her hours to fit family life rather than having to do less hours; it also enabled her to live round the corner from her restaurant. Now her children are aged 24, 22 and 14 but family life has not got in the way of Rebecca achieving phenomenal success. She has built her own empire and is currently co-owner or investor in five neighbourhood restaurants: Sonny’s – which has recently been relaunched at Sonny’s Kitchen with business partner and chef, Phil Howard; Kitchen W8 in Notting Hill which she opened with Howard in 2009; Cantinetta in Putney; and Sam’s Brasserie in Chiswick and Harrison’s in Balham, co-owned with Sam Harrison, who introduced me to Rebecca after I interviewed him about his favourite cookery books recently.
Rebecca is clearly a successful and impressive businesswoman … but could she cook? Well, maybe she’s not found in her restaurants’ kitchens in chef’s attire but most certainly at home in her own kitchen where, apart from cooking for her family, she entertains often. She has always been interested in cooking and cookery books, she told me. She’s of Indian – Goan – descent but grew up in UK. Her large family didn’t have much money but liked good food so she learned to be creative in the kitchen, making the most of cheaper cuts; something, she wryly pointed out, that is fashionable now but was essential to her then.
Sam Harrison told me that Rebecca has the most amazing knowledge of food and cookbooks so I was keen to hear her choices. She told me she thought she had over 600 cookbooks; she hadn’t quite narrowed her favourites down to 10 as we started so a choice between No.10 and N.11 was left right till the end. First up though was:
1. Keep it Simple, Alastair Little & Richard Whittington (1993) – Whittington was a food writer and journalist and it was Alastair Little who suggested they write a book which reflected Whittington’s love of cookery and shared some of the recipes from Little’s eponymous restaurant in Frith Street; a restaurant that Rebecca describes as one of the best ever. The book is ‘a paradigm shift in cookery writing’, said Rebecca, ‘and the first book to introduce (to me) world ingredients on an everyday basis.’ Now no one would blink at sea bass served with soy sauce and ginger but back in 1985, when the restaurant opened, it was innovative. Rebecca describes this book as inspirational and beautiful.
2. How to Eat, Nigella Lawson (1999) – This is ‘wonderful writing’, Rebecca told me. All the recipes work. Nigella has put in a lot of effort to get them right for the home cook. She’s well read and has eaten well and all this goes into the book. There’s a sensational Sauternes custard with poached peaches, which Rebecca loves, but she also likes the way Nigella can go from this to sausage pie. The writing is witty and the book is a great source of daily inspiration.
3. Ottolenghi the Cookbook, Yottam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi (2008) – Rebecca uses this a lot. She’s a great entertainer and the food in here is time forgiving. The culture of the Middle East means that food is never served piping hot, it can always wait. The book is so beautifully illustrated it makes you want to cook everything in it.
4. My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method, Jim Lahey (2009) – Rebecca said this book made her want to give up everything and become a baker. It’s the best baking book ever; inspirational. Bread is her downfall, she told me; nothing is better than some good bread, good butter, homemade marmalade and good coffee. [And at this point, I have to say that the cappuccino I was given at Sonny’s where I met her was one of the very best I know of.] The writing is wonderful, she went on, and Lahey makes you think, I can do this. Rebecca’s favourite recipe is the sour dough – and it’s no-knead!
5. Simple Indian, Atul Kochhar (2005) – Rebecca said Kochhar is a wonderful chef and human being and this book shows you how to cook really good Indian food without spending huge amounts of time on it and without a huge library of tastes in your head. For instance, Rebecca told me, she would know what adding some basil or tarragon would do to a dish but wouldn’t have the same understanding for adding a lot of the spices used in Indian cooking. She has to cook by the recipe and the ones in this book work; the food is lovely.
We discussed the problem of stale spices; that unless you’re cooking Indian food a lot your spices will inevitably go off. She told me about a great online company, Seasoned Pioneers, that sells small packets so you don’t have this problem. Great tip!
6. River Cafe Blue, Rose Gray & Ruth Rogers (1995) – Their first book and, Rebecca told me, Gray and Rogers were completely inspirational as cooks, businesswomen, entrepreneurs and women. The recipes inspire and promote the importance of quality – there is nothing to be ashamed of in buying well. River Cafe is one of Rebecca’s all-time favourite restaurants. It was seminal in what we in UK have come to expect of Italian food and their food was seen as definitive. Although, Rebecca added, not all Italians agree because they can’t necessarily get their big, hearty stews, popular in some parts of Italy, there. It’s a deceptively simple book, Rebecca said; not all the recipes are technically correct but they’re inspirational in promoting excellent ingredients.
7. Moro the Cookbook, Sam & Sam Clark (2001) – ‘I just want to cook everything in this book,’ Rebecca told me. ‘Their recipe for Roast Belly Pork is probably the best in the world.’ It’s sensational; she’s cooked nothing from it that hasn’t worked. What shines through is the generosity of their spirit of sharing knowledge; it’s uplifting.
8. English Food, Jane Grigson (1974) – Grigson is a wonderful writer, she writes beautifully, Rebecca told me, and she could have chosen any of her books. However, this gem reminds us of the heritage of good food in England.
9. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan (1992) – ‘The perfect reference for all things Italian.’ A seminal work, Rebecca told me.
10. Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, Diana Henry (2002). Henry writes beautifully, Rebecca told me, and she uses this book a lot – and indeed every other book Henry has written.
Rebecca had hesitated about whether to choose Henry’s book as a her final choice of The Union Square Cafe Cookbook, which had also been one of her business partner Sam Harrison’s choices. She told me it was her favourite restaurant, as indeed Sam also said. Mmmm …. must book a trip to New York!
Meanwhile … it was great talking to Rebecca, another ‘demented cookbook lover’ as she described us, and someone so keen to talk food and who is so knowledgeable. She talked about a number of these books being inspirational; well, Rebecca Mascarenhas is quite inspirational herself. The way she has combined a hugely successful career in a tough business world with family, friends and running one of the best local restaurants around is fantastic. In her new partnership with Phil Howard she’s planning to take a slightly different role away from the day-to-day running of Sonny’s, becoming more of a chairperson, giving her more time to follow some other interests.
To finish, I asked Rebecca to choose her No.1, all-time favourite, and she said it would be Keep it Simple because it’s one of the best cookbooks ever. It’s a shame it’s out of print, she added. The range is phenomenal. It has the best Bread & Butter Pudding recipe ever and Little was one of the first chefs to combine food from different countries successfully. Now ‘fusion’ food is fashionable but when Little began it was new.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, click here to read other interviews in the Top Ten Cookery Books series.