It was Sheila Dillon – longtime host of The Food Programme on BBC 4 – who recommended I get in touch with Kerstin Rodgers on my recent two-week visit to my favourite city and childhood home: London, England.
I was already intrigued by Kerstin’s reputation as “one of London’s 1,000 most influential people” (Evening Standard) and “anarcho-restaurateur” (an online article) when I found out a few other things that indicated she is a kindred soul.
First, this feisty foodie, who greeted me with a grin at the front door of her main-floor flat in a big Victorian home, is short, a tad more than 5-foot tall and thus about my height. She has vividly fuchsia bobbed hair. Mine is a wavy bob with fuchsia streaks.
Kerstin is “saftig”, to use one of my favourite Yiddish words meaning attractively well-padded. This subject soon came up as this gregarious woman chatted away in her husky voice. She, like me, has no qualms about eschewing the beauty myth. “Eating is more important than having a nice figure,” says she, citing a Kate Moss quote with which both of us heartily disagree: “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.”
Her taste in clothes and decor is unapologetically vintage, colourful and sometimes over-the-top – shades of my retro wardrobe and New Orleans-style, chandelier-bedecked living room.
As she shows me the dining room where she hosts weekly dinners, Kerstin explains how she became a mover and shaker at the hub of London’s lively food scene.
Born and raised in North London, Kerstin studied film at the Sorbonne in Paris where she lived for six years. She is also a photographer who took pictures for New Musical Express as well as other well-known publications.
But she has always had a passion for food and cooking.
“I’m a not a trained cook,” she explains as we sit down in the spacious kitchen for a cup of “builder’s tea” – a strong brew laced with milk and a favourite, goes the story, among British labourers known to enjoy frequent tea breaks. “But I was cooking for people at anarchist vegan protests and in punk cafes.”
It’s quite a leap from these humble beginnings to Kerstin’s role today as the innovator in what has a become a burgeoning trend: home restaurants.
In January, 2009, when Kerstin launched her Underground Restaurant in her Kilburn home, turning the bedroom (“my former seduction boudoir – a luxurious love-den”) into an elegant white dining room complete with candelabras and french doors opening to the back garden. She quips: “Food is more dependable than men. It’s just me and the fridge.”
From a shaky first night attended by 12 diners who each paid $15, her weekly supper club now attracts the food media, comprises a menu of five to seven courses, hosts up to 30 guests and costs about $50 a pop. Her kitchen has been inspected and is approved. No alcohol is sold due to rules against it so people bring their own wine.
What with planning the menu, shopping, cooking the meal and cleaning up, it all takes four days. Sometimes, she recruits help in the kitchen. Often, her 17-year-old daughter Sienna – Kerstin is a single mum – waits on tables.
She describes her style of cooking as “theatrical and experimental.” A pescatarian, she does not eat, cook or serve meat. Popular entrees at her restaurant are Salt-Baked Fish, Stargazy Pie and Squid Ink Tortellini Stuffed with Goat Cheese.
There is one set meal for everyone although she does accommodate vegetarians, vegans and those with allergies. “It’s maternal authority,” she says. “You eat what mummy tells you.” And apparently, many are delighted to do just that.
Today, the woman who dubs herself “Ms. Marmite Lover” is a big hit and in demand. She is regularly featured on British media and is a passionate dynamo who attends festivals doing demos, contributes avidly to social networks and has just come out with a brilliant and beautiful cookbook called Supper Club, available on Amazon.
She has a blog called The English Can Cook – a concept I certainly endorse.
Her pseudonym Ms. Marmite Lover comes from her love of that salty spread (another thing she and I have in common) which she consumes every day for breakfast on toast. She even replicated Marmite using scum off the first fermentation of hops from a small brewery and by tapping her “connections in the Marmite world.” A fellow sleuth, I was keen to taste her home-made version. Its aroma was identical to the commercial product. We both agreed, however, that hers was slightly bitter and somewhat saltier. Impressive work but a work in progress.
Along with tea, Kerstin served me a delicious slice of rich, truffley chocolate cake she’d made and told me about her plans for soirees she’ll be holding during next year’s Olympics. That menu, she notes with a smile, will include “runner beans.”
I had to leave London a few days later so, sadly, couldn’t have dinner at her home eatery. A definite date for my next London visit.