Lidl has won over a lot of shoppers lately. Celebrity chef Silvena Rowe is one of them - and she’s not afraid to admit it.
“I love Lidl,” she says, defiantly. “I buy amazing ingredients there, like yoghurt and charcuterie. Plus the vegetables are no different from other supermarkets, and the prices are good.”
It’s surprising to hear a chef raving about Lidl instead of foraging or foams. Then again, Silvena Rowe is anything but predictable. She’s a livewire with a killer haircut, piercing blue eyes and outspoken opinions. And when The Grocer met her to talk food and drink, it’s obvious she couldn’t care less what anyone thinks about her penny-pinching habits.
“I’m frugal,” she shrugs, before telling me about being caught rummaging through the reduced section in Waitrose. At the checkout, self-confessed Twitter addict Rowe checked her iPhone. “Someone had tweeted ‘I just saw chef Silvena Rowe browsing in the reduced section in Waitrose!’ I just laughed and replied: ‘Never one to miss a bargain!’”
Asked where else she likes to shop for food, Rowe confesses to “actively avoiding” the other supermarkets, which she finds “cluttered and disorganised”. And she can’t understand why people do all their shopping in one place. “I feel sorry for people with overflowing trolleys spending £300. I think, why are you spending so much here? I get all my meat from the butcher.”
Discussing local butchers inevitably brings up horsemeat. Rowe lets rip. Her husband used to run an “amazingly profitable” wine company before the “very powerful supermarkets squeezed more and more until it became impossible to breathe”. She believes the same attitudes caused ‘Horsegate’
Lives: Forest Hill
Status: Married with two grown-up children
Signature dish: Persian pulled lamb with a sauce soubise and white truffles. Very simple, good and clean
Favourite restaurant: Nobu
Favourite comfort food: Red rice with pistachios, dry berries, fruits and herbs. It’s amazing
Favourite bottle of wine: I’ve never drunk any alcohol. My husband was in the wine industry. At an early age I was squashing grapes in a barrel, but I have never drunk wine
Career high: Quince was amazing. But I am aiming higher now
Career low: I’m never low. I’m very upbeat and it is very hard for me to get depressed. People hold my strength against me but I am from Bulgaria, a tiny Communist country. When I arrived in the UK I didn’t speak English and had to battle my way up. The strength I possess has always carried me forward
Favourite TV Show: Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge. I love any Victorian dramas
Least favourite TV show: Any cookery programme without me in it!’.
“The reason suppliers did what they did is because, as a supplier, you are squeezed into a corner and left with no choice. Horsemeat has probably been happening for years because of the ethics of supermarkets and the pressure they put on suppliers.”
She also calls for supermarket buyers to show more “humanity” when dealing with suppliers and do more than just slap a picture of a farmer standing in a field next to his cows on the packaging.
“They need to say, ‘I know this chicken is costing you more to produce, so I will give you more money’. The dairy farmers are another example. I’m surprised we still have British milk on the shelves.”
Rowe’s “amazing” local butcher is William Rose in Dulwich. “If I don’t get my meat from my butcher I’m going vegetarian and that’s saying something because I’m such a carnivore. Why even buy Bacon from a supermarket? Forget it! I pay £8 per kilo from my butcher and there is no water, no white residue.”
Rowe also gets her fish from a fishmonger, or occasionally ventures into Billingsgate fish market. Last time she emerged with a giant salmon. “It was bigger than me! My kitchen was covered in scales and I was swearing… scaling… swearing… scaling… I butchered the damn fish! But now it’s in the freezer, portioned up, and it’s a lot cheaper than the supermarket.”
Her favourite independent is Turkish supermarket TFC, a 14-strong chain that sprang up in 1980. She buys “herbs, spices, tomatoes” there. She gets her bread from the Brick House Bakery in Peckham, where she’s “addicted” to the sourdough.
Today she has opted for a more recherché destination, the Harrods Ladurée restaurant, which is tucked behind the stunning food hall. “Food porn,” says Rowe.
She’s just polished off lunch. “I’m very greedy, I stuffed my face,” but she still insists we try a selection of the “beautiful” macaroons while she reminisces about falling in love with food at an early age. “I always think about food. If you’re not looking at your food I’ll snatch it from under your nose! Nothing will put me off. The other day I was blowing up a duck’s arse to separate the skin from the body just to make sure it went perfectly crisp!”
Rowe “just wants to feed people” and would like to see her own range of products hit shelves. She dipped a toe in the water with Waitrose three years ago, starting its Delicatessen range, but the partnership dissolved after Waitrose asked her to start swapping canned ingredients for fresh and imposed strict limits on salt. “Eventually, I lost interest. But I will be back.”
Rowe firmly believes there is a niche in the market for “marinades, rubs, herbs and spices from the Eastern Mediterranean” and that her ideal range would offer up classic British recipes with an “interesting twist”. Asked which supermarket she would like to work with, this time the answer comes as no surprise.
“I’d pick Lidl,” she grins. “With own ranges you put your name and your reputation to it - and I am not ashamed to be seen there. Plus I have an image of being very strong, confident and feisty, which is good for a brand ambassador. It would be nice to create recipes for them, or a range of products.”
She’s certainly got a bit of free time on her hands after leaving her acclaimed restaurant, Quince, to focus on building the Silvena Rowe brand through various food-related projects, including starring in the BBC show Country Show Cook Off. She’s typically unfazed by the challenge and says: “My time is definitely coming.”
A call from her favourite discounter might be coming, too.