Silvena Rowe, a celebrity chef in the U.K., is entering the U.S. spotlight this Thursday when the new ABC series Time Machine Chefs blasts off. Described as a cross between Top Chef and Dr. Who, the show re-imagines feasts during the Ming Dynasty, for instance, or Tudor England. Competing chefs are allowed to use only the tools and ingredients available during that time as well as work without running water. Rowe, an author of six cookbooks and the chef at Quince, a topflight Eastern Mediterranean restaurant in London, is a judge. Last night she talked via Skype from England's Lake District where she's filming another cooking show for the BBC.
I watched a clip from Time Machine Chefs where you say, 'I could have eaten the brains of 50 of those ducks.' Is there anything you won't eat?
I'll eat anything if I'm sufficiently hungry. I'm not shy to eat any food. I'm very greedy.
How do you keep your weight down?
I work out four times a week and try to do controlled portions. Very occasionally I may decide to go on some sort of diet and I fall into depression. I find it very dull. My dreams are suppressed. Food makes my world go round in a big way.
Which places in New York have you liked lately?
I absolutely love Red Rooster. Roberta's in Brooklyn. I love Mario Batali's Babbo. Andrew Carmellini is a genius. Two places in the world are the most exciting for eating right now. One is New York and one is Istanbul. My father was Turkish so I know it like the back of my hand. Istanbul is the best-kept secret in many ways. I travel for food. I don't travel for the beach.
Press materials emphasize how you equate food and sex. Are you married or single?
Very much married. Marriage and sex are not mutually exclusive. Food and sex are inseparable. I like flowers in my food, I like lightness, vibrancy. Texture is very important. It's about the passion I have for food. I don't read anything except books and magazines about food. I never read novels. You can say, 'Oh, my God,' she doesn't read, but I want to be the best I can be in my profession. I don't have the patience for a novel, even if it's a love story, unless it's about food. My references are not meant to be indecent or improper. They are to say that food should be alluring, seductive, make you happy to be alive, not to just help you be alive.
I read you did the food on David Cronenberg's film, Eastern Promises.
This was very exciting. I got approached by David Cronenberg's team to be a consultant on the food. The film is very much about the Mafia and all the deals are done around food on the table. The Russian Mafia is no different from the Italian Mafia in that sense. We've all see The Godfather. I had to create an explosion of textures, colors, fluorescent caviar, meat and fish. Naomi Watts was pregnant and wouldn't eat caviar. But Mr. Cronenberg was totally seduced by the most mouthwatering blini I prepared for him every day with a huge mountain of Beluga caviar. Naomi had a lot of borscht. My borscht is to die for, a glorious purple liquid.
You're Bulgarian and Turkish so what brought you to London?
My husband is British. I've lived in London a long time.
What did you think of the Olympics?
The Olympics were mind-blowing. The athletes were so impeccably behaved. Everything was perfect. Britain is great, but America is where I should be living. I love how you celebrate success and confidence and nurture it. You're not ashamed of it. In Britain, even now, with the success of the Olympics, they're finding it difficult to say, 'Wow!' America is the most progressive place in the world for me. I love your food scene. I love the chefs, especially Art Smith [featured on Time Machine Chefs]. I feel very much at home there, not foreign.
I read a New York Times story about London restaurants being empty during the Olympics. Was that the case at Quince?
Yes. I've never had an empty restaurant, but I wasn't alone. London -- it was like a bomb was dropped. Mayfair, where my restaurant is, usually has a lot of buzz and life. August is a quiet period but certainly not that quiet. The British authorities over-reacted. They told people to work from home, don't come into the city. Because they're British, they listened. What other nation queues for a bus so well? It was a disaster from that point of view, a very bad decision. Fellow chefs had to close for lunch or closed early at dinner. I've never seen so many restaurants empty. The security was so tight even a pigeon couldn't land.
You had the U.S. female rowers, who won the gold, at your restaurant.
Oh, my God, this was a big day for me. Fabulous, amazing stars, Orlando Bloom, and so many others, have been to my restaurant, but those girls, they melted my heart. They were the most incredible, strong, shining young women. To have them in my kitchen -- I was so star-struck.
With Time Machine Chefs traveling over time, is there any era you would not have wanted to live through?
I wouldn't have liked to live through the Depression. That wouldn't be much fun, but it would be very challenging. Time Machine Chefs is very realistic and eye-opening in the way it presents the cooking conditions in every period of time, but it's also a dreamy, whimsical, fantastical cooking show. We are so tired of plain competitions where people are mean to each other and vitriolic language is being used.
As a judge, you're described as Simon Cowell-esque. Isn't that mean?
Simon Cowell is not nasty. Gordon Ramsay is nasty. Simon Cowell has his finger on the pulse. He's direct, he says it like it is. I'm outspoken but never nasty or unfair.