Food memories from childhood by local chef proprietor Uğur Vata of The Galley

Interview by Julie Foster January 2010

What do you remember most about the meals of your childhood?

The excitement and eccentricity of meal times, as well as the great food. Meals were very much about the family. They were not rushed like family meals often are today. Life was less hectic and mum was always at home. There was no TV and the time we spent at the meal table was an entertaining and a very social affair full of laughter. My mother did all the cooking, helped by us children. She relied on fresh, seasonal food cooked very much in the Mediterranean style. Meat was very expensive so soups, rice and beans with lots of vegetables and salads were typical.

What were the fruits and vegetables you liked best?

I adored all the green vegetables especially baby spinach, leeks (a favourite), dandelion leaves and of course Cos lettuce. One of my all time favourite meals as a child was lamb on the bone with cooked Cos lettuce— yes, lettuce served hot with a little olive oil and lemon juice. Herbs were also important— anything that could be gathered fresh. I particularly remember the sharp lemon taste of sorrel and fresh dill, both of which I still use.

Do you still have your mother’s recipes?

Yes, in my head. She never used a recipe book, she just cooked whatever was available. Rabbit stew was a favourite choice with us kids. The memories of my mother’s rabbit stew cooked with herbs and chickpeas and served with spiced cabbage and a sultana or beetroot compote are still strong. One of the key skills of inspirational cooking is about balancing flavours and textures. The sweet compote balanced perfectly with the flavours of the rabbit. I am bringing rabbit back on to the menu at The Galley. I already cook with local game and it is very popular with the diners.

Do you follow cooking trends?

I follow my instincts and listen to my customers. I am passionate about using the very best ingredients available—nothing less will do. I spend a lot of time getting to know the suppliers. They know me and they know how particular I am. They become my friends and we work together always making sure we have the top quality. I follow the food seasons and my love of local seasonal food undoubtedly started in my childhood and whilst I am aware of the latest food trends, that is not what drives me. It is my customers and the seasons.

What about the trend for healthier eating?

At The Galley our use of fresh local ingredients has meant that we have always served very healthy food. We are also cooking individually for each customer which means we can easily take care of their preferences and any specific dietary needs. We do include what are fashionably known as ‘super foods’ however for us the customer’s needs and preferences have always been at the heart of what we do. It is a philosophy not a trend.

Beetroot has had a lot of publicity recently as a ‘super food’.
Has that influenced you?

I think I influenced everyone else as I have been serving this ‘super food’ since I opened my restaurant many years ago. The beetroot in East Anglia is the best tasting in the world. On my menu at the moment I am offering a beetroot salad served with locally smoked mackerel from Orford. All my customers love it. It is awesome, simply awesome! I cannot say anymore, you must come and try it!

Who has influenced your cooking style the most?

I am very lucky to have worked alongside some of the greatest chefs, however my mother remains one of my greatest inspirations. She was taught to cook by the Family Cook, one of the most famous chefs in Istanbul. He was a Turkish Jew and incorporated his rich and varied cultural history into his cooking. My mother, like him, was passionate about using the very best of seasonal ingredients and had an amazing instinct and a creative flair. That enabled her to present the most incredible meals that people from all over my town talked about.

Is a good meal all about the cooking?

Of course the food and the cooking always has to be the very best and the meal perfectly prepared to satisfy each individual customer. However a great restaurant experience is also about the atmosphere and hospitality. It matters to me that customers coming to The Galley restaurants feel very welcome; they are like our personal guests. As a family restaurant we work hard to achieve that and we know that unlike the bigger restaurants and hotel groups we can achieve that. It is not customer service, it is genuine customer care from the heart.

What do you remember about the atmosphere at childhood mealtimes

I remember that meal times were hugely enjoyable, very exiting and sometimes eccentric. My mother would make mashed potato and shape it into a chicken with parsley for feathers, a carrot for a beak and a peppercorn for an eye. It was art that we could eat, and eat it we did as the mashed potato was delicious—I can still taste it now. It made us love food. There was no such thing as a a “fussy eater” in my childhood.

What is your favourite food memory?

Saturday mornings, after a half-day at school, lunch was our reward. It was always thick rough-cut chips, piled high on a big plate. They were served with homemade yoghurt and crushed garlic. Simple, but mouth-wateringly delicious. The memory of those Saturday lunchtimes is the inspiration for the chips we serve now at The Galley. Made with local potatoes and cut into big chunky chips (healthier) they are irresistible.

The presentation of food at The Galley is considered by many to be the best in the region, if not the country.

Right from childhood when my mother presented food that was incredibly beautiful, I have felt driven to present dishes in a way that will give people joy. I am an artist and a craftsman—I make my art with food and unlike the beautiful pictures in my restaurant it does not stay as it gets eaten. However the picture of my food stays in the mind. It has to be so good that food eaten stays in the memory card of the brain. That’s what brings my customers back again and again, that is what makes them tell their friends.

Fabulous food and a superb art collection are not the only reasons why your restaurants are famous. I have heard about the olives?

My olives are specially selected for the very best quality, then they are marinated in the the finest olive oil infused with the delicate flavour of fresh herbs and bespoke seasoning. The recipe has been passed down from my grandfather and it is a closely guarded secret. My olives, my Turkish Delight ice cream, my olive oil, my coffee—they all have to be the ultimate in quality and taste. This attention to detail is what sets The Galley apart from all the other restaurants.

The recession is hitting the restaurant trade and independent restaurants like yours are finding it tough. What is the secret of your success?

Yes it is tough, but we are lucky to have very supportive customers. Success is about trust and personal service. My customers are like friends. They trust me, and my staff, whom I have trained myself to choose the very best ingredients then cook to the highest standard just for them. I import my own wine and it is carefully chosen to compliment the food. Every aspect of the dining experience contributes to a memorable meal and our enthusiasm, skill and above all passion to offer and do the very best never wanes. There is nothing that pleases me more than a satisfied customer at the end of the evening who says, “See you soon”, and they do.

What have you got planned for 2010?

We are working as hard as ever to bring our customers a seasonal programme of great food and interesting events. Thank you for the great feedback and you can be sure that we will be including all of your suggestions.

How will I know about them?

Please register on our home page and we will keep in contact (please be assured that we will not pass on your details to anyone else).