Catching up with Chef Fiona
Personalised menus and Perfect Stays-approved brownies
As we ease into the period of mince pies and mulled wine, quality family time has never been so important. We may only be able to celebrate in small groups for the moment, but we’re firm believers that it’s the finer details that make all the difference.
Famed for her side-line sushi business, personalised menus and local flavours, Chef Fiona NZ is one of the UK’s most-loved private chefs. Earlier this month, Fiona kindly treated us all to a homemade lunch. With boxes of sushi and brownies in hand, we were delighted to sample the excellent flavours that set her apart.
We caught up with Chef Fiona to find out a little more about her story, what makes South West produce so delicious and of course, her speciality sushi.
How did Chef Fiona come to be?
Like most chefs, I ultimately wanted my own restaurant, but the financials never seemed to add up. After a trip to Iceland five years ago, I decided to take a sabbatical and leave my job – I had worked as a head chef for 20 years in some prestigious establishments across the South West and was also included in The Independent’s top 10 UK female chefs. Yet, I was exhausted; I wanted a life outside of work, and I didn’t think I wanted to continue cooking for a living, so I started with some freelance temporary work. Working long hours was entrenched within me, so it was difficult to step away from the routine. So much for the sabbatical!
Then, a fellow chef asked me to cover a private dining booking of his. I enjoyed it so much that I decided there and then that this was the avenue I wanted to pursue. I love the ability to be flexible with menus, to channel my creativity and have direct contact with those eating, rather than being behind the scenes in a kitchen. It was completely different and so liberating for me!
Although it was a slow start due to my freelance bookings, I soon saw a significant increase in private dining bookings and was able to stop the temporary work. I’m so delighted that private dining is now very much the core focus of Chef Fiona NZ.
What was the driving force behind starting FI Sells Sushi?
“It all started with a large bag of sushi rice…”
During lockdown, we spent the majority of our time either cooking or tackling the time consuming gardening jobs. We ate lots of sushi, which was great. I posted a few photos on Instagram and several people asked if I’d sell it – cue the light bulb moment! After all, it would be a good way to use up that 10kg bag of rice.
So, we decided to give it a go. We set a date, posted the menu and let the orders flow in. We thought a delivery service would be the best approach, as not only was everybody at home during this time, but nobody else was offering a sushi delivery service. I’ve been a sushi lover for over 30 years so it’s nothing new to me, and after years of pondering over starting a business dedicated to it, the timing was finally right.
And the name? Well, it’s not Fi as in Fiona, but FI for Fiona and Iain. We have plans to venture into other new territories in the forthcoming months, so there’s plenty more to come.
Can you talk us through your cookery lessons?
My cookery lessons are very hands-on – I encourage students to get stuck in and create a dish from start to finish. I source all ingredients and provide detailed recipes, trying my hardest to make sure the dishes are easy enough to be replicated at home, but also challenging enough to learn something new, whether this is a new technique or unusual ingredients.
I’m originally from New Zealand and I’ve travelled far and wide over the years, so I’ve tasted and cooked foods from several different countries. I find it so exciting and I love sharing this experience with others.
How do your menus differ from season to season?
I cook very much with the seasons. The warmer months are wonderful, as I’m able to use many ingredients that I’ve grown myself. I endeavour to keep this going through seasonal planting. I also utilise a variety of wild herbs and flowers, but only if they bring something to the dish. I don’t believe in aesthetic garnishes – the flavours must blend well together.
I try to keep a lightness to my cooking, but as the weather becomes cooler, the demand for rich, comforting foods increases. Although, beef wellington has been a big seller all throughout the summer this year.
Who are your favourite local suppliers?
Hanson Fine Foods is definitely at the top of my list. Thomas offers an array of incredible local cheeses and other delicious comestibles, and delivers to parts of Cornwall during the week. Trevaskis Farm and Richard’s Farm Shop are both great for sourcing local ingredients too.
What do you love most about South West produce?
We’re incredibly fortunate in the South West with ingredients, as everything is so fresh. I often hear from clients how they can’t believe how fresh the seafood is down here compared to what they’re able to access at home.
My partner grew up in the South West and returned here after travelling around New Zealand, which is where we met. We’ve called it home for a long time now. We bought a little granite cottage with a big garden a few years back and decided we were ready to settle down, keep chickens, grow vegetables and make cider from our own apples. This felt like the right place to do it. Fresh air, amazing scenery, incredible local produce and space to move. We love it!
Although government guidelines don’t allow for large gatherings at the moment, how do you ensure every experience is extra special?
For me, it’s always all about the guest experience. I want my clients to have a personalised menu with flavours they enjoy. Ultimately, the food is the focal point, not my ego as a chef; that is incredibly important to me. I pride myself on my very personal approach where I aim to achieve an in-depth understanding of what my clients want, and then I do my best to exceed their expectations with finishing touches and attention to detail.
How have you made the private chef experience Covid-safe?
Social distancing and extra attention to hygiene practices couldn’t be more crucial during this uncertain time. I always clean and sanitise work surfaces and hand contact points before I start, during and afterwards. It isn’t a significant change for me as I really am always fastidious with my hygiene practices.
I always wear a face mask and religiously wash my hands, but communication is so important. I want to ensure my clients feel comfortable at all times, so there’s always a conversation about how the food will be served to ensure social distancing is maintained for everyone’s safety.