Mildred’s is the destination for internationally inspired vegetarian food. But before you meat lovers click the little red ‘x’ in the corner, what if we told you they’re popular with the most carnivorous of us? Yes you with the bacon in hand, dreaming of burgers. Even you will enjoy it.
We caught up with author of Mildred’s cookbook, Sarah Wasserman to find out how Mildred’s started, advice for new vegetarians and her foodie bugbears.
UO: Can you tell us a little about your background?
I’m English, which makes me unusual amongst my Mildred’s colleagues. Our head chef Daniel, whom I co-wrote the book with is Australian and Chilean. The kitchen staff span nearly every continent, so we have a huge range of international expertise on offer in the kitchen which makes it a really inspiring environment.
My parents and two of my brothers live in the United States where I spent my teenage years. I worked in lots of hippy whole food type places, the type of kitchen where you grind your own flour, so that definitely affected the way I eat and cook.
UO: Where does your passion for cooking come from?
Family. I’m luckily enough to come from a family of amazing cooks. My family were pretty much all foodies before there was such a thing. Huge family meals were very much a part of my upbringing and I think we’re all pretty adventurous eaters. Then I met my husband who is from quite a mixed heritage and brought loads of great middle eastern, eastern European and Latin American food into my life. Now we have children, I suppose we’re even more aware of our food both culturally and environmentally. You want to pass on to your children that adventurous spirit and help them to understand their heritage. Food can be a great jumping off point to have those kinds of conversations. Also we’re more aware of the environmental impact of how we eat and how that will affect the world they will inherit.
UO: Can you tell us about what Mildred’s stands for?
Well, Mildred’s was opened in 1988 by Jane Muir and her friend Diane Thomas. I think they were real visionaries because at the time vegetarian food had a real image problem. It was perceived to be all open toed sandals and brown lentils. Jane and Diane wanted a restaurant that was both contemporary and international as well as vegetarian, but without making a big deal out of the fact. The restaurant is increasingly popular because that is the way the vegetarian food scene has developed. A huge range of people are vegetarian and vegan for all kinds of reasons. Our customers like all kinds of foods and I think we have pretty much something for everyone. Also, more and more people who are omnivores enjoy eating vegetarian food. Mildred’s is a bustling restaurant that serves great food. It just happens to also be vegetarian.
UO: What do you believe makes for a healthy diet?
I don’t consider myself a paragon of healthy eating and I’m actually not vegetarian or vegan myself anymore, though I was for nearly a decade. The advice around nutrition seems to change constantly. It can be very confusing but as a very general rule of thumb I think if the majority of your diet is fresh fruit and vegetables and you avoid too much processed food, you won’t go too far wrong. Though we’re not a vegetarian household we do eat mainly vegetarian meals, and I do find the less meat I eat the healthier and more energetic I feel.
UO: What advice would you give to a new vegetarian?
Don’t think of it as missing out on something, but as an opportunity to explore lots of great new food. I would find the best few vegetarian restaurants in my area and try out some new dishes. Obviously buy some lovely new cookbooks. Generally get out there and engage with the vegetarian community.
UO: What’s exciting you about food at the moment?
I like how engaged people are with food at the moment. I love the fact that the debate around how we produce food and how we eat is really part of the public consciousness. We’ve had two festivals in our local patch of East London over the summer, and they were packed with food trucks and stands.
I love the new farmers markets and startups springing up all over the country. I love the fact as you travel around the UK you find regional food produced locally. The notion that Britain is a nation of meat and potatoes is thoroughly outdated.
UO: What do you love most about your job?
Working with with Daniel and Jane is loads of fun and keeps you fresh. When we were working on the book, Daniel and I would go to Mildred’s every Sunday – the only day we shut the restaurant – and experiment. Jane would come and try things, make suggestions and run around Soho and Chinatown buying ingredients for us. A couple of times we made a big party out of it. Jane has fantastic taste so it feels good when you come up with something she loves. Daniel is one of those people who always has a new project on the go, always has a new idea or trying a new restaurant. He doesn’t sit around and think about things, he gets out there and does it. Together they create an atmosphere where fresh thinking is really encouraged, but with an emphasis on high standards. It’s a great place to work.
UO: Tell us about the creation process when putting together new recipes
When we’re looking for new items for the menu, we try to create a balance both in the origin of the dish (Asian, British ..etc) and type (salad, substantial main …etc) so that helps steer the decision one way or the other. Then we generally get input from the whole team and try a few things out. Sometimes it’s a case of finding a gap that we aren’t filling in on the menu. For example, we recently added more raw dishes, including an amazing chocolate cake.
When Im trying things out at home I push myself to try new things. I like my veg box because things will come that I wouldn’t buy and I have to just come up with something. Books are quite often the place I start or I’ll adapt something I’ve eaten out and enjoyed.
What’s your hero ingredient?
This is really hard. I’m very torn, but I think I’m going to have to say coconut. It’s pretty amazing, particularly for vegan dishes because it gives you that great creamy texture to curries and soups but also to vegan desserts like coconut panna cotta or mousse cake. Fresh, it’s fantastic in pickles and sambal. Toasted, it makes crumb for coating the outside of a spicy potato cake or adds texture to granola. Now there are loads of great sugar substitutes like coconut nectar or coconut sugar. It’s also great for cocktails. Pretty amazing all round.
UO: Do you have any foodie bugbears?
Well just a niggly thing. I really don’t like it when something is supposed to be eaten with your hands and it’s made too big and messy to do so. Things like burgers or tacos. It’s something you find a lot in the U.S – this urge to keep piling on the ingredients until you end up with a big sloppy mess that gets all over you. Bigger is definitely not always better.
UO: What’s been your biggest challenge to date?
Hmm I’m not sure. In terms of the book, being disciplined about writing every aspect of a recipe down was definitely more challenging than expected. As a chef you get used to working off the cuff, adding a little of this here, a bit more of that there, and not really keeping track. Making ourselves write down every little adjustment took some getting used to.
UO: Can you tell us about how your book, Mildred’s came together? Has it been a long-term ambition to release a recipe book?
Yes, it has been something Dan and I have been working towards for a number of years. We started a Mildred’s blog together years ago to try out ideas and keep track of specials. It felt great to make something lasting out of what can sometimes be quite an ephemeral profession. When the opportunity came up to create a book with publishers Octopus, we already had a recipe list worked out. We were ready to go. On a personal level, I love cookbooks. I grew up in houses full of cookbooks. I have a house full of cookbooks. Both Daniel and I remember having favourite childhood books and coming home from school and making buns and things. It’s amazing to have a book of our own – and such a gorgeous one too.
UO: What’s next for Mildred’s in 2015 and beyond?
Well, our next big exciting adventure is our new restaurants. The first will be in Camden Town. Mildred’s will always be in Soho but we are so insanely busy there. People often have to queue for an hour or two for a table. It’s time to share the love with the rest of London. The new restaurants will have their own feel and personality but with all the Mildred’s classics. We’ll be introducing lots of new talent into what has been quite a close knit team, so that should bring in some really exciting new ideas. Watch this space!
My favourite breakfast is… Long stemmed large leaf spinach sautéed with garlic, roast field or portobello mushroom, poached eggs, half an avocado, toasted sourdough with a splash of olive oil and garlic and a big drizzle of salty chilli sauce.
The best thing about my job is… The people. We do work really hard but we have good time.
My favourite snack is… I’m making a lot of homemade granola at the moment. Dark chocolate and coconut. It gives you a great energy kick and is super yummy.
Out of breakfast, lunch, dinner, my favourite has to be… Dinner. I like to eat early and drag it out. Then wait for someone else to wash up.
I’m currently listening to… At work, I listen to BBC 6 music. At home, I tend towards something low key. At the moment I’m enjoying Fool’s Gold, the new Sufjan Steven’s album Carrie and Lowell and Obvious Child by Paul Simon is a big ear worm.
My favourite way to relax is… I wish I could say something healthy like marathon running or hot yoga but I’m on my feet all day. I do find cooking really relaxing. I like disappearing into the kitchen and listening to the radio and creating something to share with friends and family. A close second has to be being laid up on the sofa with chocolate and Netflix.
RAW VEGAN CHOCOLATE MOUSSE CAKE WITH BLACKBERRIES
This is a great time of year to forage for blackberries. They are optional in this rich mousse cake but when they are at their juiciest, like now, it’s nice to fold a few in to give the cake texture and add a little tang. This is a really easy cake to make. It can be simplified even more by just making the topping which can be served as a mousse.
A few ingredients may seem a little unusual, but most are available at good whole food stores or source online. Also, if you’re not a raw purest you can substitute non-raw cocoa powder etc. The cake has been a really popular addition to our menu and I guarantee will be a great way to end any meal – vegan or otherwise.
Makes One 9 inch/22 inch Cake, serves 8-12
100g Flaked Almonds
30g Raw coconut flakes or desiccated coconut
200g Dried dates or Prunes
2 tsp alcohol free vanilla essence
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp flakes sea salt
3 tbsp coconut oil
For the filling:
3 Ripe Avocado
80g coconut oil
200g raw coconut sugar
120g raw cacao powder
350ml almond milk
1 packet creamed coconut
2 tsp raw vanilla essence
1. Oil and line a nine inch / 22cm springform cake tin.
2. Blend all the ingredients for the base in a food processor until thoroughly broken down. Scoop the mix into the tin and press down with your fingers until the base is evenly covered. Place in the fridge while you make the mousse.
3. Blend all ingredients except blackberries together until smooth. Fold in the blackberries. Scoop the filling on top of base and smooth with a spatula. Sprinkle with cocoa powder and maybe a few cacao nibs and refrigerate for around four hours or overnight.