Natasha Abraham cannot believe her luck. Since September, the 24-year-old has been chef patron of The Orchard — a tiny canteen-style eatery, a stone’s throw from trendy Portobello Road in West London.
“It’s hard work as I start at 5am, and it’s difficult not to be thinking of it all of the time, but it is such a huge luxury to make something you have dreamed of come true,” she smiles.
Abraham has been writing menus since she was 12. “This has been in my head for years — I even designed the logo six or seven years ago,” she admits.
Although she would not describe herself as traditional, there is something of the Jewish mother about her. She enjoys nothing more than feeding people. “I’m trying to make my guests feel well-fed and looked after — whether they want coffee and cake or a full meal.”
For her, food is a family and social affair. “Eating on your own just isn’t the same experience. Not everyone has the time to prepare home-cooked food and it is nice for people to come and eat a communal meal.”
Abraham learned her trade at the River Café — where Jamie Oliver was discovered. She started polishing glasses during her summer holidays from her degree at St John’s College, Oxford, where she studied Russian and German literature. She speaks fluent French, Russian and German.
“I was due to go Berlin for my year abroad, but after that summer I just couldn’t leave,” she enthuses.
So smitten was she with life at the Michelin-starred restaurant that she progressed to waitressing. Head chef Sian Wyn Owen, noticing her foodie passion, let her view proceedngs in the kitchen. After spending every available minute there, she was eventually allowed to prepare some side dishes.
Wyn Owen ultimately offered her an apprenticeship. “They were so good to me,” Abraham smiles. “The River Café is like a family. Ruth [Rogers, the owner] is very into your well-being and they really took me under their wing.”
She admits that, as at any top restaurant, the pressure is intense, but unlike many other kitchens, the atmosphere is nurturing. During her two-and-a-half-year stint there she worked her way up to preparing main meals.
Her food ethos is derived from the River Café, as well as from the food she ate at home. “My mother is a fantastic cook — her food was all about no-fuss cooking. She makes the most amazing chicken soup from a whole chicken and barely prepared vegetables, simmered for five hours.”
Abraham describes her food as simple, and wholesome. Influenced by meals on childhood holidays in Greece and Spain, she believes that you can create delicious food with limited ingredients. “Swiss mountain food is a good example. They prepare food with limited ingredients and make the best of what they have.”
Which is what Abraham has done with the tiny Orchard. There is no kitchen in the former coat shop as her planning licence does not allow her to prepare food on-site. “This has been filled with challenges” she admits. “Hygiene rules only allow me to offer unrefrigerated, cooked food for four hours, so I decided to restrict my opening hours to three.”
Each day she prepares two main courses and desserts and a cake. Ingredients are seasonal and the menu is based on what is in her fridge or cupboard with an eye on the weather forecast.
“My menu needs to stand up to being served as a room temperature or cold dish so I have to plan with that in mind,” she says. She has two soup kettles from which she serves hearty, warming soups. “Soups you can stand your spoon up in,” she laughs.
Assisted by a glowing endorsement from Ruth Rogers, The Orchard is trading well. “We are already doing between 30 and 60 covers each day with many regulars” she smiles. “Not bad on fewer than 10 seats.”