Russell and Juliette Joffe, founders of restaurant chain Giraffe, were childhood "eat-hearts". They met at Hendon County school (alma mater of Peter Mandelson, Gerald Ratner, and Robert Earl of Planet Hollywood) at the tender age of 13. Throughout their teens the foodie pair threw dinner parties - he in the kitchen, she front of house. Juliette recalls: "At the age of 13 or 14, we used to save what we earned in our weekend jobs, and go and eat at 'nice' restaurants in London, like Julie's, Leith's and Clarke's in Kensington."
The pair were (and remain) passionate about food. They live in the Hendon house where Juliette grew up, which is full of memories. "My mother was a great cook and the house was always open. There could be 40 people at our Seder night and she made huge amounts of food."
Juliette maintains the traditional Friday night either at the Hendon house, or the home of one of her three children (son, Gideon and twin daughters Mattea and Jemina, only 14 months younger, all of whom have worked in the Giraffe business), with as many of the family, including her six grandchildren, who can be there.
"Friday nights are sacred for us," she says. "I start making my chicken soup (my mother's recipe) at 6am on a Wednesday. I also prepare my own egg and onion and lockshen pudding. I'm not strictly kosher, but we only eat a kosher chicken on Friday night." Vegetarian Juliette is the only one to miss out on her soup.
Juliette may wear the apron on Friday but admits that Russell, a graduate of a catering college, cooks at other times - "he can knock up something delicious in five minutes". He does do some great traditional Jewish recipes - "his beef tsimmes is the best", she laughs.
Russell plans the recipes for the restaurants. "He spends hours in our kitchen," she says, "cooking late into the night, searching the internet and poring over books. He says a recipe must be simple and quick. It also must use seasonal ingredients, so the dish will be reasonably priced." Juliette is responsible for procurement, marketing and troubleshooting.
The couple's passion for food has led them to a string of successful restaurants over the past 27 years. After college, Russell worked at Langan's Brasserie - colleagues included Chris Corbin (Le Caprice, The Wolsey) and the late Liam Carson of The Groucho Club - before moving on to Coconut Grove and then Odette's. He and Juliette then decided to start up on their own, and they opened Bistroquet in Camden. "Fay Maschler came in and gave us a fantastic write-up. It was a huge success."
Bistroquet was followed by Café Flo, "named after the Groupe Flo brasseries that we loved in Paris", she smiles. The couple then bought Hampstead's Rosslyn Deli from its French founder. "The deli worked really well with the restaurants," she says, "as we could use off-cuts and trimmings from there to make pates and pies, keeping our wastage down."
Eight years later, in 1984, they sold out to Groupe Flo before immediately making aliyah. "I was brought up a Zionist," she says, "and this was the time for us to fulfil our dream. I love Israel and I feel like I'm home when I go there. I love the food and the lifestyle."
In Israel, she worked as a shop assistant to improve her Hebrew while Russell consulted for restaurants, and they hatched out a plan for a new concept called Giraffe. "The idea was conceived while walking on the beach," she recalls. Circumstances forced them to return to the UK, and in 1998, the first Giraffe opened in Hampstead. Fifteen years later, 43 Giraffes cover the UK, with offspring - Giraffe Cafés - in Hampstead and Wimbledon; and in Soho, Giraffe Bar and Grill Stop, complete with open-flame Japanese robata grill. All have the core Giraffe menu with some tweaks.
"The Bar and Grill offers some more expensive steaks, as well as sharing plates," says Juliette.
With a Giraffe Stop planned to open at St Pancras station in January, life is hectic. Not enough to affect the Joffes' family Friday night, though.