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On a bitterly cold day a couple of weeks ago I visited an oasis of calm, tranquility and Parisian charm – La Sophia, just off London’s Portobello Road. When La Sophia was first set up in April 2010, it became the first halal French restaurant in the entire world – following suit was Asia and the Middle East but La Sophia still remains the only halal categorically French restaurant in the UK. Advertised as ‘French Mediterranean cuisine with unique Palestinian ingredients’ the fusion of tastes, cultures and inspiration is at first mind-boggling but once the menu is sampled, you can see that it has been done with ease; the food (and general ambiance) is truly beautiful.
I sat down to have a word with the owner and head chef – Chef Ali – to talk about La Sophia and gain a further insight into who this enigmatic, classically trained chef really is and his plans for the future.
Ali is touted as the UK’s ‘premier halal chef’ having worked alongside various celebrities in the gastronomy world – including Michelin star chef Gordon Ramsey. Born in Palestine and working in the Tel Aviv restaurant circuit until the age of 19, Ali left for Europe and so began a journey of self, or rather, gastronomical, discovery that saw him venture across the world.
Ali tells me that on his travels he was keen to visit the villages, he wanted to taste food the way it “should be cooked” and wanted to get tips from the true experts – locals, “normal people”. Visiting localities across Europe and Canada, it was in Normandy, France that Ali gained a love for the French cuisine – and so a lifelong passion, respect and infatuation for what is a niche in halal cuisine began.
La Sophia is Chef Ali’s first restaurant, a family run business named after his daughter. Living close to the premises, ingredients are locally sourced; vegetables and herbs are collected from Portobello market daily, local fisheries are used and the meat is entirely halal – and organic. Offering fare such as venison and rabbit makes La Sophia a true niche on the halal scene; the menu is constantly evolving and varies seasonally.
Ali’s love for his restaurant and work is more than apparent when you speak to him; as our conversation continues, it becomes clear that he has intertwined the national pride and passion he feels for his home – for his Palestine – with the love he has for his food. Numerous contrasting herbs and flavours are a staple in Palestinian cooking and Ali incorporates this into the menu at La Sophia. Following the success of the restaurant, I ask Ali whether he has any plans for opening another one – not at the moment, he tells me, he has greater more pressing plans.
“I go back home to Palestine every year and I want to change the mentality that many Palestinians have to cooking and food hygiene. The food in Palestine is so rich, so delicious but the hygiene and storage standard is very weak. There are so many TV shows aired in Palestine dedicated to cooking and people want to be trained, they want their children to be trained – trained properly. There isn’t much scope in Palestine for funding for things like this, so I myself am working on a big project to make a change” Ali says. The acclaimed chef is planning on opening up a banqueting restaurant and school in the West Bank, a charitable venture that will give 13-20year olds basic kitchen training and ambition. Looking to recruit up to 50 students at any one time, Ali proposes that they will spend three days a week in the class room and two days in the kitchen, gaining practical, ‘on the job’ training and experience.
Ali continues, “These children need to be nurtured. I am not interested in teaching them solely about French cooking, I want them to have standards – I want them to have something to aspire to. After taking part in my course they will gain a qualification, something that they can put to good use. Whether they go and work for high-end restaurants, work in a falafel shop or open their own premises, I don’t care. Standards should never be compromised”.
At the moment, Ali’s plans are being completely self-funded, but he will be looking for potential investment as his venture continues to bear fruit. He is currently in the process of training his kitchen staff to take over the restaurant so that he can spend more time in his homeland laying the foundations for what he feels will be his greatest achievement to date. When will this all be up and running? “In the next two years, insh’Allah” I’m told.
As our interview draws to an end, Chef Ali brings me out a mammoth meal (mammoth for a lone diner anyway!): Jerusalem artichoke soup with roasted shallots and white truffle oil, aubergine mille-feuille with grilled halloumi, chilli, tomato concasse, pecan and parsley pesto and for my main course, pan fried free range chicken breast with garlic, artichoke, potato gratin and truffle sauce.
Everything was cooked to complete perfection and the inclusion of premium, excellent quality ingredients was highly noticeable. I recommend all of you to pay La Sophia a visit, but if you can’t (why not?!), Chef Ali has given me the recipe of his most popular starter to share so that you too can have a little taste of France at home.
bon appétit !
Oven roast aubergine with fried halloumi, chilli and parsley pesto
Total time for preparation and cooking: 30 minutes
This dish is great served with baby mix leaf salad (or a salad of your choice)