The Box Tree Restaurant in Ilkley, owned and managed by Simon and Rena Gueller has quite the reputation when it comes to incredible food and talented chefs. From the likes of Michael Lawson to Marco-Pierre White, the Box Tree has seen many famed faces walk through its doors, with the most recent being Samira Effa, previous Head Chef of now-closed Alimentum in Cambridge. Taking the position of head chef in 2018, Samira hopes to revive the restaurant back to its former glory after the loss of their Michelin star last year. Confident, ambitious and yet down to earth, Samira’s warmth and love for cooking radiates as she gives a few last-minute directions to her all-male kitchen team before we sit down to chat about her Food Story. We talk about the inspiration behind her cooking, the pressure of regaining the Box Tree’s Michelin star and being a contestant on the 2019 Great British Menu.
Well we might as well get stuck in! Where did your food story begin?
It started off in Huddersfield as that is where I was born and where I grew up. I got my first part-time job after I completed two-weeks work experience during year 10 at a place called Bradley’s in Huddersfield that has since closed down. I worked there for two weeks and then they offered me a part-time job in the kitchen and that is where it all began! I did take food technology when I was in school so I always had an interest in food anyway, and then it went on went from there.
The last restaurant you were working at was Alimentum in Cambridge. How did you find that?
Well, I had actually worked there before around 4 years ago. When I left I was Sous Chef and when I got asked to come back four years later it was for the Head Chef position. It was very good, but it was also very up and down. In 2018 the owners decided that they no longer wanted to carry it on, and that is how I ended up at the Box Tree. When the restaurant closed I got put in touch with Simon Gueller through Daniel Clifford of Midsummer House in Cambridge, and that is how I ended up taking the job here.
So where did you go between leaving Alimentum the first time and then going back as the Head Chef?
I left Alimentum to go and work at Bohemia for Steve Smith in Jersey. I was there for about nine months and my boyfriend John was working in a different restaurant under a different Chef. John’s Head Chef took a job in Cornwall at the Idle Rocks, and he wanted John to go with him so we both went to visit Idle Rocks for the day and loved it. At the time there wasn’t much space for me to progress at Bohemia and I wanted more responsibility. So, we took the job in Cornwall and then I was there as sous chef for two years working for a chef called Guy Owen.
Wow so you have quite a lot of experience under your belt.
Haha yeah, I do!
So what style of food do you like to cook?
I like loads of different types of food. I love to create dishes that I like to eat myself with big bold flavours like Indian and Thai, although I do also like classic french cooking too. I am very easy pleasing and I like a lot of things.
Last year The Box Tree unfortunately lost its Michelin Star. You’ve come in as Head Chef, are you feeling the pressure?
A little bit! But not too much, I’m just doing what I love to do which is cooking food. I’m thinking about it a bit, but I just want to cook good food and with the guys behind me in the kitchen and the support of Simon and Rena, that is pretty easy to do.
And what style of food are you cooking at the moment at the Box Tree?
I wouldn’t be able to describe what style we are cooking at the moment because there are lots of different flavours on the menu at the moment. There are things that are quite classical, but there are also things that I have taken from my background. There is a dish on at the moment that has elements of dishes that my mum used to cook for me when I was younger, so that one has an Iranian background to it. It’s very different and keeps everyone on their toes. I don’t like to put the same style of food throughout the whole menu.
What is the dynamic like in the kitchen here, are you the only female chef?
Yes, it’s just me! I’ve got a team of all men, but I don’t mind it. To be honest, I prefer working with men, but I have worked with quite a few female chefs and they’ve always been good. I’m quite lucky with the teams I have been in within my career because they have all been very respectful and the guys in the kitchen here really listen and respect what I am saying which it makes the jobs so much easier.
When you were growing up did you always have an interest in cooking and food?
My mum is Iranian, and my dad is Nigerian, so I’ve grown up with their knowledge of food as well as British influences as I was born in Huddersfield. Both my mum and dad always used to cook a big variety of food for me when I was younger which I would say definitely gave me an interest in food. I used to always watch them cook, and my mum has told me that when I was growing up I would always watch cooking programmes with her.
Is anyone else in your family interested in food and hospitality?
I’ve got one older sister and one younger but no they aren’t into food like I am. They are interested in it, but they have taken different routes and I would say that they are a bit more academic than I am!
What would you say is your go-to comfort food?
Curry is my biggest one. I love making them, I love eating them! But I like loads of different things like burgers and pizzas, I’m not too hard to please when It comes to food.
It is coming up to International Women’s Day on Friday 8thMarch. Who would you say has been a motivational and inspiring female figure for you?
I look up to my mum more than anything else. She is a huge support for me and is very strong-minded, I think I have grown up to be pretty much the same as her! I am Strong-minded, determined and hardworking, and I think I get a lot of that from her. I definitely don’t think I would have been able to get so far in this industry if I wasn’t like that.
What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career so far?
In my career, I have always gone to somewhere recommended by a previous head chef or one where my previous head chef is friends with the current head chef. I haven’t updated my CV in years because the industry now is all about word of mouth. I wouldn’t say that it has been easy for me to get jobs, but through word of mouth I’ve been given jobs quite easily.
When I got made redundant from Alimentum, it was hard, but I was out of a job for just a week before I took the position here.
I bet that was a scary time though.
Yeah, it was, it was upsetting and annoying because we had just moved back to Cambridge and only been there nine or ten months. We realised that we had to move to a new house again, but in the end, it got better. I love it here, I’m closer to home and to my friends and family that is really nice.
How do you achieve a work-life balance as a chef? Or Is it not just not achievable!
To be honest I’ve never had too much trouble creating a work-life balance and is quite easy here because we are closed Sunday nights, Mondays and Tuesdays. I do have a good amount of time outside of work and it is easier for me because my partner John is in the industry as well and is a manager of The Angel at Hetton. He is very understanding of how much time I spend at work because he is basically spending the same amount of time at work so that makes it a lot easier too. We also have the same interests which is great.
What do you do to relax in your free time?
I’m really boring! I’ve got a whole week off next week and I’m spending the whole week travelling down the country and then travelling back up and eating at different restaurants. And that’s what I like to do! I like to stay in a nice hotel, go out to eat and have a few drinks. My days off are mostly the same as anyone else’s, I go shopping or watch TV, I’ve also got two rabbits at home that are pretty cute.
So you are going out next week … Where are you going?
I think the biggest thing I’m doing is going to eat at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. I haven’t been before, so this will be the first time and I’m really excited. We are spending a couple of days in London, a day in Bristol and then driving down to Idle Rocks to go and see my old Head Chef and have a meal. We are staying in Oxford on the way back up, then I will have a few days to myself before going back to work.
Do feel as a chef that you are always aspiring to do more? Or will you reach a point where you are satisfied with your achievements?
I don’t think so. I am always going to be striving for more. I just want to be happy in what I am doing, and if there is a dish on the menu that I am not completely happy with, I will change it. It sounds really bad, but I get bored quite easily. I always like to make things better and I don’t think I will ever get to that point where I am completely happy with a menu and will just leave it be. I will always want to keep progressing and learning more through other chefs, and through Simon as well.
Today it has been released that you are one of the competitors on this years Great British Menu. How did find the experience?
I can’t say any more about how I got on in the competition, but I really enjoyed the experience. After getting used to the cameras being around on day one, it was really great. The producers were lovely too and made you feel very comfortable, and it was great fun. You will be seeing me on TV very soon!
And finally, where do you see yourself this time next year?
Hopefully still here! I’ve moved around a lot and I am in a place in my career and my relationship with John where we want to stay in the same place now. We have moved around so many times in the last few years and now we are both closer to home that we like. I think we will be here for at least a few years just to settle down a bit.
Samira Effa, 6.3.19
York Talks would like to thank Samira for taking the time to share her incredible Food Story and wish her the best of luck on The Great British Menu. If you want to find out more about Samira or The Box Tree restaurant, follow her on twitter @samira_effa or visit https://www.theboxtree.co.uk.
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