Expat Diaries: Camille Tardieu, Cérès
Get a glimpse of what it’s like to start a new life in the UK through our Expat Diaries series ! We had a chat with French self-taught chef Camille Tardieu, rustling up a seriously delicious Mediterranean cuisine game at her small London restaurant Cérès, mixing up the various influences she grew up on.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing in the South of France and your love of food.
From the beginning, my whole life has been focused on food. Growing up in a passionate and hedonist family, I lived in the countryside in Vaucluse, a land of farmers. My grandfather worked in organic vineyards and fruit farms — even if that wouldn’t be labelled as such back then — I was very lucky to grow up on incredible Provence produce. My dad too was in the wine industry.
On my mother’s side, it’s a Mediterranean melting pot: a Sicilian family in Tunisia, moving to France in the 70s. So the culinary culture is quite something too! Always cooking up something. Coming from a modest background, everything could be made from scratch in the kitchen, there was no limit to creativity really, no recipe was too complicated!
I guess my taste was shaped from the most simple things available around,like white asparagus in season in Provence. Now that I’m a chef, I see the prices of these ingredients and measure how lucky I’ve been growing up in such a diverse and rich culinary background. It’s when I moved to Avignon at 10 years-old, in a more urban environment, that I started realising not everyone ate like that at home.
When did you first visit the UK?
I came to London for the first time when I was 19 years-old, for New Year’s Eve. I already had this longing for living abroad at the back of my head, but not the UK specifically. I fell in love with this gigantic city made of tiny villages, each neighbourhood with its own unique personality. Brick Lane seemed like another world to me, and the food scene was so vibrant, miles away from what I knew.
What inspired you to move to London?
I moved here in 2011 for university, studying neuroscience at King’s College. In 2014, I started a doctorate at University College London, working on a nerdy thesis about hearing loss due to noise and age on flies.
Was it hard at first? How did you make a community for yourself?
Yes, studying at King’s was very demanding. I hadn’t been taught English from an early age, and you had to be very eloquent. It was tough at first to adjust. Money was tight too, but it taught me how to create from not much, and there were always delicious dishes on the table.
Community-wise, because I was working on the side I wasn’t very involved in campus life. But the friends I first made through my first student jobs are still around today. It’s a solid base.
From neuroscience to gastronomy, that’s quite a big leap!
I was dedicating myself to my doctorate, but I was also increasingly frustrated. I loved doing research but the academic environment didn’t seem like the right fit for me. So I was cooking more and more at home, borderline obsessive.
I’ve always loved cooking, my mum would say I knew how to cook before I could read. But coming from a modest background, it was important to choose a path far far away from kitchens to make a comfortable life for myself and study, so it wasn’t really an option I considered at first.
Tell us a bit about your career shift, how did you become a chef?
I worked in the kitchen at The Pear Tree gastropub in Fulham (now closed, editor’s notes), it was a game changer. These three months felt like two years, in the best possible way. I asked for a part-time job on the floor and they put me in the kitchen: that’s where I became obsessed with pastry. It came to a point where I had to stop, because cooking was the only thing I would think and talk about and it was clearly infringing upon my studies.
Then I discovered supper clubs in New York in 2015. They were everywhere, and it planted a seed in my head. I didn’t know anyone in the industry, but I plunged head first anyway and hosted a few on top of my doctorate. It was a crazy time — I would cook nine-course menus and tailor the wine pairings, all on my own. It allowed me to explore various ideas without any barrier.
Tell us a bit about Cérès, how did this project come to life?
I was about to open a pop-up on Hackney Road in 2018, but it didn’t work out. Then my dad told me to take a small business in a reasonably priced neighbourhood instead. Looking back, it was the most unreasonable thing to do, but I was so excited about it! I found this space on Green Lanes in North London, a former Brazilian cafe. It took forever to sign the lease, there was lots of work…I obviously didn’t have the funds, but I went ahead anyway.
How does your French-Med upbringing reflect in your cooking at Cérès?
This is who I am, so most of the time it’s subconscious. But when I work on my menus, it always has to make sense to me, respecting the seasons and festivities. Last Christmas for instance, I was staying in London. So the menu had to reflect my childhood more than ever!
I would always have two Christmas dinners, one Sicilian-Tunisian and another Provencal Christmas. So that menu was full of my own personal traditions, brought together : the dessert was a mix of the typical nougat glacé from Provence and makroud pastries from Maghreb, a mix of semolina, dates, honey and orange blossom flower extract. I just loved seeing people being surprised by the tastes that shaped my childhood.
How did you build your offering?
Expectations were growing quite high in the neighbourhood, with top quality restaurants opening up all over the Green at the same time. Neighbours were demanding and they would always compare us, when we didn't have much in common.
When we opened, I went with a prix fixe three-course menu. I felt an extra pressure, being French and not formally trained, I couldn’t allow myself to serve a nine-course tasting menu in a bricks-and-mortar restaurant when no-one knew who I was. Reopening in July 2021 having survived this massive crisis, I decided to focus on what I love and not what people want, so now it’s all tasting menu and no sharing plates.
What do you think about French cuisine in the UK?
I feel it has a very traditional image here, sometimes a bit of a caricature. I’m surprised that if you're French you kind of have to stick to French cuisine, you can’t really play around with flavours from everywhere. Whereas there are lots of chefs who like to play around with other influences like Japanese cuisine, or chefs like me with mixed culinary cultures so it obviously reflects in their cooking!
Every week, I’ll hear a client surprised that a dish is not as French as he would expect it to be. It makes me laugh now, but I understand how important it is to have a clear identity — at Cérès, I combine Southern European cuisines in a minimal yet cosy environment
What do you love the most about running your own business?
Creativity! I love designing my own tasting menus, the ritual of reinventing everything every six weeks. I’m also passionate about the wine pairings we get to develop to elevate the menu.
After all these Covid roller coasters, I’m also much more secure about the best way to run my business, and that’s being just the two of us — me concentrating on the kitchen, Noelia on the floor. Basta! it forces us to be highly organised and that works well, it makes Cérès a special, intimate place.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m focusing all my energy on Cérès after these hard Covid times, steadying the business in this uncertain climate. It’s not an easy time for the hospitality industry.
What do you love most about life in London?
I’ve been living on Hackney Road, East London for nine years now, and I love it there. I don’t go out much, but I find it so pretty and relaxing, whilst being very central. It’s just the right distance from Cérès too.
I love that there is always something new, something to discover in London. Food is always the driver obviously, but it never gets old. The blend of cultures here is unique.
You’re just back from holidays at home, what do you miss most about France?
I’m not British but I’m definitely a Londoner now, I can’t see myself moving back to France. But I do miss the weather and the warm summers, the easy access to beautiful produce without having to be in the supplier’s good books.
And the time as well, the time to take the time. Here everything is always on full speed.
Open Wednesday-Saturday from 7 to 11pm
74 Green Lanes
London N16 9EJ