A chef ’s kitchen built from Spitfires
The chef and food writer Olia Hercules is gazing out of her kitchen window in London’s East End. “Comfort knickers, two for £5, and some kind of ‘ sox’ – spelt with an x,” she reports, as she reads the signs on the stalls in Roman Road market. It is London’s oldest trading route and sits directly outside her front door. “The market is on three days a week, so there is always a great buzz,” she says. “East London is changing fast, but this street is still how it used to be.”
Aptly enough, the four-bedroom Victorian house that Hercules shares with her husband Joe Woodhouse, a food photographer and trained chef, and her six-year-old son Sasha, is a former sausage factory. Converted by the previous owners into a large twostorey maisonette, it has a huge roof terrace where the couple entertain around their firepit and drum barbecue almost every other night.
But it’s in the kitchen, naturally, where the 34-yearold spends much of her time, when she isn’t travelling around her native Ukraine finding inspiration for her cookbooks.
Having moved to London as a university student, Hercules first opened British eyes to Ukrainian cooking with her debut cookbook Mamushka in 2015, before exploring the culinary traditions of Georgia, Azerbaijan and beyond in Kaukasis. Now she is working on Summer Kitchen – a celebration of a Ukrainian tradition in which young newly-weds buy a plot of land and build a simple one-room house, with a wood-fired oven and a stack of hay to sleep on during the hot months. “They would usually plant an allotment close to the summer kitchen to make it easier to preserve and ferment its glut come September,” she explains.
Her exploratory trips take in thousands of miles, “then I return to this kitchen to test out my recipes, recreat- ing the dishes using produce from local markets here. I write here too, sometimes,” she says, standing in her Fifties English Rose kitchen, made by the company that manufactured Spitfires and Lancaster Bombers during the Second World War.
When the war ended and it was left with a surplus of aircraft-grade aluminium, plus a redundant factory and workforce, they began making the first modular “fitted” kitchens instead.
These vintage kitchens – which can be bought from Bristol-based Source of Bath (source-antiques.co.uk) – come in a variety of colours, from pastels to vivid purple. The one that adorns this home has exposed metal units that bolt together, and bright red formica worktops. It features the signature plane door-like handles and the curved front drawer panels, designed to maximise workspace without eating up floor space.
“Our English Rose kitchen is just so in tune with me,” says Hercules. The dishes she most associates with creating in her kitchen are curries – “Gujarati, Malaysian, northern Thai, and my son’s school friend recently mentioned all the amazing Bangladeshi curries they make at home, so I’m going to try that next,” she says. “It’s a great kitchen for cooking and entertaining, but it’s also perfect for commercial jobs and styling. It’s a real rarity and it fits the house perfectly.”
She is in a particularly reflective mood about her house as, with an expanding family in mind, she and 32-year-old Woodhouse are buying a bigger house in nearby Forest Gate and have put their Roman Road home on the market for offers in excess of £700,000 through EweMove.
Local gentrification has seen the likes of nearby Lauriston Village – with its Ginger Pig butcher, trendy wine merchant Bottle Apostle and Gail’s Bakery – become a cool yummy mummy enclave. But Roman Road, she says, still has its “East End magic”.
The café opposite collects her mail if she’s away, the corner shop supplies her with everything from organic eggs to spelt flour, and the post office is five doors down. Her Victorian building, too, is an important part of the local landscape. It was turned into a factory in 1851 as part of a push to clear the slums and create more workspaces; the words “The Saveloy Factory” are etched into the cement outside. Hercules has an original sign on her bedroom wall, a remnant from the building’s later incarnation as a clothes factory, which is advertising vacancies for dressmakers.
“Objects such as this sign feel almost organically part of the house,” she says. “It’s the same with the yellow formica table and chairs that are in the kitchen, which we inherited from the previous owners. We will definitely leave them for the new buyers.”
The couple have made various improvements to the property in their time there – Woodhouse lived there before he met Hercules and focused on turning its four terraces and two cellars into various forms of temperature-controlled spaces to work out in (there’s a rooftop gym), and store his prized collections of whisky, home-made sloe gin and photographic film. He also divided a huge open-plan space into bedrooms and a library with a wall papered in palms from hip interiors brand House of Hackney.
Hercules’s contribution to the house, when she moved in two years ago, was to “get rid of all the man clutter,” she says. “I stripped it all down, as Joe has so many props for his photography.” She also installed some cherished kitchen items from Ukraine, including an early 20th-century pestle and mortar, her grandfather’s ashtray in the shape of a lily, and some colourful hand-painted chopping boards.
Since then, they have enjoyed many memorable moments in the house. “Dawn and sunset on the roof terrace, with views to the Gherkin and Cheesegrater in the City, are unforgettable,” she says. So, too, are nights spent up there dancing with friends, watching fireworks and, of course, eating fabulous food prepared on the bodywork of old fighter planes. This is a house that will always have stories to tell.
Olia Hercules in her East London kitchen that was made using surplus parts from Spitfires