Sonia Blech is half-Italian and half-French and sometimes wonders how she got involved with l’albion perfide as well as a career as a chef. A university lecturer in linguistics specialising in medieval French, she was also renowned for her dinner parties with her very individualistic cuisine.
Well, she took the plunge with her husband Neville, and turned what was initially supposed to be a country cottage in the Wye Valley near Monmouth in to a universally renowned restaurant avec chambres in the short space of five years. Not without a lot of heartache. She originally engaged a French chef, who had previously worked for Pierre Koffmann at The Waterside Inn, and his wife to run the place and Sonia would fulfil the role of Executive Chef. He was a very good chef, but when, just before the August Bank Holiday weekend, they marched in and demanded a doubling of their salaries, Sonia decided that something had to be done. He thought that he was God but didn’t realise that Sonia was.
So when they threatened to leave, she said, “leave!” And so they left. So armed with a recipe book from Escoffier and assisted by an epileptic Scottish sous-chef, Sonia coped admirably with the weekend. Soon, her talents were recognised by Christopher Driver of The Good Food Guide and in 1976 she became the first woman in the UK to gain a Michelin star. Furthermore, this was the first restaurant in Wales ever to win a Michelin star, a feat so astonishing that they sent a reporter down from the New York Times to see if this really could be true. By this time she had already thrown away the Escoffier recipe book and had really begun to do her own thing. A number of dishes that she had created in the 1970s (notably her prune and Armagnac ice cream, smoked salmon sushi and her ‘venison with elderberries’ dish) were copied by other, more famous chefs.
Not having been formally trained in catering allowed her to fully utilise her intellectual capacity for invention and remains to this day, a source of inspiration to others. In 1979 they sold the Crown Inn at Whitebrook (it is still going today under other ownership) and set up Restaurant Mijanou in Ebury Street London, which was a source of discrete and refined dining (which is possibly why it was so regularly frequented by MPs of all parties), until they were “made an offer they couldn’t refuse” by an Italian restaurateur in 1996. Sonia now contents herself with creating wine dinners and tastings when she is not travelling to far flung places such as Uruguay and Vietnam and visiting her grandchildren in Bordeaux, as well as providing the recipes and some of the travel articles for this website.