24 August 2021, 07:39 AM
  • From her "food obsessed childhood", Gemma Simmonite, chef and co-owner of Gastrono-Me in Bury St Edmunds, shares what she learned as her love affair with food evolved through the years
Gemma Simmonite, Gastrono-me: My journey from deli owner to restaurateur

I’m a mix of many places. Born and bred in Cardiff, of Greek Cypriot heritage. Every single holiday from school was spent with my grandparents who lived in Spain. As a young teen, I went to theatre school in Hertfordshire, and then carried on my nomadic existence as an adult living my twenties in London, then Surrey, with a Brighton move to raise a family, and finally now in Suffolk. It means that foods and food purveyors that I’ve fallen in love with in my life have been scattered far and wide.

My first food memories are of Cardiff’s iconic Victorian market. As a young child the smells and sounds of this indoor giant used to terrify and thrill me simultaneously. Pungent fish with dull eyes on a theatre set of ice. Unintelligible cries of veg callers. Butcheries with macabre grinning pigs’ heads. The sizzle and smell of Welsh cakes. And then, by strange contrast, the yapping and tweeting from pet stalls upstairs. It was a sensory explosion like no other.

My parents were hoteliers, and it would be a visit to put in food orders or to settle accounts. My treat for accompanying would be a little bag of prawns doused in malt vinegar and white pepper, and a bag of sherbet lemons for later. It was an incredibly early introduction into local produce being used in a local business – seeing it from its beginnings right through to a guest’s evening meal.

I’m thrilled to say that the market is still going strong, incredibly with most of the same stalls, and with some exciting culturally diverse additions thrown into the mix. Our next stop would be for Kalamata olives housed in massive wooden barrels and Matzo crackers at Wally’s, still a Cardiff institution after 40 years and still the best deli I’ve ever visited far and wide.

My second place that I always yearn to visit and try to frequent when our restaurant allows is the iconic Mercat De L’Olivar in Palma. Again, I would be taken as a small child with my grandmother Tilly on her shop. Indoors it was like a sacred monastery of food where Tilly did her weekly worshipping. Parcels of squid and hake; bags of scarlet tomatoes, rippled and rotund; dusty baguettes for me to carry awkwardly and chorizo for me to gnaw on until my mouth was slickly stained orange. My grandfather, Doug Hornblow, would be found patiently seated at the bar fluently chatting to the owner where we’d join him for addictive tapas before returning home with our bounty.

As a food obsessed teen, of course I sought out Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, London, feeling oh so desperately chic and grown-up tasting and purchasing cheese. Then taking it back to my shared flat to devour, much to the derision and disgust of my fellow flat mates due to the pungency emanating from my room! I still love to visit it when in London and treat myself to a cheese that I haven’t discovered before, plus an old favourite for good measure.

The first business venture my husband and I created was a delicatessen in Suffolk, which isn’t really a surprise when you look back at my food obsessed childhood. It was a tough learning experience. Yes of course I was stupidly happy surrounding myself with my version of a top 100 food pop chart and living out my dream inspired by all my food destination memories. But learning that we couldn’t sustain buying in the best of everything for a slow trickle of customers was hard. It’s struggles, however, ended up leading us towards our restaurant. As with most things, necessity was key, and I was tasked with using up counter produce so as not to lose expensive stock. So salamis and meats would land into fantastically crammed sandwiches and salads, artisan cheeses melted into tarts and soups – it taught me to think creatively on my feet and find my style as a chef.

Thankfully, we found that this was in fact our mojo. A decade later as far happier restaurateurs, we still don’t regret our brief foray into the deli world. It grew Gastrono-me Restaurants and coincidentally bred another young epicure, our daughter, who at the age of nine behind the cheese counter could confidently share with a customer the fine difference between a Devon Blue and a Stichelton! She doesn’t know it yet, of course, but I think the food industry may well be running in her veins, too.