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Ayesha Kalaji: Queen of Glastronomy

Rising‑star chef Ayesha Kalaji shares her story
Ayesha Kalaji
Photograph by Neil Juggins

Ayesha Kalaji only launched her first restaurant a few years ago, yet has already received more recognition than most chefs achieve in their entire career. Kathryn Lewis caught up with the unconventional chef to chat culture, MasterChef and cooking for fairies

Part of the exodus of London chefs who fled to the South West during the pandemic, Ayesha Kalaji is killing it in the countryside. Since opening Queen of Cups in Glastonbury in 2021, she’s been awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand and been shortlisted for two accolades: as Best Newcomer in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs gongs and as a Best Chef finalist in the Food Reader Awards.

Her appearance on MasterChef: The Professionals at the end of 2023 drew nationwide attention to her unique blend of Middle Eastern flavours and French techniques. With a new following and raised profile, the purple‑haired chef is ready to prove there’s more to Middle Eastern cooking than Ottolenghi.

Growing up in rural North Wales, Ayesha used cooking as a means of connecting with her Middle Eastern heritage. While Anglesey didn’t have a large Arab community at that time, summers were spent in Jordan where aunts and grandmothers would teach her traditional recipes and share the dishes of their family forebears. Yet, despite food being an important part of her upbringing and culture, it wasn’t until much later that she decided to pursue cooking as a career.

‘I was studying Middle Eastern Politics, Language and History in London but was hugely dissatisfied with my degree,’ says Ayesha. ‘Not sure what to do in terms of a career, I went home for Christmas and it was as Mum and I were following a Leiths recipe to prepare the turkey that she suggested I apply to its cookery school.

This pivotal moment was at the start of the 2010s, when TV’s cooking landscape was shifting and female chefs such as Gizzi Erskine began breaking the mould. ‘Gizzi was glamorous, cool and hanging out with The Libertines. I thought: maybe this is for me?,’ says Ayesha.

During her training at Leiths, Ayesha did a stint at The Palomar in Soho, and it was there that she went to work after graduating from the prestigious culinary school. She stayed in London for another decade, working her way through the ranks at Middle‑Eastern‑style restaurants such as The Good Egg and Bubala, which had another common theme: strong female role models.

Photograph by Kate Field

When I was starting out, there were definitely a few male colleagues who were dismissive of my abilities because I was a woman. One said I’d never be more than a glorified salad chef,’ she says. ‘After experiencing my fair share of sexism, I was drawn to work under female head chefs and I’ve been lucky enough to cook alongside some of the greats such as Juliette O’Sullivan and Helen Graham.’ Ayesha describes female‑led kitchens as generally calmer and less ego‑driven: ‘Because we’ve all had that struggle, there’s a sisterhood among female chefs. The industry has changed so much in the past ten years and it’s amazing to see so many badass women killing it in the kitchen.’

It was the opportunity to collaborate with another brilliant woman, close friend and hospitality pro Mary‑Elizabeth O’Neill, that lured Ayesha from London to rural Somerset. Mary‑Elizabeth had left London to open a B&B in the fiercely independent town of Glastonbury but was struggling to recommend evening dining options to her guests. When the chance to run a 17th‑century coaching inn in the centre of town came up, she knew exactly who to call.

‘It was a whirlwind,’ says Ayesha. ‘I viewed the pub in February, quit my job in March, moved to Glastonbury in April and opened Queen of Cups in May.

She was more than ready for the new challenge: ‘I’d lost my love for London. I’d had a recipe published in The Guardian, but it was credited to the restaurant instead of me. As soon as I saw the pub in Glastonbury I knew it was one of those opportunities you have to grab with both hands.

Ayesha’s upbringing in North Wales set her up for country life in the South West, although she didn’t realise quite how rural Glastonbury would turn out to be. The location of this first solo venue has given her access to the kind of seasonal ingredients and producers London chefs only dream of. Her signature style combining Middle Eastern inspiration with local ingredients and French flourish is only possible thanks to the relationships she and her team have developed with the area’s producers.

The South West is a chef’s paradise; the quality of local produce is astounding. The provenance is unlike anything I ever experienced in London,’ she says. ‘I work with five local farmers who text me each week to let me know what’s available. My butcher is five doors down and I can point to where the cows graze from my window. I also have a network of local foragers who supply mushrooms I would have spent an arm and a leg on in London.’

Ayesha Kalaji
Photograph by Kate Field

As well as being synonymous with one of the world’s biggest music festivals, Glastonbury is also known for its eclectic inhabitants – something Ayesha has fully embraced. In fact, Queen of Cups’ first booking was a group of druids, and attendees of the town’s annual Faery Ball and biannual Goddess Conference head to the pub for a post‑event feast.

The day I stop being surprised by any of it is the day I’ve spent too long here,’ she says. The restaurant quickly built a dedicated following of locals and visitors, as well as national media attention, so it was only going to be a matter of time before Ayesha popped up on the radar of the MasterChef: The Professionals‘ team. She appeared on the show in autumn 2023, making it to the quarter finals and receiving fantastic feedback from the judges.

‘It was such a great experience – it still hasn’t quite sunk in that it actually happened,’ she says. ‘The feedback from the public has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, there have been some unkind comments, but from the start I made a concerted effort to stay away from social media to protect my mental health.’

Queen of Cups has been packed out since she appeared on the show, with lots of customers popping their heads into the open kitchen to congratulate Ayesha. So, what’s next for the rising star?

Queen of Cups will always be my baby, but taking part in the competition made me crave more – I want to write cookbooks, make TV programmes and show people there’s more to Middle Eastern food than kebabs, falafel and hummus,’ she says.

Nothing too ambitious then. Yet, given the almost overnight success of her first project and the quality of her cooking, there’s no reason to doubt Ayesha’s got it in her.

queenofcups.co.uk

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