Interview: Rebecca Mascarenhas
Interview: Rebecca Mascarenhas
The top restaurateur is behind some of London’s best neighbourhood restaurants including Sonny’s, now Church Road, Kitchen W8, Elystan Street and Home SW15. She tells us about her life in Barnes, how she rose to the top, and being an ambassador of our Food and Culture Awards.
“I’ve just always been mad about food and drink,” laughs Rebecca Mascarenhas when I ask her about the secret of her successful career. We meet at Home SW15, her casual all-day restaurant in Putney, which has just been named one of the runners-up in the Observer Food Monthly’s annual Awards. She also owns Flour + Water, and three she co-owns with her long-standing business partner and acclaimed chef Phil Howard: Elystan Street in Chelsea, Kitchen W8 in Kensington, and Church Road in Barnes.
But clearly it is much more than her love for food that has made her the ‘Queen of Neighbourhood Restaurants’ as she has been called. She admits that she’s also good at strategy, understanding people, and paying attention to detail. She’s also determined, rising rapidly through the ranks in the hospitality industry before remortgaging her flat so she could launch her first restaurant.
However, hospitality wasn’t her first choice in career, with Rebecca going to drama school and hoping to become an actress.
“I was working on a TV series but I cried every day. I realised it just wasn’t for me.” While deciding what to do next, she took a job as a waitress for Bob Payton at the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory. She worked her way up to management level and, from there, she became, at the age of 27, the managing director at Playboy exec Victor Lownes’ Stocks, overseeing the private members’ club, restaurant and country club.
But she thought that if she wanted a family at some point, she couldn’t have her hours dictated for her and decided to go it alone. She found the perfect spot for a restaurant in Barnes. Despite her and her mother both remortgaging their homes, she needed more funds to get it off the ground. But every bank in the high street turned her down.
The merchant bank Hill Samuel came good and agreed to lend her the the money on Christmas Eve 1985. And Sonny’s was born. It was a really hard slog but she had to make it work. She and her husband James lived in a flat above Sonny’s and when her first two children were babies (she has three daughters), she would nip upstairs in between service to feed them.
Sonny’s became a huge success – there was clearly an appetite for elegant local dining with incredible food. “It was helped by the expense accounts of the record companies nearby but also because the neighbourhood has people who are cultured and educated about food – they want a good local restaurant.”
And this was all at a time when there were very few women in lead roles in hospitality. Since she started out in 1986, she has witnessed huge changes across the industry. “It is now more diverse and inclusive than ever. But it has been a gradual change and we’re not there yet. The industry loses a lot of women who leave because of childcare commitments. It’s not a job where you can work from home. But we do everything we can to keep our staff and offer as much flexibility as possible.”
It was in 2009 that she teamed up to work with Phil, opening Kitchen W8 in Kensington, followed by Elystan Street in Chelsea in 2016, both of which boast a Michelin star. Their business relationship has always been strong. What makes it work? “We have very different skills and a huge amount of respect for each other. He is immensely talented,” Rebecca says. By 2019 and after 33 years of successful trading, Sonny’s became Church Road, set up with Phil, and whose mission is to “tread lightly on the planet”.
Like most, if not all, restaurateurs right now, Rebecca is worried about the energy crisis and staffing levels. They are in a good position but she says they will be “sitting tight” to weather the storm. “We have good energy contracts now and we are lucky as we have a high staff retention rate. We don’t really have churn. But it would help if there were more schemes in the UK, like youth visas, to get the industry going.”
They weathered the turmoil of the pandemic well. “We had customers buying £500 to £1000 vouchers that they could redeem when we reopened. It was wonderful to see this loyalty.
“But what we learned from the pandemic is never to take things for granted, and how to pivot quickly.” Rebecca opened Flour + Water in 2021 as a pop-up to offer outside dining and it has become a permanent fixture.
During the pandemic, her restaurants made 150 meals a day for the staff of Brompton Hospital. Rebecca loves crafting and also worked with a local couture dressmaker (who made the wedding dress for Meghan Markle!) on sewing scrubs for hospitals.
A love for Barnes
Since finding the site for her first restaurant in Barnes, Rebecca has not moved away from the area since. After living above Sonny’s, the family moved to a house nearby in 1992, a real labour of love to renovate. “It was uninhabitable! The mortgage company said no initially.”
She loves the area’s green spaces and proximity to the river. For Rebecca though, she adds that being in Barnes means she can walk everywhere or take the overground – she admits to being terribly claustrophobic and can’t use the Tube.
She loves the London lifestyle, enjoying theatre and art galleries, and dining out. Black Salt in East Sheen is a top spot she likes. But she also eats in her own restaurants. “I have to see my establishments from a customers’ viewpoint.” Does she warn the staff she is coming? “No, she laughs. “They’d be more nervous.”
We talk about critics and diner reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor. “You can tell if someone has a genuine complaint or just doesn’t like something. Just be honest and say that it’s not for you. We bend over backwards to do what we can for customers. It is hospitality, after all.”
Rebecca’s parents were originally from India, but moved to Kenya, where Rebecca was born. She has vivid memories of trips to the Mombasa fish market with her grandmother to choose the family supper. The family came to the UK in the late sixties, settling in Norfolk.
One of eight children, Rebecca admits she was always headstrong. “I’ve also always wanted to make money and to do well. We were fairly affluent when we were in Africa and it was a shock when we came here – we’d had a cook – now we had chores to do.”
Pre-made food was also a discovery. “In Norwich, we were suddenly eating fish fingers. It was a treat then as we’d never had anything pre-made.”
Both she and her husband are good cooks. “He likes making traditional food like roast chicken and shepherd’s pie. I like making food from a range of different cuisines.”
She has a huge collection of cookbooks and has learnt from the people she has worked with. As to who has inspired her? “Phil, of course, Tomas Parry at Brat, Fay Maschler – she has changed how we appreciate food, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, the writer Diana Henry, and Alastair Little – when I first went to his restaurant in Soho I was wowed and he was always so generous with his time.”
Rebecca is a patron of our Food and Culture awards and feels it’s vital people support their local restaurants and venues. “Use it or lose it,” she says. “These people have put everything in to their businesses and are achieving great things so they deserve our support.”
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