Food for the soul: at home with Valentina Fois
Valentina Fois’ career path has seen a few interesting twists and turns. The Italian-born vegan chef, who first moved to London in 2009, has worked in fashion, branding, marketing and art. Before opening her Hackney cafe, Lele’s, two years ago, she’d turned her skilled hand to everything from making hats in London to cakes in Berlin, and at the age of 25, was running her own art gallery in Spitalfields.
“One of my favourite times was when I worked in a cafe in Berlin,” she remembers. “I’d wake up and go swimming, study for my masters, do a little sunbathing, then go into work and bake cakes for a living. I loved the quality of life there, and the fact that no one cared about money or status. It was very liberating.”
Bar that brief stint in Berlin, and an earlier move back to Rome to study fashion, Valentina has called London home for the past decade. She’s lived in her current flat – a homely split-level space that she shares with her husband Dan and their dog Zz – for two years. When we popped in to interview her, the place was beautifully decorated for Christmas, with presents wrapped and ready under the tree, and cards and stockings pinned above the fireplace. Bowls of clementines and dates awaited our arrival, as did a freshly baked vegan pandoro, which were lucky enough to sample while we chatted.
Where did you and Dan meet?
One of my best friends introduced me to Dan, who’d been living in New York for three years so our paths had yet to cross. I didn’t know we were being set up so I turned up to the party at 10pm, just as he was about to leave. I remember seeing him and thinking to myself, “Oh damn, ok. I should have come earlier.” I think for both of us it was pretty much love at first sight. He got in touch with me soon after, and that was that. We moved in together after six months, and he proposed after a year.
Buying your first place together must have felt special. Did you have to do a lot to it?
It was a real mess. We had to change all the windows in the bedrooms as they were noisy and draughty. We stripped up the carpet, sanded back the floors and put in a new bathroom and kitchen. We had lots of storage built in too, which transformed the place.
What drew you to this flat in particular?
We fell in love with the split-level layout, which makes the house feel much bigger than it is. We also liked the fact that the kitchen and living room look out onto the garden, and the light that comes through from those windows is beautiful. It’s the perfect size for the two of us, and it’s in a nice part of London.
It is lovely round here. What was it like where you grew up?
I grew up just outside of Rome, so I had the best of both worlds because the city was only ten minutes away. I went to school there, and had lots of friends in Rome, but I lived in a lovely neighbourhood that felt very safe, which meant I could go and hang out in the main square until late evening if I wanted to. It was also only ten minutes from the sea, so the moment I got my first scooter, I spent every day of summer on the beach.
What a perfect place to grow up. Did you get into cooking as a child?
Where I come, it was expected that I should know how to cook. My mum always made everything from scratch, and we ate proper meals every day, not just pasta, but whole, oven-baked fish and a wonderful array of vegetables. I also spent a lot of time with my grandmother as my mum worked full time, and she taught me how to make fresh pasta and all sorts of sauces.
So it came very naturally?
I think so, as I was always surrounded by fresh produce growing up. A lot of my memories are related to tastes and smells. In tomato season, my dad and my grandfather would get up at four o’clock in the morning to go to the market and buy loads of tomatoes, which we would use to make around 200 bottles of passata. We also made our own olive oil, and the house was surrounded by fruit trees.
It sounds like an idyllic childhood. What brought you to London?
I moved to London when I was 19, just after high school. My dad wanted me to train to be a dentist, so I was only supposed to go for a month to learn a bit of English and experience the city. It didn’t really work out, as I didn’t come back.
What did your dad say?
My father wasn’t best pleased at the beginning, but he got over it eventually. Being here actually helped us to build an even stronger relationship, as we spoke all the time. He used to be my wake up call in the morning, and we’d have breakfast together on the phone.
It must have been nice to feel connected to home. How did you find the move?
It was hard at the beginning, I worked as a waitress, earned less than minimum wage and didn’t speak good English. Then, I started meeting people and I managed to make enough to do some courses at Central Saint Martins, which I really loved. I went back to Italy to study fashion, then, after living in Berlin for a short time, I realised my heart was in London and I came back to give the city another go.
So, how did Lele’s come about?
I’d been working at Pop Brixton, where I met loads of inspiring young people opening their own cafes and restaurants. Then, very suddenly, my father died, which was an enormous sadness. I became very depressed, but it caused me to reevaluate life. I decided I had to give my time and attention to the right things. I went home and told Dan I wanted to start a cafe. That was in July 2016… by October, we were open.
And what was it about running a cafe that struck a chord with you?
One of the things that I loved about my father was that he was very spontaneous, and when he loved someone, he really loved them, and took so much interest. Some of my favourite memories are of spending time with him in the cafe he used to go to with this friends, he’d offer coffee to everyone… and he had a laugh that was so infectious. I thought about that place, and how it was like a living room and a cafe at the same time, and I wanted to have somewhere that brought people together like that, where they could leave their worries at the door and relax.
As Lele’s regulars, we can safely say you’ve achieved your wish. How did the vegan menu come about?
It started as vegetarian cafe, as I wasn’t eating much meat and I didn’t want to cook it. Also, there was nowhere in the area serving veggie food. Then, Dan and I went vegan a year after, and it didn’t feel right to be vegan ourselves and serve non-vegan food.
Do you have any tips for people looking to embrace a vegan lifestyle?
I would say be kind to yourself, and don’t expect to make an immediate transition. If you set yourself up to fail, then you’re less likely to stick at it. Set yourself a goal that feels achievable to begin with, such as only eating meat once a week, and see how it goes. And don’t let people preach to you. It has to start you wanting to make the change, rather than someone imposing it on you.
And do you find working a kitchen stressful?
I really love what I do, so even when I work for 10 or 12 hours at a time, I don’t really mind – it never feels too arduous. I also like that there are no rules when it comes to vegan food, so it’s very experimental. I’m self-taught, too, so there’s always something new to learn.
When do you do need to unwind, how do you relax after a busy shift?
I go for a walk in the park with Zz, which is always peaceful as there’s no noise, just him and nature. I also do 10 to 15 minutes of meditation every day. And a glass of wine always helps. I don’t ever cook after work though, only if I’m off, otherwise I won’t even pick up a spoon.
After shoving more hunks of delicious pandoro into our mouths, we went on our way, covered with a light dusting of icing sugar and inspired by Valentina’s seize-the-day philosophy (as well as feeling decidedly more festive than when we’d arrived). To sample some of her seriously tasty cooking, head to Lele’s on Lower Clapton Road for a vegan feast served with a smile. You can also follow all of Valentina’s culinary adventures, and find vegan tips and recipes, on Instagram at @v_fois.