Florence Knight might not mean to, but she naturally causes a bit of a stir. A hardworking, imaginative chef who also happens to be a beautiful young woman, she is, as she calls herself, ‘a bit of a square peg…you just can’t really fit me in.’
Although she flinches at the word beautiful – she admits that entering the kitchen as someone so different, and so petite, was a challenge. ‘Men used to go either two ways with me: horrible or really flirtatious.’ And she was constantly being picked up – literally – or pinched or having heavy pots removed from her grasp, ‘you have to be stern and say no, I can manage, I’m fine.’
Even the sound of it is exhausting. When asked if there were ever times she considering packing it all in, she looks at me as if the thought had never once entered her consciousness.
Her father passed away at a similar time, and Florence was left angry, and became hard, hungry and focused. ‘When I started there were a lot of people that were quite like me, who had a lot of troubles in their life, because when you’re in the kitchen you have no time to think about anything else.’ She describes cooking a service as a sort of meditation.
The conversation keeps flitting back to gender – she describes the disappointment of a former boss telling her he hired her because she had a nice bum, and of being called a “goddess” in a newspaper column. ‘But it’s a double-edged sword, as it does get you noticed…but I want it to be all about the food.’
She tells me how she put up a strong fight to have it her way in her cookbook published in 2013, One: A Cook and Her Cupboard. ‘I could have gone down that route and people were pushing and pushing me to put my face on it, but I didn’t want it to be about the way I looked.’ And the result is a delight: a refreshingly honest cookbook that is not plagued by vanity.
Florence strikes an interesting equilibrium between femininity and masculinity – negotiated between her looks, values, and, most importantly, her cooking. ‘Some of it’s quite gutsy – we had the hare on before and the bacon chop which are kind of gruff, manly things and I make them quite pungent and quite strong – but I would say there is a lightness also.’
But the biggest thing to learn in Florence’s kitchen is how to respect ingredients. ‘I buy incredibly good ingredients here, and it’s all about nurturing and looking after and bringing out the best of them, not smashing them around – sometimes you find men can be quite brutal with things.’
Natural, natural, natural. I’ve heard her say this before. Use two or three flavours maximum, don’t over-salt, throw away everything you’ve ever learnt about presentation, and embrace organic imperfections – like the leaf that falls to its own rhythm on the plate. Natural, natural, natural.
Having grown up in a family with five children, sharing means a lot too; ‘food never got portioned on our plates – it’s more social and more exciting as you get to try a bit of everything there.’ So Florence is an instinctive fan of the casual-dining revolution, ‘it’s quite exciting because it brings people together, of all ages and all different classes, all in one room sitting together and eating together, and I think that’s a really nice thing.’
As she sits opposite me late afternoon in an empty Polpetto, chatting easily, I am slightly saddened how anyone could pin her as just a “pretty cook”. Although her blue eyes are almost distractingly brilliant, she clearly has more than her required amount of integrity, imagination, heart and guts.
She tells me of her far-off dream of one day owning her own place, a little smaller than Polpetto, where she would push the boundaries of seasonality and her reverence for fresh ingredients. Where she would make homemade nettle butter and feature her own allotment vegetables in the ever-changing dishes, serve the best coffee and pick fresh flowers to put on each table…were it here I’d be there for lunch most days.