I have come across London to a discreet little tea room tucked away from the usual tourist haunts of high street brands to meet Serena Campbell and Berenice Wolfe. They are perhaps not household names but are well known within the thriving field of British Michelin starred cuisine. We are meeting today to talk about their new venture as they look set to open their first restaurant together.
Both women come with uncompromising reputations. Serena, until recently Head Chef at the one Michelin star Wyvern in Holby and Berenice, or Bernie as she insists I call her, Wolfe a rising star on the culinary circuit, former sous chef at L’Sauvage and also former Head Chef of Wyvern before establishing the newly opened but flourishing E7 in Covent Garden.
We take some time for pleasantries as they between them choose us a selection of the highly recommended patisserie from the array on offer to accompany our mid-morning tea.
When I ask how they met, they smile conspiratorially at each other and Serena explains how they met while working at the Wyvern.
“Henrik (Hanssen) the owner of the Wyvern brought Bernie in after our former Head Chef Michael Spence resigned. It took us a little while to find the best way of working together,” Serena’s mouth quirked at this and I wonder if there is a story behind that tiny smile, “but we got there in the end.”
“Serena Campbell: Queen of the understatement.”
Bernie leans in as if she is going to reveal a closely guarded secret. “Serena hated me when I started. She even made the odd attempt at sabotage to try to get me to leave.” Serena playfully cuffs Bernie round the ear for that, which she takes with a grin, before continuing “Thankfully once we started working together I think we both came to realise how well we complemented each other. Serena has this incredible gift for flavour and texture combinations,” Bernie continues, “way beyond anything I could aspire to. It seems to come so naturally to her, I learn by experience what has worked and what hasn’t and it could take me months trying to perfect what she is able to achieve in days.” Bernie enthuses. Serena is blushing at the effusive praise from her partner but is just as quick to reciprocate.
“Bernie is a Head Chef for a reason though. Her ability to tease the very best out of her team is second to none. She achieves greatness in the same way as she did as an army Major. As the leader of a team, yes, but more importantly as one of the team. Someone respected and admired by everyone who works with her and therefore the person all the best aspiring chefs want to work for.” I watch as Bernie drops her head at the comment and a light pink tinge colours her cheeks and busies herself with sharing the selection of cakes out between our three plates. “Honestly. We are blessed with the array of talented people that have wanted to come and work with us on this new project and that really is a testament to the woman sat next to me.”
So when did you realise you were destined to be more than just work colleagues, I ask. Both shift a little, notoriously tight lipped about their personal relationship with all but their closest friends.
“It’s not an easy question to answer. I’m not sure I could pinpoint a particular time, working so closely together for so many hours a relationship evolves. It just so happened that we evolved into friendship, then best friends, then lovers and now partners.” Bernie turns to look at her girlfriend for reassurance; Serena has a wicked smirk on her face.
“Oh I can be a bit more precise than that. It was one morning when I walked into the locker room to a delightful view of Bernie bent over in very tight fitting Lycra running shorts. I can give you a date and time if you’d like…ouch” Bernie has lightly punched her on the arm but is grinning as she does.
I ask them then what made them take the step to owning and running a business together. “I had always dreamed of starting my own restaurant but lacked the courage to really do it.” Serena adds. “When Bernie needed to return to London for personal reasons, it gave me the incentive to bite the bullet and make it happen.”
“Well I for one am very glad she did it. She gave me a job after all!” Bernie jokes before her face softens into a look of such pure adoration that I wonder if I have ever looked at anyone like that and feel a sense of envy at their easy affection. “In all seriousness it is a dream to be able to work with your partner doing a job you love, I am thankful every day.”
Their new venture Celui - meaning simply “the one”, a 20 cover chic establishment tucked away in Camden Town is clearly a joint effort in all senses of the word. Serena explains they are going back to their culinary roots with a French classic inspired menu.
“The dishes are instantly recognisable French stalwarts but using modern techniques to bring more lightness of touch but without the sometimes overbearing richness of the heavy butter and cream content.” Serena explains.
“We’re really looking to capture the sheer joy of eating French classics without the guilt.” Bernie continues.
“Bernie’s idea. I would quite happily keep the all the rich, indulgence of the originals.” Serena interjects as Bernie clucks her tongue at her but with such fondness the light-hearted reprimand carries no weight to it.
When I ask about how they came to turn the idea for the restaurant into reality I can see Bernie’s face glaze and turn to her partner. “No point in asking me, I lack the imagination and business skills for that.” She puts her hand to the knee of the woman next to her and squeezes it. “It’s Serena who is the brains of it all. I’m just the brawn she keeps around to make sure everyone stays in line.” The pair seem to emit a glow when they talk about each other that is quite overwhelming to observe and leave anyone who witnesses that this is a partnership in every sense of the word; a joining of equals.
“Bernie is too modest.” Serena adds,” It took a lot of work from both of us and a lot of hours to get this beyond a vague pipedream. There were times when I think we wondered if our relationship would come out the other side unscathed but we made it and we’re still speaking to each other.”
It leads me to ask if they argue at home when they disagree over decisions at work and it is Bernie who remarks first. “Hmm we certainly disagree a fair amount, but if we do argue, we never lose respect for each other and try not to go to bed without talking it through.”
“I think we have learned to talk about things rather than assuming. Something we perhaps did not do well at the start of our relationship.” Serena concludes and Bernie gives a small bark of a laugh at her assessment.
Was it love at first sight? I enquire. Both chuckle at this and I find myself overcome by Bernie and the most extraordinary laugh I have ever heard in my life. Serena must notice my alarm as she raises her hand to stroke at Bernie’s own and smiles affectionately at her. “Isn’t it the most wonderful thing you have ever heard?” she stage whispers fondly before schooling herself again to address my question “No I think we would both agree it was not love at first sight.”
“Maybe love at first fight would be a more fitting description.” Bernie adds and they share a look between them that seems to hold a whole gamut of memories for them. Sat here watching them I feel like I am intruding on an unspoken but very intimate conversation. Eventually they seem to remember my presence and break their gaze but their hands and fingers remain closely twined and I can’t help but wish that we all could be as lucky as them.
Celui opens November 3rd and if Bernie and Serena can invigorate their menu with half as much passion as they hold for each other, it will clearly be a roaring success. I for one will certainly be making a reservation to find out.