Helen Graham

Helen Graham

After fifteen months, Helen left the Palomar and began getting experience in other London restaurants including The Good Egg and The Barbary. A particularly exciting moment for Helen came when she had the chance to work alongside Yotam Ottolenghi in his test kitchen, where she was able to test and experiment with dishes in a more relaxed atmosphere and even contribute recipes to his cookbooks. She eventually moved on to take up her first head chef position at Albertine, a wine bar in Shepherd’s Bush, where she started to pick up some more European influences, but after a while started to feel like she had a lack of direction.

‘I think I reached a point where I was just drifting from place to place without a focus,’ explains Helen, ‘I was starting to feel a bit burnt out and was considering going back to recipe development, so I put a post up on a Facebook group seeing if anyone had a job for me Marc responded, telling me about the concept for Bubala and I thought it sounded interesting. Early on, he kept having to convince me to do more pop ups because I was so sure I didn’t want to be in the kitchen, and I’m so glad he did.’

Uninspired by the vegetarian food on offer in London at the time, Marc and Helen set about building the Bubala concept around vegetarian dishes, making vegetables the star of every plate, rather than relegating them to side dishes – something which hadn’t really been done through a Middle Eastern lens before. ‘Neither of us are actually vegetarians,’ says Helen, ‘but we’d both seen our veggie friends struggling to find places for dinner and wanted to do something about it. There are so many punchy flavours in Middle Eastern cookery, we really saw the potential to inject that into what we were doing. It sounds crazy but the biggest complement for me is when people forget that we are a vegetarian restaurant because of the love and excitement we’ve put into the food.’

After a handful of successful pop-ups, Marc found a permanent site for Bubala in Spitalfields and asked Helen to be head chef. Bubala Spitalfields opened its doors in 2019 and word soon spread about Helen’s exciting vegetarian menu, with customers flocking to the restaurant and critics marvelling at the food. For Helen, it was a very overwhelming experience at first, suddenly being at the helm of a restaurant concept she’d co-founded, ‘I felt very exposing,’ she says, ‘creating dishes, putting them on the menu and not knowing how people will react – it’s still something I sometimes struggle with now. I was blown away by the reception though. Given how close I was to doing something else a year before, opening Bubala was honestly a lifechanging experience.’

Following the success of Bubala Spitalfields, the team opened a second site in Soho in 2022, with Helen becoming executive chef, allowing her to oversee the menu at both restaurants while continuing to develop recipes to keep things fresh. As with the first site, Bubala Soho was an instant hit, demonstrating the mass appeal of Helen’s food and proving how far the concept had come since its first pop ups.

In a matter of years, vegetarian Middle Eastern food has gone from something that most Londoners wouldn’t actively seek out, to something that people now crave and there’s no question that a lot of that is down to Helen and Marc. They were brave enough to try something that hadn’t really been done before, and now have two successful restaurants to show for it.