Helen Graham

Helen Graham

Helen Graham

Following time spent working in kitchens including The Palomar and The Barbary, Helen Graham joined forces with Marc Summers to launch Middle Eastern vegetarian concept Bubala, where she spent five years as executive chef before leaving to pursue her own solo projects.

The flavours of the Middle East weren’t something that a lot of Londoners were hugely familiar with until the turn of the century, when the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi burst onto the scene, celebrating the food of Israel. Since then, a myriad a contemporary Middle Eastern restaurants have opened up across the capital, as it’s fast become one of our favourite cuisines. Many of their menus are still dominated by the likes of shawarma and kibbeh, but as executive chef at Bubala, Helen Graham made it her mission to champion vegetables, proving that they can be the star of any and every dish and has gone on to build a reputation for her simple yet flavour-packed cookery.

Born into an Ashkenazi Jewish home in North West London, Helen has fond memories of the simple food she ate growing up, ‘there was a lot of Eastern European influence,’ she explains, ‘things like egg and onion, and schnitzel were my comfort foods and my mum made incredible chicken soup.’ Her first experience of traditional Middle Eastern flavours however, came when visiting Golders Green during the weekends, ‘we’d go there and get falafel and Israeli food,’ she recalls, ‘that was where I first came across things like zhoug, amba and tahini, and I was amazed by the flavours. From then on, I started to wrestle my mum out of the kitchen, so that I could experiment with all these ingredients.’

Despite developing a love of cookery during her childhood, Helen didn’t initially pursue a career in the kitchen, instead deciding to go to university in Bristol after finishing school. However, she soon realised that food was what she wanted to be doing professionally, even though the thought of actually being chef didn’t appeal at first, ‘the idea of working in a kitchen didn’t seem like something a little girl would want,’ says Helen, ‘I think I was also really scared by the idea of working in shouty, high-pressure environments like I’d seen on TV. So, I initially looked at all of the areas around it that might interest me.’

Helen spent a few years working in everything from food styling and recipe writing to food journalism, before a friend, who was part of the opening team of much-hyped Middle Eastern restaurant The Palomar, convinced her to meet with the head chef. He offered her a position as a commis chef and just like that, Helen found herself working in one of London’s most talked about kitchens, ‘I was kind of learning on the job and trying to wing it at first,’ she explains, ‘I didn’t go to culinary school or anything like that because I always felt that what they were teaching wasn’t really applicable to Middle Eastern food. Tomer Amedi, who was the head chef at The Palomar at the time really nurtured me though. He knew so much about the history of Israeli Arabic food and was able to really bring it alive but equally would teach you in a very homestyle kind of way. When I’m training staff now, I try and give them that same context that he did.’

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.

Helen left Bubala in 2023 after five years, to pursue projects of her own.