Victoria has seen a bit of a foodie renaissance of late, with D&D London’s Aster bringing a taste of Scandinavia to the city. Helena Puolakka is heading things up behind the scenes, creating separate menus for the cafe, restaurant and deli, inspired by her Finnish heritage and her French culinary training. We chatted to Helena about London’s new found love of Nordic cuisine, being a female role model in a notoriously male industry, and who she likes to be cooked for by on her days off.
How would you describe your culinary style?
Nordic French with flair. My style is feminine, light and clean.
Why do you think London is loving Nordic dining at the moment?
There is a serious love affair with Nordic dining – there’s now a greater understanding of the culture and with the rise of hygge its also become somewhat fashionable.
Was food a big thing in your family when you were growing up?
It was huge! I grew up foraging, fishing and living off the land which has completely shaped my style of cooking.
Why did you decide to leave Skylon after 6 years?
I felt ready for a new challenge and left to become the Culinary Director of a catering business, Company of Cooks, whose portfolio includes The Royal Opera House, National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy.
Nordic cuisine has a huge focus on seasonal produce – do you have a favourite season to cook in?
It would have to be autumn, I love the transition from summer to winter and cooking with the produce that the season brings.
You’ve worked in some amazing kitchens, what’s the proudest moment in your career?
Creating the food concept for Aster and being there for the launch. I’ve created three separate menus for Aster for the restaurant, the all-day café and the deli which presented a fantastic challenge.
What has been the worst chore throughout your time in professional kitchens? e.g. peeling onions/potwash
I have always enjoyed all parts of the kitchen and its discipline, hierarchy etc.!
Do you have a signature dish?
My Herring [on the Saturday brunch menu (sherry, blackcurrant and dill, and new potatoes), afternoon tea menu (blackcurrant herring, egg on dark rye), breakfast menu (The Nordic: sherry herrings, smoked vendace, cured salmon, pickled cucumber on crispy rye with egg butter) and Smorgasbord: herring, sherry, blackcurrant and dill, and new potatoes].
Where in London do you like to eat in on your days off?
La Petite Maison, Mayfair.
You’ve got two children, what is your opinion on dining out with children in a smart restaurant? Do you cater to children at Aster or would you expect them to eat what’s on the menu?
I would expect them to eat what is on the menu but a kiddie-friendly version!
We’ve just celebrated International Women’s Day, do you think being a female chef ever detracts from your food?
No, quite the opposite.
Do you have a guilty food pleasure?
Bread and cheese: sourdough and beaufort.
Tell us something we may not know about you?
Figure skating was my passion when I was a child and teenager.
Finally, we are in Aster, what should we order?
Settle in with a smorgasboard and an Aster martini…