There are lots of tasty reasons to visit Food Lab on Essex Road in N1 but the tastiest reason of them all is Lady Liliana Tamberi, Lili is Food Lab. Everything you see, everything you feel, everything you eat, everyone you meet is all because of Liliana Tamberi.
Liliana was a musician for twenty years of her life singing and playing guitar on Saturday night television in Italy and quite famous in her hometown of Grosetto. “I was pop star of Grosetto, I sign autograph in Grosetto.” I’m writing this whilst listening to her album Viaggio Nella Maremma Toscana and you should read it in exactly the same way...Click here then carry on.
Contrary to popular belief fame isn’t always followed by heaps of cash, especially since according to Lili, the Italian music scene is a very difficult business. So at 35 Liliana started to question things: “where I am, what I’m doing?” She decided she needed something more concrete and to get it she had to make a drastic life change. Lili left Saturday night entertainment television behind, moved to London and started to work with Jamie Oliver at, as she calls it, “Dee Fifteen”. I could listen to her lyrical Italian lilt all day long.
No longer on TV, when Lili’s mum’s friends asked where she was, she would get very embarrassed because “in Italy there is this concept that you’re not really allowed to change your life or your career and I had a type of celebrity status so she couldn’t understand why I wanted to change to become a chef!”
Still, Lili was determined, she worked with Jamie Oliver for a year and enjoyed every minute of it. Her timing couldn’t have been better it just when Jamie wanted to turn his bar into a trattoria and she felt very lucky because the manager put her in charge and gave her carte blanche. Lili says when she was younger it was okay being the gypsy queen running here and there but discovering the job of being a chef was the first real job of her life, the job of a 35 year old and she realised she was really really good at it.
But as the saying goes, you never know what you’ve got till its gone. Lili was the lead singer of the band back in Italy and also wrote scripts for the anchor of the programme so it wasn't long before the team missed her and wanted her back.
The producer called her with an offer of 3000 euro per month, she politely declined.
Then they offered 3500 per month and she said “No thank you”. When it got to 5000 euro per month her response was “okay I’m on my way”. It was just too good an offer to refuse so she gave notice at Fifteen and headed back to Italy for the September - January season of Torno Sabato on Rai Uno.
Lili was happy she went back, she proved to herself she was good enough but in January 2001 whilst waiting around at rehearsals she realised she was making up new recipes in her head instead of rehearsing her lines. That's when she knew she wanted to cook more than she wanted to perform.
This time she bought herself a one-way ticket back to London and began working for Giorgio Locatelli, her favourite chef in London. He put her in charge of the kitchen and front of house for cured meat and cheese at Refettorio where she learnt so much he later made her head chef at Matilda.
Lili was much in demand, The White Horse in Parsons Green offered her the job of executive head chef : in charge of fine dining she increased their gross profit from 61 - 78 % within a couple months of trading. It all looked great from the outside but behind closed doors it was another story.
The stress of having to be male orientated and extremely bossy began to take it’s toll on Lili and she started suffering from stomach pains and a terrible headaches for about a year. She eventually she went to the doctor only for him to discover a stage 3 tumor the size of a mango behind her nose and metastases all over her body.
It was very serious, Lili couldn’t hear properly from all the pressure on her brain and her mother had to rush from Italy to London to look after her. “I’m sure it was caused by stress that I accumulated because I was acting every day the way I didn't want to.”
Thankfully, after a horrendous treatment regime of chemotherapy and spinal fluid transplants the tumors responded and began to shrink. During her arduous recovery time Lili started writing a recipe book with food to suit different moods in mind. This included a chapter dedicated to food to help recovery from illness. “It kept me going, it kept me alive.”
She started thinking about London and the concept of food, the experiences she’d been through and found there was a gap between Michelin star restaurants and terrible places to eat. She felt there was nothing in between, nowhere she wanted to eat for an affordable and in that moment the idea for Food Lab was born.
These days Lili is fully recovered and goes to the market herself at least 2 or 3 times a week even though with a great team behind her she doesn't have to. She wants to see what’s going on, how the things look and what’s in season. “The alarm rings and my brain is starting to think ooh maybe I can find this or I can find that and I’m excited to go searching for all kinds of little things. I don't go to the market and say oh I need to find this, I go to the market and the things they find me because they scream flavour they scream colour, beautiful and healthy”.
Billingsgate for fish, Smithfield for meat and New Covent Garden or Spitalfields for veg and flowers. She selects all the tea leaves and blends the infusions herself. All the preserves on the shelves are home made and the bread and pasta is all made in house on a daily basis. She imports all the cured meat and cheeses directly from the supplier in Tuscany.
It’s evident that Lili and the rest of her staff at Food Lab enjoy their jobs including chefs Teddy, Olivera, and Giacomo. Teddy is Lili’s right hand man and in charge of everything. Sara is the mistress of front of house and has been working with Lili for 6 years.
Giacomo who is from the same town as Lili is in change of the evening which is more fine dining. Alessio Giorgetti and Giulia Puccini host a Monday night Italian aperitivo from 7pm with amazing Italian tapas and negroni cocktails.
A former Chelsea resident, Lili is happy to now be local to Food Lab with different social classes and ethnicities bringing richness to the area that she thinks is special and makes her happy. When she’s not at Food Lab or foraging at the market, Lili makes sure she spends time with her fairly new composer husband (the one who bought her an olive grove as an engagement present by the way) but that’s a whole other story.
Lili’s mum is now very proud of her musician turned chef daughter “we talk to each other on Skype when I'm off from work. When I first bought the pasta machine I skyped my mother and said look I can do this pasta and this pasta”. She comes to London to visit and spends most of the time in the Food Lab kitchen with Lili where they chat and cook just for hours on end just like when she was a child growing up in the Tuscan province of Grosetto.
To see Lili performing live on television in Italy click here