Having lived in rural Italy, we fell in love with the hearty, warm and inviting Italian cuisine and how passionately they talk about their food, and every encounter with an authentic rustic Italian dish makes us happy and brings us back to that unforgettable experience. And this is exactly what happened when Stephanie and Max invited us over for lunch to enjoy a delicious Cacio e Pepe and to have a chat about their beautiful project and culinary venture they set in motion under the name A Tavola.
It’s very rare indeed to see catering companies showing up on site and rolling fresh pasta for 150 guests, rain or shine. But Steph and Max are doing precisely that, conquering the palates of everyone who enjoys their rustic yet sophisticated Italian food that has one thing in common: the excellent quality of the ingredients used, which are always presented with style in simple, but exquisite dishes complemented with natural, low intervention wine.
Having had the privilege to spend time in their company, we realised that Steph and Max bring not just glorious food to the table, but also a sense of community and belonging, harbouring meaningful interactions and unforgettable experiences. An absolute joy!
What are your most vivid childhood memories?
Max: Slipping over and smashing my face on a glass coffee table when I was in Spain with my Gran, very painful.
Steph: Getting out of a hot bath in a hotel when I was 7 - the feeling just before I fainted moments later.
How did you two meet?
Steph: Max was working with Shuttlecock Inc., just before they started to build Carousel in London. They were doing pop ups and I was invited to be one of the guests chefs. It was a tenuous link as to why I was there in the first place. I was passing through Rosie's in Brixton where I had worked at one point and a customer who I'd got on well with happened to be in there, and mentioned his friends may like to get in touch. They did, and I found myself entering what was supposed to be a lighthearted competition, with chefs both serving 70 guests dinner. Except the competition were an all male cast of highly experienced restaurant chefs from the likes of Moro, The Dorchester and St John. Max helped me out. I quickly saw he was an excellent chef, and a kind and funny man.
How did you get into cooking as a profession? What was your journey like?
Steph: I used to work in fashion. I modelled full time for about 6 years through the end of university and beyond. At 26 I moved to Rutland to take care of my mum for a while and by the time I came back to London I had made the call to my agent telling them not to call me again. I decided I needed to learn to drive, and that I wanted to try to make a living out of cooking. My confidence was low and I felt lost, but my mum was alive and had made an incredible recovery, and I was taking steps to make my life better. I wanted to take pride in what I did, and I wanted to learn. I worked in cafés in Brixton, and then went to what is now Peckham Bazaar where the chef there, Jon, mentored me. I am so grateful to him for having had faith in me, encouraging and nurturing me. That period of time was an emotional journey, one of change and growth for me. The whole way through it felt like a journey I was relieved and happy to be on. It took me a long time to come to terms with and value the fact that I had a skill. My friends and family were so supportive ‒ it made as much sense to them as it did to me that I should work with food. I met and worked with some interesting people, particularly women who really inspired me (Bridget Hugo of Breadbread Bakery, the Gingerline ladies, Skye ‒ a brilliant and bonkers caterer). I’m not entirely sure how I've ended up having my own business. I just know I worked hard and respected what I did and the people I worked with.
Max: I genuinely can’t remember how I ended up as a chef. There was no lightbulb moment where I made that decision. It just happened. I grew up in restaurants so it was always something I had been interested in. I started working washing dishes in a pub when I was 18, which soon led to cooking in the kitchen, which I really enjoyed. I guess from then on it was all about moving around working at the best places I could to learn as much as possible. I was lucky enough to work with some extremely talented chefs along the way. London was a massive learning curve and an exciting city to be cooking in. I learned a lot at Bocca di Lupo where they had a great baking/pasta section which was very fun and I think this is where I got into Italian food in a major way. Paris was also very cool and weekly trips to Rungis Market to choose produce were a real treat.
Tell us a bit about your collaborative relationship. How do you influence each other and what are your strengths as a team of chefs?
Steph: We really started working together because my work became too much. I prided myself on having that personal touch, meaning I had a fear of losing control over things. I was finding dealing with everything on my own stressful. Max always helped me by bandying menu ideas about, but more importantly in pushing these and then actually being there to make them happen. He built my company a beautiful website and had me organise business cards. Until then it had been a Hotmail address on a napkin when people asked for details at events. I’ve never been the most technically minded. When we moved to Bristol we wanted to start something together, so we started A Tavola. As a collaborative relationship I don't see us so much as a team of chefs as the duties are so beyond just the food side of things. I am always learning from Max and it makes sense that he takes care of the meat with his knowledge and butchery skills. In the same vein it makes sense that I am the more vegetarian mind. I leave the pastry to Max.
Max: I’m better at pastry. Steph’s better at being nice to people. Our working relationship has evolved and hopefully will keep evolving. We both have strengths along with things we don’t like doing and we share these responsibilities.
How did A Tavola begin and what made it worth pursuing?
We had both come back from Paris with a taste for natural wine, and alongside Max's cooking being so rooted by Italian influence, a project together in A Tavola made sense. We had found the space The Forge where Silkie and Si the owners were supportive from the off, and things felt right, so it felt like a safe space to start up our project together. It felt exciting. We make all kinds of food for people through SBC, but it felt good to be doing something for ourselves on our own terms. Also to be able to offer the wines that we want to go with the food that Max makes. Low intervention wine is not as easy to get your hands on in Bristol as Paris or London. We have some favourite places we love to go, and there is a fast growing awareness and market for it here I think. To be able to put together our own list to go alongside the food we love to eat and serve completes things for us. To give ourselves that say is a special feeling.
What sets A Tavola apart from other catering businesses?
Steph: A Tavola is part of what we offer through SBC when it comes to catering although it is as set up as our pop up, a passion project really. In terms of it as part of the catering we offer, I don't know of many companies showing up on site and rolling fresh pasta for 150 guests! The two of us are very hands on with events. We are generally both present on a job or at the very least one of us is. We now both do tastings with couples for weddings and have meetings and Skype or phone calls with clients for their event in the run up until they feel totally comfortable with how things will be run.
The two of us having different strengths both in the kitchen and in organising events means we both get the best of each other as a team and leave it to the other to deal with a situation as best as we can as a team, if that makes sense. That way clients get the best out of us, and feel taken care of. They feel it because they are, and because we really care. I think we also draw the sort of client to us that wants us to be a part of their process. I am still always flattered to hear back from people whose events we have done who tell us that our passion for what we do is very apparent, ‘infectious’ even. It doesn't feel like that all of the time. Sometimes, when it all feels relentless and things are not going as smoothly as they could for whatever reason, and you're starting a three hour drive home with a van load of dirty kit from a field in the rain, after three 17 hour days and you know you may not sleep well because your mind is already on the next job, your passion wanes. But that's a lesson I'm still learning. To make time for those pauses in between jobs, take it all in and really look at what we have managed to do and be grateful for it all. We have emails and cards from clients telling us what is going on in their family, that they are having a baby, or that they think of the food we did for their wedding often, or even couples come to A Tavola events in Bristol from London, to say hello and have some food. All that feels very special.
Do you have any favourite ingredients that you regularly feature on your menus?
Our menus are ever changing with the seasons and with our brief, but here are some of our favourite things that will be all the place when they are in!
Max: Pasta is beginning to feature more and more which I love, it is such a treat to have fresh pasta rolled for an event. I also generally like to drown everything in brown butter as much as I can.
Steph: Broad beans, crown prince squash, strawberries, wild garlic, asparagus, celeriac, crab. I love a spring dish with burrata. I love artichokes. It sounds basic but I love Max's pumpkin ravioli (with nutmeg and parmesan) in walnut brown butter, I really do. I think if anyone were to have that on their menu they'd be delighted.
What is the most challenging aspect of running a catering business?
Steph: Without a doubt the admin. The writing emails I am happy with, meeting people, and talking through things I enjoy. Even organising staff because putting together what you know will be a great team for an event is satisfying. But the accounts. The accounts kill me. I struggle to find much joy in accounts and that side of the admin, spreadsheets of numbers, and trying to file things in correct folders. Computer screen time has never and will never be good for the soul in long stints. Or ever for me.
Max: I'd agree with Steph though I do find it easier to get along with it more than she does. Juggling everything can be challenging at times. We really do do everything, so for me it was a leap from being a chef running a kitchen in one place to getting to grips with running events all over the UK and beyond. Putting a restaurant together for 120 people in a field in the rain can be a challenge! And then you hear trains are cancelled and your staff will all be late. Meanwhile, the electrics have been cut. There's only one thing you can do. Sort it all out and make it all happen.
What are the major trends happening in the dining scene at the moment?
Max: There are always new trends in the dining scene, some I like some not so much. Natural wines are becoming more and more popular which I think is great, that’s not to say that all ‘natural’ wine is delicious. There is always a danger when things get trendy that the quality is diluted, and things can become quite generic.
Steph: There is an ever growing awareness about produce origin, and the ethics surrounding meat and dairy which is interesting to see and encouraging. People are wanting to learn more about where their food is coming from, and through this becoming more connected with it which is a very positive thing. Food is fashionable now ‒ it wasn't always. Vegetarianism certainly wasn’t. I was one for 18 years since I was ten, but I have eaten fish for the past 7 years now, too. I’m now told how it’s cool to date a chef. That must mean we are both cool right?! In the last few years the dining scene has seen the rise of dirty food, the burger 'revolution', followed by the backlash of 'clean eating' which experienced a far angrier backlash due to its unhealthy narrative and direct correlation with ‘orthorexia’. This opened the doors to what has always been present and is now definitely more on trend than ever ‒ a more balanced lifestyle approach and a healthier attitude to food in ‘wellness’. Any of these trends will always be available for whatever lifestyle anyone chooses to be a part of. A lot of these are so very social media driven. Eating trends are inextricably caught up in lifestyle. I’ve never been bothered about getting a ‘deal’ with my dining. I’m happy to pay for what I consider to be good food, and I know what work is involved in the whole experience of a lovely meal. That will always be worth whatever the cost was to me. The only dining scene I am really in touch with is the one I enjoy and which happens to be a focus at the moment, and will, I imagine, continue to grow which is a great thing.
The Forge ‒ how did this collaboration come about and what is it that you love the most about this space?
Max: A mate of mine who I worked for a while back put us in touch with Silkie when we moved down here and we were hoping to start a pop up. We met up and hit it off straight away. The Forge has been so supportive of A Tavola, and it’s the perfect venue for what we want to do. We have been very lucky. Silkie has helped us hugely with our branding and image.
Stephanie, tell us a bit about your passion for food styling and your approach to presenting food.
Food styling is a funny one. Print and film require very different sides to food styling. I have done more print than I have film and always worked with lovely people to do so. The filming (which for me has mostly been Paris based) I found more stressful and at times more frustrating. There is only so much food styling I like to do. I enjoy the connection of cooking for people rather than pictures ‒ having them eat it, which is why I do what I do for a living, and style on the side. My approach to presenting food is often different to how I style food on jobs. With jobs you are following a brief, and you want to fill that brief and produce shots the client will be very happy with. With the jobs that Max and I take on for private events, we keep it non pretentious, as fuss free as we can. Not just to save time, but because that is how we like things to look. The kind of dishes we like to cook lend themselves to how we wish to present them, which is simply and honestly. This isn’t to say they do not look lovely. There are never jellies or foams involved ‒ everything is recognisable really, so it feels as simple as placing food with care upon a plate for us. The problems arise when you over think things right? That is not to say I can’t appreciate a very different type of plating, that is filling its brief shall we say for the kind of dish that it is. I enjoy that different cooking styles, and different dishes demand different presentation ‒ that is the very point of food styling!
What food makes you happy?
Steph: It's so mood dependent. And location dependent too! If it's been a long stint of work the chance to have something really nourishing feels great. A pho, some garlic greens. Black beans for breakfast with lots of green peppers. In the summer a fantastic salad. A bowl of pasta any time. Eggs ‒ any way, with good sourdough bread, ideally Bread ‒ if I've brought back a haul from a job. Green soup ‒ whatever greens are at home, with big bunches of herbs through it, a spoonful of rice and a dollop of yoghurt. Pizza, we both love a good pizza and Bristol has plenty of them. Bitter leaves and cheese and nuts. Good cheese, British and French, with cornichons and chutneys. Tomato salads in Italy, courgettes and goats yoghurt in France. Crisps ‒ I just love a good crisp or fifty.
Max: Roast chicken with all the trimmings ‒ bread sauce especially. Chinese food, spicier the better; there is a place in London called Silk Road. That place makes me very happy.
What is the most frequent subject of your conversations?
Steph: One guess….
Max: We do talk about food a lot. If we are not working we are usually cooking or eating out so it is hard to get away from. Steph talks about her cat Louis quite a lot…
What piece of advice you would give to an aspiring chef?
Max: Probably don’t get into it if you are a bit lazy and aren’t willing to sacrifice a large part of your social life. Keep moving around, every couple of years find somewhere new, don’t get complacent in a job or you’ll stop learning. Eat out as much as you can, revolve your holidays around food. It will make you a better chef the more great food you eat.
Your jobs must take you to so many different places. What are some of the most memorable ones so far?
Steph: It tends to be a lot about the people rather than the place oddly. Places themselves become a bit of a blur. From one amazing stately home venue to the next with various field venues and lovely gardens in between. My focus is making sure the power is sorted out, that if it rains the food is covered in the gap between the tents staff are running between, directing lost guests in the right direction and so on. That there is a second delivery of ice coming from the middle of nowhere for the cocktail bar after dinner. That Max and the chefs are in control of the menu. That guests are smiling and everyone has a drink in their hand. That staff are finishing shift on time and given a chance to sit down and try to eat something. Sometimes you get to look up and take in a venue, look around a little on the drive there, but before I know it the time has flown by, it’s the early hours of the morning and we are packing up to drive off again! There have been a couple of stand out jobs this year for private clients in stunning family homes, and a job in Italy for a week in the summer. I stayed in a lovely family home in Cornwall shooting a cookbook on sale next year which had stunning views and where we made it out a couple of times to breath in that special air.
Max: I worked for a friend doing Pop up in New York for a month, we worked hard but got to eat and drink out excessively on our days off. It’s a great city.
What are your favourite places to eat in Bristol?
Steph: Birch for a long Saturday lunches with delicious wine, Bar Buvette for tasty food, wine and hugs, Dela for perfect poached eggs and greens on toast, Bulrush for our staff Christmas party (just the two of us then).
Max: Bosco for pizza on a Sunday. I feel the same about Birch as Steph, love it. Bakers and Co does a great breakfast. Still haven’t made it to the Pony and Trap or Root, we are looking forward to those.
Running your own business and being involved in a variety of other projects can be stressful at times. What do you do to relax?
Steph: I try to promise myself that every few weeks I will get a massage at Thai Sabai. When it happens it is heavenly. The owner and her daughter have truly magic hands. My favourite thing is a reflexology foot massage, but I’ve not got around to finding one just yet in Bristol. I do a little yoga when I can, and get into things like Blue Planet, drink good wine, eat nice things, obsess over Louis Boote the cat. I drink tea in the bath, sometimes with chocolate.
What about the future? What are your dreams and ambitions?
Steph: I love my work, but working less would be great. Slowing down. I like spending time on my own. Having the time and energy to cook something simple and tasty for myself, for us, for friends. Nobody wants to have regrets. I want to take the time to visit the special people to me that are dotted about. Pretty simple.
Max: To have a house in Italy.
Can you recommend us:
A book: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers (Steph) / Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain (Max).
A film: Drop Dead Fred (Steph) / Casino (Max).
A song: Ann Peebles ‒ I can't stand the rain (Steph) / The Stone Roses ‒ Sugar Spun Sister (Max).
Thank you, Stephanie & Max, for the warm welcome, yummy pasta dish and tasty insight into your entrepreneurial venture.