Sonia Blech is half-Italian and half-French and sometimes wonders how she got involved
with l’albion perfide as well as a career as a chef. A university lecturer in linguistics
specialising in medieval French, she was also renowned for her dinner parties with
her very individualistic cuisine.
Well, she took the plunge with her husband Neville, and turned what was initially
supposed to be a country cottage in the Wye Valley near Monmouth in to a universally
renowned restaurant avec chambres in the short space of five years. Not without a
lot of heartache. She originally engaged a French chef, who had previously worked
for Pierre Koffmann at The Waterside Inn, and his wife to run the place and Sonia
would fulfil the role of Executive Chef. He was a very good chef, but when, just
before the August Bank Holiday weekend, they marched in and demanded a doubling of
their salaries, Sonia decided that something had to be done. He thought that he was
God but didn’t realise that Sonia was.
So when they threatened to leave, she said, “leave!”. And so they left. So armed
with a recipe book from Escoffier and assisted by an epileptic Scottish sous-chef,
Sonia coped admirably with the weekend. Soon, her talents were recognised by Christopher
Driver of The Good Food Guide and in 1976 she became the first woman in the UK to
gain a Michelin star. Furthermore, this was the first restaurant in Wales ever to
win a Michelin star, a feat so astonishing that they sent a reporter down from the
New York Times to see if this really could be true. By this time she had already
thrown away the Escoffier recipe book and had really begun to do her own thing. A
number of dishes that she had created in the 1970’s (notably her prune and Armagnac
ice cream, smoked salmon sushi and her ‘venison with elderberries’ dish) were copied
by other, more famous chefs.
Not having been formally trained in catering allowed her to fully utilise her intellectual
capacity for invention and remains to this day, a source of inspiration to others.
In 1979 they sold the Crown Inn at Whitebrook (it is still going today under other
ownership) and set up Restaurant Mijanou in Ebury Street London, which was a source
of discrete and refined dining (which is possibly why it was so regularly frequented
by MPs of all parties), until they were “made an offer they couldn’t refuse” by an
Italian restaurateur in 1996. Sonia now contents herself with creating wine dinners
and tastings when she is not travelling to far flung places such as Uruguay and Vietnam
and visiting her grandchildren in Bordeaux.
Neville Blech qualified as a chartered accountant in 1959 and became passionate about
food and wine whilst working in Italy in the early sixties. He was first seriously
introduced to wine after reading Hugh Johnston’s book, "Wine", which left a profound
influence on him (Me too! ed.).
He met his wife, Sonia, whilst working in Milan. She was an accomplished amateur
cook and they both nurtured ambitions to open a restaurant “when the children grew
up”. They opened their first restaurant when their eldest daughter was 11 and worked
in the restaurant business until they sold their award winning London restaurant
Mijanou in 1996.
In 1989, after receiving many accolades for his wine lists, and with encouragement
from some of his restaurateur friends, he started his own wine company, The Wine
Treasury, which specialised in supplying hotel and restaurants, particularly with
wines from California. The Wine Treasury was quickly recognised as the leading Californian
wine importer in the nineties.
Supplying private customers came next and the formation of the Wine Treasury Syndicate
brought together a number of wine and food elitists who still meet at wine dinners
organised by Neville and Sonia. In 1998, Neville was invited to become a permanent
member of “Le Grand Jury Européen”, a wine tasting panel of top European tasters,
whose session results are reported in Le Figaro and Gault-Millau.
In March 2002, there was a management buyout of the Wine Treasury, and Neville still
remains marginally involved as “Chairman Emeritus” but is spending more and more
time on other pursuits such as travelling and working on this web site! He and Sonia
now spend a lot of time commuting between their London house and their apartment
overlooking the port of Genoa in Italy as well as visiting as many other places in
the world for gastronomic inspiration.