Dara Klein’s Italian Kitchen
Down a residential road in Islington, north London, Dara Klein has conjured up a dream Italian restaurant. Operating out of a tiny kitchen at the Compton Arms—a pub that has served as an incubator for other London success stories like Four Legs and Belly—Tiella draws inspiration from Dara’s Pugliese background and the recipes she grew up recreating and absorbing. Italian home cooking as it should be.
Wearing Drake’s brushed Shetland knitwear and our selvedge denim chore jacket, we visited Dara at Tiella to find out more about her kitchen philosophy, the perfect at-home tomato sauce, and the joys and challenges of running your own dream restaurant.
Drake’s: Hi Dara, what are your early memories of cooking? Did you always want to be a chef?
Dara Klein: Before my parents opened a trattoria they had a rosticceria, which is basically a deli that serves hot food. It was down the road from my primary school and I would walk down after my day finished. I remember one time in particular where mum was building a lasagna and she pulled up a vegetable crate and got me to construct a smaller lasagna next to hers. I must have been about seven or eight at the time.
Going through adolescence and seeing how hard mum worked really put me off cheffing, I went through high school wanting to be a diplomat or an actor. I spent most of my twenties trying out different careers, until I got to 28 and the kitchen lured me in.
Drake’s: What is special about Pugliese cuisine? Could you run us through some key ingredients and dishes and how it influences your own cooking?
DK: The traditions of Pugliese cuisine have their roots in subsistence and making do with what you have. 'La cucina povera' (crudely translated as the kitchen of the poor) certainly has its roots in Puglia. Take the pasta for example. Pugliese wouldn't use eggs as they were too expensive so they developed a pasta using semolina flour instead. The result is a texture that is a lot heartier and bouncier than the egg pasta you see in the north of Italy. It holds up to sauce in a totally different way and feels a lot more substantial.
Puglia being in the middle of the Mediterranean means it draws its influence from the Middle East, North Africa and the Levant, which you see through its cooking. Chickpeas are often used, such as in the typical dish 'ciceri e tria', pasta with braised chickpeas and topped with fried pasta, which I've had on the menu at Tiella frequently.
Drake’s: What is the biggest challenge in opening your own place? Any unexpected difficulties or rewards?
DK: Juggling all of the different aspects of the job simultaneously is a unique balancing act. Staying on top of the food and the menu, the practical admin and paperwork of owning a business, looking after your team and yourself is still new and fresh to me.
The last five years I've just had to cook and manage a team. It feels like there's usually not enough time in the day, but I've been very lucky to be surrounded by incredible people from the start. Those connections you make with your team is second to none and makes it truly worth it.
Experiencing those little moments where you joke around or really take care of each other hits the core of my heart in a special way. The same feeling is conjured with the locals that come to Tiella. The atmosphere of the pub is truly very special, and the daily regulars who come to say hello make me feel so grounded and happy. It's nice to feel as if you're really in a place and time.
Drake’s: What do you cook for yourself after a day in the kitchen?
DK: I don't tend to cook after a shift as I get home around 11 most nights. I'll usually snack on some crisps with sour cream, or cheese and apples. Comte and a royal gala is delicious. If I'm on top of things I'll try and make a kids pasta (butter, olive oil and parmesan) before I finish my shift.
Drake’s: What’s the secret to a perfect at-home tomato sauce?
DK: For me, a decent amount of onions, good olive oil, bay leaves and white wine.
Drake’s: Who are your cooking mentors, and what did they teach you?
DK: Every kitchen I've worked in shaped me and helped me grow in different ways, and also provided really valuable mentors along the way. My first head chef at Rubedo, Tom Ryalls, taught me patience and how vital that is for a chef. Doug Rolle at Brawn showed me the artistry in cooking and how far this craft can take you. Conor Gadd at Trullo really taught me the importance of building relationships, he was a real role model for how you should run a restaurant.
I worked with Diarmuid Goodwin for just over three years and he's been a huge mentor along the way. He really taught what it means to bring joy to a kitchen, how to have fun with it and nourish yourself and people at the same time, which is massively important.
Drake’s: Where is your favourite place to eat that isn’t Tiella?
DK: The list is ever-expanding. Afghan Grill, Planque, Song Que, Singburi, Leo's and The French House.
Drake’s: What’s the most important tool in your kitchen?
DK: Probably my hands and a small ladle.
Drake’s: Outside of work what are you into? Any musicians, artists, films or books that you’ve enjoyed lately?
DK: Lately I've been spending a lot of my downtime at home, cooking and resting. I'm reading A Waiter in Paris by Edward Chisholm, which is beautiful and very fun, but also quite stressful. Next up I'm going to read Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, which I'm very excited about.
On a Monday I try go to the cinema, especially in the middle of the day, which I love. I saw Past Lives recently and adored it. Nothing has made me cry so much in a long time, but weirdly in a good way! My Soundcloud is quite embarrassing at the moment, I tend to listen to music over and over. There's this mix by Derrick Carter at Sub Club in '13 that I keep thrashing on repeat.
Drake’s: Can you tell us a bit more about your custom Birkenstocks and the friend who made them?
DK: We had an amazing KP for a couple of months, Ade, who had recently moved over from Nigeria to try and get his shoe business, Lexy Shoes, off the ground. He made me some amazing shoes for my birthday which was so kind! They're slightly more angular than Birkenstocks and they're very comfortable. The embroidered logo is so beautiful!
Drake’s: How would you describe your style in and out of the kitchen? Do you have any uniforms or particular rules around what you wear?
DK: In the kitchen it's all about comfort, I want to move and glide around as effortlessly as possible. Usually it's drawstring trousers with pockets (very important) and lightweight tops. Out of the kitchen I wear a lot of colour and my style is quite loud and feminine. I love dresses, textures, slightly revealing cuts and loud jewellery. I try and keep this going in the kitchen too with little touches, like fun jewellery, scrunchies and eye shadow.