Woodbridge chef launches totally unique barn dining experience 

Chef Maria Ela in her new cookery barn where she is going to be doing pop-up suppers. Picture: Sara

Chef Maria Elia in her new cookery barn where she is going to be doing pop-up suppers - Credit: Sarah Lucy-Brown

“I’d have sleepless nights. I think I’d break out into a cold sweat,” Maria Elia chuckles – although she’s dead serious. 

We’ve been talking about food served family-style (ie to share) and my constant fear, as a greedy person, of not having enough to eat. 

Maria, who’s serving many of the dishes this way at her new pop-up dining experience, assures me this will never be the case in her restaurant. With Greek heritage coursing through her veins, it’s in her nature, she says, to overfeed. To give too much. Anything less than generosity would be considered a kind of sin, she tells me. Extending your home, your hospitality, and mounds of food, to others is just the Greek way. 

She recalls going to work for her dad in Cyprus. 

“He lived in an apartment down the road from his restaurant. I had to pretend, a lot of the time, I was on the phone when I was walking to work because so many people knew my dad and wanted me to come in and sit for coffee and spoon sweets, or vine leaves. They’d say ‘come, come’. It’s lovely, but it’s a lot! You’d feel like you’d put on 80 kilos!” 

Maria’s been in restaurants since she was knee-high to a grasshopper, helping out in the family business, and going on to run kitchens, and open restaurants for others around the world as part of her consultancy business. She’s also released cookbooks, including the tantalising Smashing Plates, where the sunshine of the Med bursts from every page. 

During lockdown, Maria created very popular click and collect meals with a Mediterranean or, often, Asian slant – customers adoring her hand-penned menus with their wistful illustrations. More recently she’s hosted pop-ups at the Sorrel Horse in Shottisham and Canteen at New Street, as well as co-hosting a fund-raising dinner for the Ukraine at Suffolk New College alongside some of the great and the good of the Suffolk cooking world. 

Most Read

It has always been her intention, though, to have her own place in Suffolk. Somewhere casual and informal to share her deeply ingrained love of slow food and slow living. 

Set in a recently converted barn next to her Clopton home, Maria’s supper clubs are total one-offs, to be held every four to six weeks. It could be dinner...or a lazy Sunday lunch, with space for up to 60 people in the stunning venue – formerly used to house farm vehicles. 

“I wanted the barn to feel really light and airy,” says Maria, telling me the old inspection pit’s been converted to a wine cellar as part of the conversion. “When you come inside it’s completely unexpected. You come in the door and go ‘wow’. In our house the kitchen is stainless steel, which I love because it’s so clean, and we’ve got a bit of a Scandi vibe, so I wanted to continue that in the barn. It just feels so nice. 

“There are so many things we could have done, but I just wanted it to feel soft and uncluttered. Somewhere to relax. It’s a big project. And it’s a bit scary how many hours you can spend agonising over lights,” she chuckles. 

Dining can be set up in tables of six, or as long rows of 30 in the cavernous space, but there’s also an outside area where Maria will be barbecuing in warm weather. 

She wants the experience to be like going to a mate’s for dinner. “If you want to get up and go sit in the garden with a drink between courses, do it,” she says. 

“These days everybody’s always rushing around aren’t they? I want people to come here and switch off completely and feel like they’ve gone on holiday for the day. We all lack that in our lives at the moment, with the world so torn apart and so many heart-breaking things going on. Sometimes just to sit and ‘be’ is one of the most important things.” 

Maria will do all the cooking for each supper club, aided by a merry band of helpers, serving up snacks, plated starters and desserts, and those sharing platters. The energetic chef has a huge notebook, filled with scribbles. Daydreams of menus. Doodles of plates. Her Clopton Barn meals will, she says, allow her to express some of those ideas. 

Interactivity and theatre are key to each experience. There may be bread to break and share on the tables. A starter one day could be paper bags of smoked prawns for diners to unwrap and dip into little pots of taramasalata or lemon and dill dip. 

Maria talks about decorating tables with pots of micro herbs and scissors for everyone to snip onto their own plates. 

Chef Maria Elia in her new cookery barn in Suffolk

Chef Maria Elia in her new cookery barn - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Last weekend, the first supper club, began with snacks of rustic chicken liver parfait made with Greek Port, and served with charred radicchio, Greek salad with feta curd on lavosh crackers, and baby potatoes filled with taramasalata and brown shrimps. 

A starter of ouzo, blood orange and coriander seed cured monkfish with blood orange, roasted beets and pickled shallots followed. Before a centrepiece of 48-hour marinated, 10-hour slow-cooked shoulder of lamb appeared, collapsing off the bone, and served with fennel seed and wild garlic tzatziki, charred spring greens, green herb tahini sauce and side dishes including moussaka-spiced aubergines. 

Vegetarians tucked into a savoury baklava of fennel with lemon, chilli, three Greek cheeses, white beans and pine nuts, drizzled with honey. 

And to finish, there was rhubarb with Greek yoghurt mousse, with rose Turkish delight, and chocolate cookies. 

“I’ve got too many ideas for the supper club,” Maria says, rattling off a couple more. 

Garlic labne, charred lamb, spring greens, peas and broad beans, dill oil accompanied by green beans

Garlic labneh, charred lamb, spring greens, peas and broad beans, dill oil accompanied by green beans in a bag - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“I like to put figs between two layers of plastic and bash them to make a kind of fig carpaccio, sprinkled with fig or olive oil, some salt and pepper, and Greek cheese grated over the top...maybe some rocket. 

“Another dish I love, which I made in London recently, was a chicken cooked like a porchetta. I left the bones in the legs, took the bones out of the rest of the chicken, stuffed it and reformed it, then roasted it on top of fennel, and made a jus with the cooking liquid. I served that with the fennel, some chard braised with green beans, chickpeas and lots of olive oil.” 

The next supper club is set for April 24 – Greek Easter. And Maria says she’s going to town with a full Easter lunch. 

“Hopefully the weather will be nice and we can do things on the barbecue. I think I’ll make a souvla – like a big souvlaki. Probably with lamb. And there’ll be lots of fresh mezzes on the table. Maybe I’ll have some fish. Whole fish cooked in baskets on the char grill with finger bowls of olive oil and lemon, served with bread and Greek salad. Then there’ll be some grain salads. Cyprus potato chips.” 

Maria Elia preparing dishes at her barn in Clopton where she's hosting pop-up supper clubs

Maria Elia preparing dishes at her barn in Clopton where she's hosting pop-up supper clubs - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

What are those, I ask? 

“Ah,” she declares. “Cyprus potatoes are the best potatoes in the world, the soil is full of minerals and really rich, ruddy bright orange. They taste amazing and make fantastic chips. I cook them in the oven in extra virgin Greek olive oil.” 

Dessert is yet to be decided, with Maria saying she adores baklava, but may go off-piste with big bowls of trifle, which she absolutely loves. 

One thing’s for sure, she says: “No one will go hungry!” 

The supper club costs around £45 per person including a welcome drink, with wine and soft drinks available to purchase on the day. Find out more and put yourself on Maria’s mailing list via her Instagram account @mariaelia9