The root cause: Camilla Fayed eats shoots and believes

The vegan socialite-turned-restaurateur on leading the conscious eating revolution, and those other roots - her Egyptian ones - for which she has a deep respect

Unsuspecting pedestrians strolling by a beautiful old building in west London with its striped awnings and green signage could be forgiven for mistaking it for a chemist.

The colour scheme continues inside, where those who venture across the threshold are offered the first clue that if this is a dispensary then it’s not the kind that they were expecting.

Amid the foliage cascading from the ceiling and the pots of verdancy dotted throughout, restoratives are in fact prepared, but arrive on plates not in paper bags.

This is Farmacy, a vegan restaurant founded in Notting Hill by Camilla Fayed along the lines of the Greek physician Hippocrates' philosophy of letting “food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”.

Her father is the Alexandria-born billionaire businessman Mohamed Al Fayed, the colourful former owner of Harrods and Fulham Football Club, who still owns the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

Mr Al Fayed, now 92, had a flair for idiosyncratic commercial premises, just as his daughter evidently has today. Who can forget the Egyptian Hall complete with gold escalator created at the most famous department store in London? It stamped his personality on the building, a process brought to completion when he put his own face on a statue of a Sphinx.

“He’s a master of theatrics,” Ms Fayed says, “and has always had a brilliant sense of humour. Everything has to be larger than life.”

Her first job was on the shop floor of Harrods, putting Camilla Wathen on her name tag – her mother's maiden name – to minimise fuss around being the proprietor’s daughter.

It ignited an interest in fashion that would lead to her working for the publishers of British Vogue in London, and then an exhausting stint as an assistant to Anna Wintour in New York.

By then, Ms Fayed had decided that she would never go back into an institution to study; her working life, and the independence that it brought, had begun.

So it was that she never did get a degree in business or economics, as her father had wished, but she still jokes about her higher education at the “University of Harrods”.

A good deal of her 20s passed sitting in her father’s office in the famed department store “because that was where one found him”. It was fun, she says, learning about the business world by osmosis.

“Occasionally, he would have moments of ‘go read the Financial Times’, but generally we picked up his way of working by watching him.

“My father promoted a strong work ethic and wanted us all to find our passion – just as long as it wasn’t acting!

“The thing that he was most interested in was change – he wanted to prove that an Egyptian man could take over and run a British institution like Harrods. I have definitely inherited his passion for business.”

She would go on to buy a 51 per cent stake in Issa, in those days a small clothing brand, becoming chairwoman and reviving its fortunes by expanding into Japan and Brazil. Kate Middleton wore one of the brand’s dark blue wrap dresses when she and Prince William announced their engagement to the media in 2010.

After five years, the business was sold to House of Fraser when Ms Fayed decided to champion what she hopes will be a conscious eating revolution. She firmly believes that counting chemicals not calories is a win-win for the health of consumers and of the planet.

The inspiration for the Farmacy venture came when Ms Fayed was unable to find anywhere to eat out where sustainable farming and supply chains were as important as the flavour of the dishes.

“This restaurant is only a shop window into a world,” she says, explaining that many of the vegetables, fruits and herbs used in the plant-based recipes are grown on her own biodynamic plot of land in Kent and delivered, of course, by electric van.

Convincing her Syrian-born property-developer husband, Mohamad Esreb, to move away from Park Lane in London to the countryside with their daughter and son, Luna and Numair, was no trouble, she says.

“I met my husband in a nightclub in London when I was 18,” she says, laughing. “It feels like a totally different paradigm, the idea of being in a closed space with so many people, of clubbing in general.”

Luna is particularly interested in the war-torn country of her father’s birth, devoting several school projects to the subject of Syria. One day, Ms Fayed hopes to go there as a family but, until the conflict lessens, they dine at Syrian restaurants whenever possible to maintain a link.

If the Farmacy building is not quite what people might have imagined, then Ms Fayed is equally so. Over the years, she has been portrayed in the media as a socialite heiress more likely to be photographed partying with celebrity friends in designer heels than inspecting crops in Wellingtons or feeding the chickens.

When The National meets her, she is hard at work at a corner table of the restaurant, perusing recipes, sampling dates from a new supplier and demonstrating that she is deeply involved at every level of the ambitious venture.

Thoughtful, quietly spoken and petite, she is virtually make-up free apart from a Cleopatra slick of eyeliner. And then there are the tattoos.

“This is the Eye of Horus, and this one is the ankh, which of course is an ancient protective symbol,” she says, pointing to her neck. “This one is a pyramid and here I’ve got cats’ eyes.”

Much of the body art was done as an act of rebellion at 16 when Ms Fayed left her strict boarding school in the south of England.

“My parents were not best pleased. And, with a Middle Eastern father, you can imagine … ” she says, smiling and rolling her eyes. “But I am proud of my Egyptian heritage, and have a deep respect for it.”

She had been sent to what she came to regard as the loathsome Roedean School at the age of 12, around the time that her half-brother Dodi was killed with Diana, Princess of Wales in a car crash in the underpass of the Pont de l’Alma in Paris.

“I was always running away to London or escaping to the pub,” she says. “That was where I picked up terrible junk food habits. We ate pot noodles, baked beans … ”

She left as soon as she could, and attended a drama school near the family home in south-east England as a first step towards applying for the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. “I loved acting and did a lot at school, and I loved English literature,” she recalls.

It was not to be. “My dad was dead against the acting thing,” she says of the thwarted attempt to follow in the footsteps of her mother, the Finnish model and actress Heini Wathen.

In the long run, however, Ms Fayed, 35, seems in many ways to have turned out a lot like her father.

She was born in London, the third of four children, and grew up between a home in Surrey and another in France. Summers were spent in Helsinki where her beloved grandmother lived.

Food, she recalls, always played an “enormous part” in family life, with mainly Egyptian and Finnish dishes featuring and Burger King an occasional treat at weekends. “If,” she punctuates the sentence with laughter, “you can imagine that now!”

When Mr Al Fayed arrived in Britain from Egypt in the 1960s, he brought along a cook who stayed for 50 years and only recently passed away.

“He would cook Egyptian food for us,” she says. “There were lots of meat stews, a lot of okra, and mloukhieh. I still prepare mloukhieh once a week at home, and we love it. Though my children loathe it.”

When she was 17, a year after those frowned-on trips to the tattoo parlour, the Fayeds visited their large, extended family in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. For the teenage Camilla, the trip solidified the connection with her heritage. “I do feel very Egyptian,” she says.

It was only the second time that her father had been back since leaving decades before. “His life and work was very much in Britain and he felt British above all,” she explains.

Fayed Snr is nonetheless extremely passionate about his birthplace, and runs several charities in Egypt that primarily focus on children living in poverty or with life-limiting conditions through the Al Fayed Charitable Foundation for which Camilla is a proud ambassador.

Over the years, she claims to have picked up her father’s penchant for “creating experiences” and providing hospitality. Ever the showman, he began the annual Christmas parade down Knightsbridge, made the Boxing Day sale a firm fixture in London’s shopping calendar, and once used a live cobra as a security feature during the launch of a pair of particularly expensive shoes.

The organic offerings at her vegan restaurant point to a somewhat less flamboyant approach, though – notwithstanding the “farmaceutical shots” full of bracing blends such as ginger, turmeric, cayenne and lemon served in a syringe.

Bestsellers on the menu include Cauliflower Popcorn, a “Got No Beef Burger” made of walnut, mushroom and beetroot, Mushroom Tacos, lasagne with sheets made of yellow lentils, and desserts such as “Nice Cream” made with coconut milk or cocoa butter.

Notably for a vegan restaurant, avocado is not used and nuts are a rare ingredient. “When you see what the avocado industry has done to water supplies in Chile, it’s hard to justify,” Ms Fayed says.

“As for nuts, I always look to nature for guidance. Walnuts and almonds have a tough shell to crack, which makes me think we shouldn’t be eating vast amounts of nuts in general.

“You should also ‘activate’ them by soaking them, because nuts can contain a lot of mould, and toxins that make them hard to digest and ultimately poisonous.”

Her knowledge of nutrition is impressive for someone who hasn’t done any formal study into the science. It is mostly, she says, learned from lived experience.

“I had always been interested in health,” Ms Fayed says. “But I had bad eating habits from my school days, and I began to have recurrent bugs and chronic issues that a young, supposedly healthy person should not have.

“I also suffered from anxiety. Biohacking is a passion of mine; finding what works for me, and getting to the root of issues of mental health, etc.”

Like her father before her, she is in the business of creating change, and of providing a solution. “We farm at the highest level of sustainability on our farm, and we work closely with organisations such as the [food waste charity] City Harvest,” she says.

Before coronavirus, she tested the waters in the United States with a six-month pop-up in New York, which closed just before the lockdown.

The plan is to expand globally, hopefully into the Middle East soon. “We have to look carefully at the supply chain, though, to make sure it’s all organic and sustainable,” she says.

Lockdown, she says, has been hard because of how much time the restaurant in Westbourne Grove has spent with the doors closed, but her kitchen in east London that serves only takeaway has been one of the pandemic’s successes.

“Delivery wasn’t at all our main thing before Covid,” she says. “We even used to switch off the delivery apps from time to time but demand soared when restaurants shut.”

She has had a less favourable outcome in attempts to convert her husband or parents to veganism, all “real carnivores for whom eating out means steak every time”. Heini and Mohamed have, however, been to the restaurant and the latter, Ms Fayed says, is a fan of the organic beer.

Asked what was the highlight of these Covid times, she replies without hesitation. “Having a baby a week before we locked down,” she says, of her now 16-month-old girl Ava. “That helped!”

Another is the drastic reduction in international transit generally. She, too, used to travel frequently until the pandemic struck, she says, “and how wonderful that we now know we don’t have to fly to New York for a meeting, that we can do it on Zoom and not kill the planet”.

Then, just like that, Ms Fayed proffers a matcha coconut milk latte and quickly excuses herself. It should come as no surprise by now that she has a train to catch home.

Updated: July 9th 2021, 6:02 PM
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