Alma pa­ter

Jeremy Lee on learning to cook

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Jeremy Lee is a TV chef and pro­pri­etor of Quo Vadis in Soho, Lon­don; @jere­myleeqv

The fam­ily tree of restau­rants is a vast sub­ject al­most wor­thy of its own Col­lege Of Arms

Restau­rants and their kitchens are no longer, with rare ex­cep­tions, peo­pled by the high white-hat­ted brigades I learned to cook with back in the late 1970s. No, chefs these days have names – the erst­while ex­pres­sion “Oui, Chef” now seems as dated as the stiff, hushed tem­ples of gas­tron­omy that were once the pin­na­cle of fine din­ing (stuffy ho­tel din­ing rooms, where the clink of china was more au­di­ble than con­ver­sa­tion) – and they are no longer con­fined to the kitchen.

When I came to Lon­don first in the mid 1980s, the restau­rant busi­ness as we know it today was but a tiny twin­kle in the eyes of a small few. It was only when Biben­dum opened in 1987 and I joined Si­mon Hop­kin­son and his kitchen crew there that I be­gan to think there might be a se­ri­ous fu­ture as a chef.

The pre­ci­sion and clar­ity of Si­mon’s cook­ing in­spired me might­ily. Ju­di­cious ex­e­cu­tion of dishes of snails, fish soups, sal­ads, ter­rines, tarts, roast chicken and the thinnest, most el­e­gant ap­ple tarts, to name but a few, made a great im­pres­sion. My time there in­stilled in me a love for cook­ing that re­mains undi­min­ished these many years later.

In the early 90s, af­ter a fair few years work­ing with Si­mon along­side the likes of Bruce Poole, Henry Har­ris and Phil Howard, I had the great good for­tune to work with Alas­tair Lit­tle. The mem­ory of fall­ing into Alas­tair’s kitchen one evening – reek­ing of one too many mar­ti­nis and ul­u­lat­ing on the ex­cep­tion­ally good din­ner I’d just en­joyed – and ask­ing a be­mused Alas­tair for a job still mor­ti­fies me. I stood in his kitchen think­ing I had truly blown it this time and he said … “Yes!” Alas­tair was the an­tithe­sis of the an­cien régime in which I had been ap­pren­ticed, and a bril­liant foil to Si­mon’s cook­ing at Biben­dum. Both had ar­rived at sim­i­lar con­clu­sions by very dif­fer­ent routes. Good fare cooked with good in­gre­di­ents was el­e­vated to giddy heights by these two re­mark­able men: I was lucky to be able to cook with them both.

This was the 1980s and many other great tal­ents were com­ing to the fore. Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray opened the River Café on the north bank of the River Thames in 1987. Thirty years on, it is still daz­zling today – some say more than ever. A great many es­teemed cooks have come through the River Café kitchens and been in­spired to open their own.

One such restau­rant is Moro, now in its 20th year, on Ex­mouth Mar­ket in Far­ring­don, north Lon­don. Founders – and River Café alumni – Sam and Sam Clark have done much to dis­pel the mys­ter­ies of cook­ing in the sun­nier climes, mak­ing Mediter­ranean cook­ing a joy­ful part of daily life.

The other lion of the restau­rant busi­ness well into its third decade is St John. Fer­gus Hen­der­son’s sem­i­nal restau­rant be­gat “nose-to-tail eat­ing” and, with the most gen­tle ca­jol­ing, awak­ened Bri­tish cook­ing out of a lengthy slum­ber.

The fam­ily tree and lin­eage of restau­rants and their alumni is a vast sub­ject. It is al­most wor­thy of its own Col­lege Of Arms (one can only imag­ine the her­aldry). Every cook needs a teacher.

My own ed­u­ca­tion in the kitchen started with my mum and granny. In­deed, many a chef de­lights in telling of fam­ily in­flu­ences, which arm them with the en­thu­si­asm and lore to fuel ad­ven­tures of their own. All is a con­stant source of in­spi­ra­tion for cook and customer alike, vi­tal to the joy of restau­rants, be they a hole in the wall or a swish din­ing room atop a moun­tain.

I have spent the last few years hap­pily en­sconced as cook-pro­pri­etor of one of the old­est sur­viv­ing restau­rants in Soho: Quo Vadis cel­e­brated its 90th birthday in 2016. There are many facets to this huge build­ing, the Grand Old Dame of Dean St, but one facet I adore is the op­por­tu­nity to throw din­ners through three rooms span­ning the whole of

the top floor. It is a spe­cial se­cret in a spe­cial place.

The most re­cent in a long line of feasts fea­tur­ing dis­tin­guished guest chefs was a rather lovely af­fair en­ti­tled Five Cooks and a Cock­tail. The jolly band of guest chefs – Joey Be­han, Ja­cob Far­ley, Louis Ling­wood, Lor­can Spi­teri and Mag­gie Walker – all worked in the kitchens of Quo Vadis be­fore fly­ing the coop to do other ex­cit­ing things. Fun­nily enough, Ja­cob left Quo Vadis to cook in the kitchen of Alas­tair Lit­tle, at his del­i­catessen in West Lon­don. Now that Alas­tair has em­i­grated to Aus­tralia, Ja­cob has be­come the last cook to have worked with him. What fate! Here is a recipe from Alas­tair’s book, Keep It Sim­ple, in his hon­our.

Grilled se­abass with pars­ley salad Serves 2-4

2 whole se­abass (roughly 675g each) 16 black olives 1 gar­lic clove

1 shal­lot, spring onion or red onion 10 ca­pers, prefer­ably salt-packed 4 sun­dried to­ma­toes

1 tbsp red wine vine­gar 300ml ex­tra vir­gin olive oil

A large bunch of flat-leaf pars­ley, leaves picked

Flaky salt and black pep­per

A chunk of parme­san, to serve (op­tional)

2 lemons, halved

1 If you are us­ing a grid­dle or bar­be­cue (rather than a reg­u­lar grill), heat it well in ad­vance. Rinse the body cav­ity of the fish un­der cold wa­ter, then sprin­kle the in­side and out­side with flaky salt.

2 Now, pre­pare the salad. If you need to, stone the olives, then chop them, to­gether with the gar­lic, shal­lot, ca­pers and sun­dried to­ma­toes, and then as­sem­ble them in a bowl. You want a finely chopped salad, not a puree, so do not use a pro­ces­sor. Pour over the vine­gar and the olive oil, then set aside.

3 Now, cook the fish. Be­gin by grilling on one side for about 5 min­utes. How­ever tempted you may be to push it around, don’t, as you will only dam­age the skin. The colour should start to change and the head and tail should start to lift slightly. If cook­ing on a bar­be­cue, the skin will start to bal­loon. Turn the fish over – mak­ing sure not to lift from the mid­dle, as this will cause it to break – and grill for an­other 5 min­utes.

4 Mean­while, fin­ish the salad by adding the pars­ley, a twit of black pep­per then toss and taste. You might like to add the parme­san to the salad – see whether you pre­fer with or with­out.

5 Ar­range the fish on a dish with the lemon halves and the salad along­side, then serve.

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