Si­mon Hop­kin­son, restau­ra­teur and cook, has no time for fast or fussy – just good food, he tells Catalina Stog­don

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Front Page -

Out­side the mag­nif­i­cent Miche­lin build­ing, in South Kens­ing­ton, on one of the last sear­ingly hot days of Septem­ber, I am dis­cussing recipes and the plea­sure of a good egg with Si­mon Hop­kin­son. The heat and traf­fic noise is en­croach­ing on our out­door ta­ble at Biben­dum restau­rant, and Hop­kin­son is in bullish form. “What’s my ad­vice to home cooks?” his eye­brows raise. “Cook well!” Some have por­trayed the food writer and for­mer chef as the Jeremy Clark­son of the culi­nary world – and I can see why. His nonon­sense take on food pep­pers his con­ver­sa­tion, on ev­ery­thing from bal­samic vine­gar – “it makes a re­volt­ing salad dress­ing” – to un­der­cooked veg – “I don’t like my beans to squeak in the mouth.” And he just doesn’t get as­para­gus that is served raw. “It’s like the catch­phrase from the Ra­dio 4 pro­gramme Down the Line: ‘what is point?’ And so it con­tin­ues. “I hate sous vide [vac­uum-pack­ing and cook­ing un­der wa­ter]. It doesn’t smell like the food you are cook­ing. Bread­mak­ers are use­less. And why is olive oil so ubiq­ui­tous? I make my salad dress­ings with sun­flower or veg­etable oil.” Does any­thing curry favour with him? “I like gad­gets that do things for you: my mini-food pro­ces­sors; the early Mag­im­ixes from the late Seven­ties and Eight­ies, which had much bet­ter blades than those to­day; find them on eBay. I al­ways use my fa­ther’s old-fash­ioned swivel potato peeler. Ice-cream ma­chines are also worth hav­ing – you keep them for life.” Hop­kin­son buys his Ayles­bury duck from Lon­don farm­ers’ mar­kets, and Ital­ian but­ter, from Whole Foods, is a favourite – “in a ring-pull can; it is made from the same milk they use to make Parme­san, ex­pen­sive, but de­li­cious.” His real love, of course, is writ­ing recipes, which he has per­fected over decades in the busi­ness. His Roast Chicken and Other Sto­ries is a wellthumbed cook­ery book in many a house­hold kitchen; it out­sold Harry Pot­ter for a week, and made his name among the cook­ery cognoscenti. Be­fore this, he opened Biben­dum in the Eight­ies with Sir Ter­ence Con­ran, be­fore re­sign­ing as head chef to con­cen­trate on his books and tele­vi­sion pro­grammes. But not for him the bish, bash, bosh man­ner of Jamie Oliver, or the smoul­der­ing looks of our beloved Nigella; his pro­grammes, like his recipe books, are un­fussy yet pre­cise, in­still­ing con­fi­dence in the am­a­teur cook to have a crack at ev­ery­thing from chicken pie to hot cross bun bread and but­ter pud­ding. And in the age of the celebrity chef, the food, re­fresh­ingly, not the pre­sen­ter, is the star of the show. “My par­ents were my first in­flu­ence,” he says. “My dad did the ex­per­i­men­tal cook­ery in those days, such as cur­ries with spices he would find in Manch­ester, while my mum did the ev­ery­day pies and braises, very well.” His favourite chefs in­clude Row­ley Leigh and Fer­gus Hen­der­son, but he re­serves his great­est ad­mi­ra­tion for El­iz­a­beth David, who rev­o­lu­tionised the stodgy Bri­tish cook­ing of the Fifties, and the Amer­i­can food writer Richard Ol­ney. “He is my num­ber one. He wasn’t a chef, he was a cook, and his recipes were thoughtful, ex­pert, sen­si­tive.” The French Menu Cook­book and Sim­ple French Food were an in­spi­ra­tion. “The best ad­vice I re­ally could give to home cooks is to go and read their books.” For Hop­kin­son, noth­ing but pre­ci­sion will do: “I have seen recipes with in­struc­tions that are too vague,” he bris­tles. “I don’t like vague­ness.” In his lat­est book, one recipe for hum­mus calls for pinch­ing out any opaque skins from each chick­pea. “Ten min­utes deleted from one’s life for the best, most smooth hum­mus ever. Too much to ask? If it is, I sug­gest buy­ing some ready­made and leav­ing now…” But­tered new pota­toes merit their own recipe, as do fennel-salami sand­wiches, with in­struc­tions on slic­ing and but­ter­ing. Can there be too much pre­ci­sion in cook­ery? What about the in­stinc­tive cook who likes to throw var­i­ous things in a pan and see what comes out? “That’s not in­stinc­tive cook­ing,” he re­torts. “It’s all about prac­tice. Cook­ery isn’t set in stone. But any­one who makes their first souf­flé, which doesn’t work, and blames the recipe writer...” He shud­ders. Does he re­fer to recipes him­self? “Hardly ever.” But back to safer ground, the egg: one of his favourite foods, how does he cook his? “Poached in wa­ter with a splash of vine­gar like my mum used to make. It has to be a proper fresh egg; Bur­ford Browns with the long­est sell-by-date. No salt, as this makes the egg spread. Cook the toast well, but not so that is it too dark.” He even ad­mits to a few culi­nary short­cuts now and again: “I think He­ston’s beef stock, ex­pen­sive as it is, is won­der­ful; even Maggi liq­uid sea­son­ing is good. Some­times I like to just lick it off my hand – it’s a shot of nos­tal­gia.” He is par­tial to a ready-made Fray Ben­tos steak and kid­ney pie, too. But above all, he is not a fan of the time-pressed cook, nor those who cater for them: “This 30-minute food, 15-minute food, quick cook­ing for fam­i­lies: it’s not all about that. If you haven’t time to cook, go down the road and buy some fish and chips.”

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