Fresh and clean
Jackson Boxer's salad and butter
Perhaps the most difficult thing to do as a chef is to hold back from overcomplicating food. Produce should be allowed to do its job, providing clean and fresh flavours without ornate embellishment
There’s a game I often play with my team during quiet moments, as the clock moves inexorably toward the start of service, called What Right Now. All it involves is asking the target what thing they would most like right now to be consuming. Like all the best games, it is simple but challenging. At first I would use it as a tool to encourage creative thinking towards service – in anticipating that the warm afternoon turning to a balmy evening called for Campari and soda, we would better serve our guests’ unconscious desires, preparing to offer them the drink they did not yet know they wanted. But in time it’s become a thought experiment in the perils of overcomplication.
When I first opened Brunswick House, it was a seven-seat espresso bar, in a hastily tiled corner of the storage annexe of a salvage yard. My brother and I had £1,000 each, saved in tips from working as a barman and cook/waiter respectively, which we used to buy a secondhand coffee machine from a scrappie, and a couple of domestic fridges from Argos. I served espresso, espresso with milk, and four differently constructed sandwiches. Overelaboration was the least of my worries. But we now regularly feed 200 guests a night a menu of the most emphatic celebration of British seasonal cooking, complemented by a 150-bin wine list.
This is not done for ostentation; it is simply a reflection of my enthusiasm for food and wine, and my desire to share as much of it as I can. However, as a foil against self-indulgence, I continue to practise What Right Now. It makes me forever question whether what I’m cooking is really what I would like to be eating, and whether as professional cooks we are sometimes guilty of presenting overconstructed plates that are either architecturally or technically baroque. The question therefore becomes: is this something I would cook at home for myself and those I hold dear?
As I’ve got older, I’ve noticed my palate shifting to embrace cleaner cookery. I want to taste produce, the grass it fed on, the soil it grew in, the sea in which it swam. Eventually, all the dishes I was used to cooking at home – those comforting gratins, stews and pies – seemed claggy, cloudy, indistinct. My domestic repertoire has also shifted to reflect my infant daughter’s interest in food; children have about three times more taste buds than adults, and her discernment in avoiding anything overembellished is something I learn from. My taste in wine has shifted in the same direction, made with as little intervention as is wise.
Over the next four weeks I will seek to present recipes that, while reflecting the food in my restaurant, also represent the cooking I do at home. I will also share with you the wines I would open to enjoy with these dishes. While I don’t subscribe to the tyranny of “correct” wine-pairing, I think that a good wine can add a lot to the charm of a simple lunch.
In the restaurant, we buy our leaves from Chegworth Valley, generally best known for their marvellous varietal apple juices, but best loved by me and my team for their salad-growing. Ben Deme, who runs the family farm, says he can’t explain why their leaves are so good, but much of it must be due to the fine sandy loam in which they’re grown, the rich organic compost and seaweed with which it’s fertilised before planting, and the very attentive and energetic work done in the fields by Deme and his team.
I tend to gravitate towards peppery and bitter leaves, such as old-fashioned English rocket, with its enormous, robust spears; land and watercresses; and oriental mustard leaves such as komatsuna and mizuna. I like to balance these with little gem for volume, and finely minced English garden herbs – chervil and parsley are a preference.