Jeremy Lee on learning to cook
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.