What is it? TV tie-in to Nigella’s latest BBC TV cookery show with about 100 recipes celebrating home cooking.
Nigella who? You’re kidding, right? Nigella is the famously sultry queen of British food writing and broadcasting who could sexualise a sultana at 100 paces. She has ten other books to her name including How To Be a Domestic Goddess, numerous TV shows and appearances and a hugely popular website.
In 2013, she transcended foodie-fame to became tabloid fodder due to a messy divorce from former ad-man and art gallery owner Charles Saatchi. In the same year, revelations were made about her drug use during a court case involving the couple’s personal assistants.
What does it look like? A cook book. There are recipes. There are (mostly) overhead shots of the dishes to illustrate the recipes. The food styling is kept to an absolute minimum and anyone hoping for images of all those gorgeous rose-gold utensils, copper KitchenAid stand mixer, or indeed Nigella in her now-famous map-of-Venice silk dressing gown from the TV series will be sorely disappointed.
Is it good bedtime reading? Sort of. This is first and foremost a recipe book but Nigella has such a distinctive and well developed writing voice that the extended introductions are just a joy to read at any time.
Killer recipes? Coconut shrimp with turmeric yoghurt; Turkish eggs; toasted Brie, Parma ham and fig sandwich; sweet potato tacos; white miso hummus; roast loin of salmon with Aleppo pepper and fennel seeds; Chicken barley (the list goes on).
Will I have trouble finding ingredients? You may need to head online for Nigella’s favourite ingredient du jour, Aleppo pepper, but the book seems to be designed with the supermarket shopper in mind.
What’s the faff factor? Nigella doesn’t understand the meaning of the word. She is faff antimatter that annihilates the very idea of unnecessary arsing about in the kitchen. If she can make something simple and easy, she will.
How often will I cook from the book? At My Table is a book you could turn to for mid-week meal inspiration, a weekend baking session, special occasion dining or when entertaining friends. So if you like Nigella’s style, you won’t be leaving her on the shelf.
What will I love? The sheer range of the recipes, from simple tray bakes with familiar, comforting ingredients and flavours like chicken and peas to more exotic creations such as Moroccan vegetable pot and brussels sprouts with preserved lemon and pomegranate. ‘Subverting the spiralizer’ cocks a well deserved snook at the clean eating brigade by re-purposing the movement’s emblematic gadget to make down and dirty shoestring fries.
Nigella is always reliable when it comes to desserts and baking and At My Table doesn’t disappoint with the likes of sunken chocolate amaretto cake and warm blondie pudding. She knows her booze too and negroni sbagliato made with prosecco, Campari and red vermouth is destined to become the drink of the chattering classes, and just anyone who buys the book.
What won’t I like? Some may object to Nigella’s shortcut style (‘better behaved cooks would tell you to skim off the frothy bits that rise to the top but, frankly, I’m to lazy to’ she admits in the method for her chicken barley stew) but we know what we think of those people don’t we?
Should I buy it? Despite the almost utilitarian design, you should welcome Nigella to your table. You won’t regret it.
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars
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At My Table: A Celebration of Home Cooking
£26, Chatto and Windus
What is it? Sixty-odd soup recipes based around six base broths and their variations.
Who wrote it? Drew Smith, a former Good Food Guide Editor and author of Oyster: A Gastronomic History with Recipes.
What does it look like? The clean, elegant layout makes it a pleasure to use and Tom Regester’s unfussy photography and simple food styling means soup has never looked so good.
Is it good bedtime reading? Apart from a short introductory chapter, this is primarily a recipe book for the kitchen rather than the nightstand.
Killer recipes? Quick tom yum; flaming oxtail broth; scampi, pea shoots and tofu in miso broth.
Will I have trouble finding ingredients? There is nothing really obscure here and you will probably find most things you need in your local Waitrose, although you will need to shop in the organic aisle for your veg (‘you don’t want to be making a consomme of pesticides’ warns Smith). Head to your nearest Asian supermarket for some of the ingredients used in the chapter on kombu and develop a good relationship with your neighbourhood butcher and fishmonger (if you are lucky enough to have them) for items like pig’s trotters, oysters and gurnard.
What’s the faff factor? Depends on which recipes you choose. If you cook from the ‘Meat’ chapter, you’ll need to spend 2 days preparing the basic beef bone broth before you’ll be able to tackle some of the actual soups. On the other hand, you can whip up gazpacho in a few minutes. On the whole though, Smith favours ‘cooking slowly’ so be prepared to stick around for a few hours to tend something gently bubbling away on the hob or in the oven.
How often will I cook from the book? If you follow Smith’s example, at least once a week, otherwise you’ll need to be in the mood for a bit of a kitchen project.
What will I love? Smith’s obvious passion for his subject comes through loud and clear; he really wants you to not just enjoy eating soup, but take great pleasure from making it. If you are in tune with the concept of mindfulness, you will lap up Broth to Bowl.
What won’t I like? At 160 pages, the book is a bit on the short side. You may wonder why Smith couldn’t come up with more variations on each of the broths. Some aspects of the recipes are glossed over. The introduction for vegetable tea says to ‘ vary the spices, vegetables and herbs with the seasons’ but gives no example substitutions. The method for basic beef bone broth says to ‘ ‘spread the meats and bones across the bottom of a large casserole’ but the ingredients list doesn’t include bones. Garnishes are dealt with in one page with no recipes and no suggestions of which soups in the book they could be served with.
Should I buy it? If you eat soup on a regular basis and are looking for inspiration of new things to put in your bowl, then, despite some shortcomings, this could be the book for you. You may also want to consider A Celebration of Soup: With Classic Recipes from Around the World (Cookery Library) by Lindsey Bareham.
Cuisine: Modern European
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 3 stars
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Broth to Bowl: Mastering the art of great soup from six simple broths
£20, Modern Books
The silver-edged pages of Hook Line Sinker glint in the light, like the skin of the fresh sea bass featured on the cover of this strikingly designed book – it’s even wrapped in a transparent PVC dust jacket. It looks just as good on the inside too (not surprising; it’s from the company that published Sat Bains’s sumptuous Too Many Chiefs Only One Indian) with bold typography and images of not just the food but also the Norfolk coast that is the book’s inspiration.
Galton Blackiston is ideally qualified to write a seafood cookbook. A keen fisherman from childhood, he’s been chef patron of Michelin-starred Morston Hall for 25 years where seafood is an important part of the menu, and more recently opened No 1, a modern fish and chip restaurant in Cromer.
Blackiston’s approach to seafood is simple; ‘it has to be fresh, needs to be cooked with precision, and there’s little room for error. You just need to have a good seafood supplier and cook it well’. He’s applied a similar ethos to compiling the recipes, not attempting to write a definitive seafood guide, simply gathering some of his favourite restaurant dishes from over the years that also work for the home cook.
Although there is a chapter dedicated to main courses, Blackiston eschews the traditional starter category (there’s no desserts, no one wants a fishy pudding after all), instead organising the remaining recipes into ‘quick and easy’, ‘small plates’, ‘stress free’ and ‘spicy seafood’ allowing readers to dip in according to mood and time available.
The thorny, complex issue of sustainability isn’t addressed (a bluefin tuna dish is included, a fish that has suffered from plummeting stocks) and the recipes stick to better-known varieties like salmon, prawns, scallops and crab. But the dishes are nevertheless delicious, ranging from a classic fillet of sea trout with samphire and beurre blanc to lager, soy and ginger-fried whitebait with wasabi aioli.
What comes across loud and clear from this collection is that Blackiston has a singular culinary mind; yes, he’s included crowd pleasers like salt and pepper squid, but dishes like crab jelly with pea panna cotta set the inventive tone. Hook Line Sinker has been 25 years in the making. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait a quarter of a century for the follow up.
This review was originally published in The Caterer magazine
Cuisine: Modern European
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars
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Hook Line Sinker: A Seafood Cookbook
£25 Face Publications
Reviewed by Sam Bilton
Long before chefs began coveting stars, their reputations were built on the social standing of their patron. The bigger the ‘nob’ you worked for, the more prestige your position as a chef held in the 18th century. Charles Carter’s patrons included the Duke of Argyll, General Wood and several lords. He had the advantage of having working in several European countries where he had been exposed to a wider variety of flavours (like garlic) than many of his English counterparts. He was very proud of his achievements and doesn’t shy away from telling the reader so in the introduction to The Complete Practical Cook (1730).
Despite his lack of modesty, a lot of what Carter says still holds true today. He believes cookery is an art and that good cooks should be rewarded for their skill. He is highly critical of unscrupulous cooks who pass off other’s work as their own. He even starts the book by extolling the virtues of a good stock, a maxim which is as true now as it was in the 18th century.
The recipes are very much of their time, with many many meat-based dishes beloved by his wealthy benefactors. Nose to tail eating was definitely the order of the day. The recipe for Olio Podreda (a type of Spanish stew) contains 11 breeds of bird including pheasants, ducks and larks plus beef, pork, veal and mutton, not to mention hogs ears, trotters, sausages and ham. The dish is served with a ‘ragout’ of pallets, sweetbreads, lamb stones, cockscombs and a hefty dose of truffles. You get the meat sweats just by reading the recipe.
A few recipes, like To Pot Otter, Badger or Young Bear, are decidedly odd and are likely to offend some 21st century sensibilities. However, others like Buttered Crab, Eggs à la Switz (a spiced up version of eggs florentine), Pike Babacu’d or Beef la Tremblour (slow cooked rump or sirloin ‘till it is so tender that it will tremble or shake like a quaking pudding’) sound reassuringly familiar once you get past the archaic language. Some like Tamarind Tort or Caraway Cakes are crying out to be rediscovered by a modern audience. Unlike modern cookery books there is no strict division between savoury and sweet dishes reflecting the way meals were served à la francaise. Carter even provides a number of diagrams at the back of the book with suggestions for different dinners according to the season or occasion.
Clearly for the 21st century cook, this is far from a practical book. The recipes are designed to cater for large households so inevitably require scaling down. Some of the ingredients he uses, like eringo roots (candied sea holly roots) or ambergris (whale vomit) are difficult to come by or are best avoided. Carter claims this book will make cooks more inventive and a certain degree of ingenuity is required to make these recipes work today. If you have any interest in England’s culinary heritage it’s worth persevering with The Complete Practical Cook if for no other reason than to prevent it from being forgotten.
Suitable for: Food historians
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars
For many years the beaches on the north coast of Cornwall were patrolled by Australian lifeguards, originally because they had the surf life-saving skills that were unfamiliar to the locals. For me, this meant many summers of friendship with pleasant Australians,all of whom seemed to be sunny and optimistic. Well, you would be, wouldn’t you, with a summer in Cornwall and lots of locals finding you irresistible? One such lifeguard was Rudi, who used to return year after year. Everyone was extremely fond of him – so much so that we filmed a little sequence about a trip he’d made to Ensenada on the Baja California coast, where they made fabulous fish tacos. We cooked some on the beach in Cornwall by the lifeguard hut, and Rudi took Chalky, my Jack Russell, out for a little surfing lesson. Sadly, when back in Australia five years later, Rudi died of cancer and I always thought that one day I’d get to Ensenada and find the tacos.
12 x 15cm Corn tortillas
(page 44 or bought)
600g cod fillet
100g plain flour, seasoned
with pinch of salt and
6 turns black peppermill
1 litre corn or vegetable oil
For the batter
200g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
275ml ice-cold beer
For the toppings
¼ small white cabbage,
1 avocado, stoned,
peeled and diced
Pico de gallo salsa
Hot chilli sauce, such as
Cholula or Huichol
For the chipotle crema
2 Chipotles en adobo
(page 298 or bought)
3 tbsp mayonnaise
3 tbsp soured cream
Juice of ½ lime
Warm the tortillas in a dry frying pan, in a microwave or in the oven. Get your toppings – shredded cabbage, diced avocado, pico de gallo salsa, and hot chilli sauce – ready. Mix the ingredients for the crema and set aside.
To make the batter, sift the flour, salt and baking powder into a roomy bowl. Using a balloon whisk, incorporate the beer until you have a smooth batter. Set aside.
Cut the fish into fingers about 1cm thick. Heat the oil in a large pan to 190°C. Dip a few pieces of fish into the seasoned flour, shake off the excess, then dip them into the batter. Fry for 2–2½ minutes until crisp and golden. Repeat until you’ve cooked all the fish, draining each batch briefly on kitchen paper to remove excess oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
Serve the fish immediately in warm tortillas, with the toppings on the table for guests to help themselves.
You may know that Mark Dodson has held a Michelin star at The Mason’s Arms, his Devon pub, since 2006. You’ll probably also know that he’s a former head chef of The Waterside Inn. But you may not realise that he’s the only Brit ever to hold that position or that he spent a total of 18 years at the restaurant. And you almost certainly won’t have a clue that his favourite film director is Quentin Tarantino and that he has a huge collection of vinyl and gig ticket stubs.
You’ll discover all this and more reading his debut cookbook (the obscure title is explained by the cover strapline ‘I believe that every good chef has a cookery book in them…this is mine) which includes a glowing introduction by Michel Roux Snr (‘I look upon Mark as I look upon my son’) and a brief but illuminating biographical section.
Dodson describes his cooking style as ‘good honest food, featuring local ingredients wherever possible presented with style and taste’, neatly summing up the 70 recipes that are categorised into soups, starters, mains and desserts. In addition, there’s a section dedicated to game, a passion of Dodson’s with preparations ranging from classic roasted grouse with bread sauce and a crouton spread with farce au gratin (a sort of pate made from grouse and chicken livers) to wood pigeon with curried brussels sprouts.
Dodson has been cooking since the 70’s and his classical background is reflected in garnishes like turned and Parisienne-balled vegetables, fanned duck breasts and chicken cooked in a brick. There’s also a fair amount of 90’s-style stacking of food, but there’s a nod to modernism with dragged purees and pickled and smoked elements. Dodson also looks far beyond Britain and France for inspiration; smoked chicken comes with Thai-style salad and salmon is marinated in soy, mirin and yuzu.
The book won’t win any prizes for design with a dated and unimaginative layout and oddly lit photography that makes some dishes look washed out and unappetising. The editing could have been improved too with recipe introductions not delineated from the method and no instructions on how to prepare some ingredients in some recipes, making for a frustrating read at times. However, the book does offer an invaluable opportunity to tap into the wealth of knowledge accrued by one of the UK’s most respected and experienced chefs. This is Mine should also be yours.
This review was originally published in The Caterer magazine.
Cuisine: Modern European/French
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: 3 stars
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This Is Mine
£25 A Way with Media
Restaurateur and seafood expert Rick Stein has been absolutely bloody everywhere. He’s written numerous cookbooks (many of them with an accompanying TV series) covering France, Spain, India, the Med, the Far East, most of Europe and the UK. Now he’s turned his attention to Mexico and California with The Road to Mexico. The book, and TV series, retraces Steins steps from nearly 50 years ago when, as he explains in the introduction, he ‘crossed the border from the USA at Neuvo Laredo and headed for the city of Monterrey’ and ordered some tacos in a bar.
His recent experience of Mexico was undoubtedly more luxurious than his original trip, swapping hitch-hiking, Greyhound buses and German cargo ships for a pale blue convertible Mustang, but the food probably hasn’t changed all that much in intervening half-a-century. Tortillas, tacos, enchiladas, corn, chilies and avocado abound. Recipes include ‘the original Caesar salad’ from Caesar Hotel in Tijuana made with salted white anchovies; refried beans, guacamole and roasted red tomato and chilli salsa. A short section on staples like guacatillo sauce made with tomatillos, avocado and chilies and a list of essential Mexican larder ingredients make the book a perfect primer for the first-time Mexican cook.
Each of the seven chapters that cover breakfasts and brunch, street food, vegetables and sides, fish and shellfish, poultry, meat and desserts and drinks is prefaced by a short essay by Stein, which, combined with the comprehensive and informative recipe introductions and the vividly colourful location photography makes for a satisfying travelogue.
Because the recipes are arranged into categories rather than place of origin, you’ll need to watch the series to get a proper sense of the regional variations of Mexican cuisine, and to understand why California has been included. Stein avers that ‘there is so much Mexican influence in Californian food’, and while that is true, recipes like Italian cioppino (monkfish, mussel and prawn stew) from Tadich Grill, chicken noodle soup with yellow bean sauce from chef Martin Yan’s M.Y China and Alice Waters’ rhubarb galette Chez Panisse (all in San Francisco) don’t reflect that influence.
So, the book’s premise might be a bit shaky and the recipe selection scattershot, but that shouldn’t prevent you from cooking from it. Recipes are well written, easy to follow and for the most part straightforward to prepare. Stein has an unerring nose for a great dish and The Road to Mexico has enough of them to make it a must buy for Stein’s many fans and anyone who wants to find out more about one of the world’s greatest, and most fashionable, cuisines.
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 4 stars
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Rick Stein: The Road to Mexico (TV Tie in)
£26 BBC Books
How did The Sportsman book come about?
I wasn’t planning to do a book at all particularly, but then I got an email from Phaidon. I thought, I quite fancy doing something with them, they make such lovely books. My motive really was to make a souvenir, a representation of The Sportsman and the work that we’ve done over the last 17 years, so it was as simple as that really.
I love a cookbook when it’s not just a collection of recipes, but also tells the story of the restaurant which The Sportsman does brilliantly.
Oh, thanks, that was the plan. I’m the same, I think we’ve probably got quite similar tastes in that respect. Just another recipe, photo, recipe, photo book can be lovely, but if you cook a lot you don’t often need that and its quite interesting to have a story, isn’t it?
I was a little bit intimidated by having to write the whole story, so I tried to do it episodically. I can write 1000-1500 words but as soon as it goes over that I’m a bit out of my depth, so I wrote essays. It appealed to me because I like that kind of Pulp Fiction thing where you move around in the story. It doesn’t insult the intelligence of the reader, it allows the reader to work it out for themselves.
Having written for The Telegraph for two years, I often have to assume no knowledge or intelligence on the part of the reader because that’s part of newspapers, everything has to be crystal clear- recipes that idiots can cook and all that kind of stuff. It was really nice to do a bit where actually I didn’t have to worry about that. I had a bit more of a free hand.
What are your favourite recipes from the book?
A few stand out. The one I’m really loving at the moment, it’s just gone back on the menu, is the pot roast red cabbage, that feels like a very modern dish. Rene Redzepi did this thing where he took a whole cauliflower, and, like a lot of people, I thought what a lovely idea. It makes you question the nature of a chicken versus a vegetable and why do we treat them differently. I thought I’d try a traditional cooking method applied to a winter vegetable and the result was spectacular. I love that dish.
The slip sole with seaweed butter is always going to be a big thing with us because that feels like a recipe with all the loose ends tied up, everything seems to work. It’s a local fish, its seaweed from the beach outside the pub, its butter from the diary, its salt from the sea, there’s something almost holistic about it.
You see slip soles on a lot of other people’s menus these days.
I know, I’m so chuffed. I love it, I think some chefs get annoyed when their ideas get copied but I actually see it as flattery.
Unusually, the book contains recipes for some fundamental ingredients, right down to salt.
That was the route that I chose twelve or thirteen years ago – to go elemental rather than poncey. We got to the point where the kitchen was quite well set up, I had a good team and I was able to start thinking about my own style. It was almost like a fork in the road; shall I go down the route that most two and three-star chefs do where they refine everything, and they trim all the fun out of the food and I went the other route which was to go a bit more elemental, to think about things like salt and butter and bread the very basics of restaurants and to try and elevate them and make them as good as they could be.
Then this whole idea sprang up that there were some things I could make in my own kitchen that were better than I could buy from any supplier. I used to love Echiré butter that you used to get in posh restaurants like Nico’s, it was so delicious, but I couldn’t afford it. But when I made my own butter that made a lot more sense. I always have to remind people that nobody was making their own butter in restaurants back then, so it was a radical idea, but it was also fantastic because it was a reflection of the landscape as well.
Has writing the book clarified in your own mind what your style is or was that already evident to you?
It was already there, but yeah, you’re right. Whenever you have to reflect a bit, inevitably it crystallises things and makes them a bit clearer. In that respect it was good. It was more just having to dredge into my own brain really and allow myself to look at it from that point of view. I don’t know whether it was revelatory, but it was a fun process.
How would you describe your cooking, it’s very distinctive isn’t it?
I suppose so, yeah. The Sportsman is like two restaurants in one. I’ve never really said it and not many people have observed this, but we do an a la carte which is for somebody who lives in Whitstable and wants to pop out for lunch, and then we do a tasting menu and it’s the tasting menu that I’ve put most work into in the last 10 years. When I wrote about a style of my own that was really it.
Olivier Roellinger and those kind of chefs developed a certain style. So Roellinger, I give the example in the book, was very much reflecting the spice trade in Saint-Malo; Michel Bras with his foraging reflecting the landscape on the plate, and that’s what the tasting menu is about really, it’s a bit more kind of highbrow but at the same time I’m also very keenly aware of not alienating people. My palate and my taste are quite traditional, and I love really tasty food. I think that’s the style.
It’s interesting that you mention chefs like Roellinger and Bras because you’re in the same category but you’re in a pub on the Kent coast. Have you ever been tempted to move The Sportsman into swanky restaurant premises?
No, I’ve never had a problem with that. I’ve always thought that anything’s possible where I am. The elephant in the room is their three Michelin stars versus our one, but I don’t mind that, I’m enjoying watching the arbiters of the food world struggling with the modern definitions of what’s good. We’ve added to that in a way. It’ll take you three or four visits to the Sportsman to realise, “oh wait a minute, this is really quite a serious restaurant”.
I’ve never had a problem with the idea that a pub is basically just a building same as a restaurant is and you can do whatever you like within reason. We don’t have locals because we’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s no village around us, so that helps us to do whatever we like. The usual things that apply to pubs don’t apply to us. Because I have carte blanche then it’s just about what feels right rather than what anyone’s trying to tell you to do.
How has your cooking evolved over the time The Sportsman has been open?
I started off, I was a keen amateur and cooked dinner parties for friends. I loved everything-Chinese food, Italian food, I was a bit more ‘global-kitcheny’ as we all were back in the 90’s. Then I found a way to teach myself to cook by going to Marco Pierre White, Nico Ladenis, La Tante Claire and all those places that were around in the 90’s and copying them.
When I was a kid of 14, I bought a guitar and to learn how to play it – it’s not like now, you go on Youtube and any song you want to play you can watch someone play it – then I used to go to gigs, stand at the front and watch the guitarist, watch what his fingers did and try and do it as soon as I got home. And I suddenly realised that’s how I taught myself to cook. I went to the restaurant, ate the food, then I understood what it was supposed to taste like so when I went home to cook it, with the aid of quite a lot of books, it was the memory of what it was supposed to taste like in my head.
So that style of copying Ramsay and Marco and Nico was the first five years of the Sportsman. We would knock people out because we got close. We weren’t some rank amateurs who were out of our depth, we were delivering. It’s just that I wanted a bigger picture. I noticed that all the great chefs find an angle and my angle was the surrounding history of this area. I didn’t want to copy old recipes, I just wanted the landscape and the history to inform the tasting menu more than dominate it.
I started almost closing in on myself. It sounds restrictive but the reason I did it was because it such a remarkable few miles. It was owned by the kitchens of Canterbury Cathedral in the Doomsday Book, so for a thousand years it was their larder. There’s everything you need here – fish, seafood, lamb, pigs, salt making, hedgerows, it just goes on and on. I wrote them all down once and I thought, that’s enough, that’s a menu. There’s a concept behind it rather than just whatever’s nice that day. The food, when we send it out, feels like it reflects the surrounding area.
What’s your involvement with Noble Rot in London?
It started out as a wine fanzine. Dan and Mark who wrote it worked in the music industry with my brother Damien who lives in Brighton. Dan was married to my cousin who had also been working for Island Records. I met Dan and we hit it off about wine because we both like those slightly nerdy, culty wines.
He came and had a look in my cellar and saw Raveneau and Leflaive and all these great names and we bonded over that. Then three years after doing the magazine they said they wanted to start a wine bar and I just said, let me know when you do it, because I didn’t want them to mess the food up. I said, I’ll help you, thinking that they’d get a little wine bar like Sager and Wild and of course they found a 50-seater restaurant, but you know, sod’s law.
I got the chef and gave them some recipes to use; I just go up every couple of weeks and keep an eye on it now. I think they’re going to do another one in which case I will get back involved a bit more heavily. We’re really lucky, we’ve got a great head chef and a good team and so far, there haven’t been too many alarms, but I didn’t want the call at eight in the morning saying we haven’t got any staff, I can’t get involved on that level.
So, you’re still based at The Sportsman?
I’m still here at The Sportsman, its where I want to be. I don’t want a chain of restaurants, this is where I’ll be staying. I still cook every day. It’s different to how it was because for the first 10 years it was quite easy. Although we were busy it wasn’t mad, and you’d get the odd shift where you were quiet.
Now its 100 plus covers a day, every single day and that starts to mean that you have to have somebody running a section. That really has to be their whole job because there’s a lot of things to think about, a lot of planning, ordering, making sure everything goes out right.
I have chefs on each section and my job is to go through everything with them, taste all the stuff, monitor the food that’s coming out, coming up with new dishes, finding new ingredients, I like to meet the farmers I use and all that sort of stuff. That’s more my job, but that doesn’t preclude me from being in the kitchen every day, but I just tend to get in the way now. But it’s still great, it’s lovely. As I get a bit older it suits me better than working a section and doing 13-14 hour days.
My head chef has been with me 17 years my sous chefs have been with me for 10-12 years, it’s a bit of a family business as well, my brother is here, Emma my girlfriend works up front and does various things for the restaurant, although I’m the only one that tends to get mentioned. That was another thing in the book, I wanted to let the others share a bit of the blame, that’s why I put the interviews with them and let them talk to the editors, just to share it rather than it all being on me.
Talking of being in the spotlight, have you ever been tempted to do TV?
There’s been a couple of television companies sniffing around, but it’s all the same old shit – amateurs cooking and you judge them. It’s like, ‘haven’t you made enough of these programmes yet?’ I wouldn’t mind doing something interesting, but I think I’m a bit too old now, I think I missed the boat. Ten years ago I would have been a good choice, but I’m not bothered, that’s cool.
Chef’s Table came here a while ago to do a recce but we haven’t heard anything back from them. I like their stories, they’re a bit more interesting than your average one and I think that’s what Phaidon were drawn to, the story. You might be a really great chef cooking, knocking out three-star, two-star food but if you haven’t got much of a story, what kind of a book are you going to do? And I think that’s the same with Chef’s Table.
This is your first book, will there more?
I don’t know, I don’t think so. Actually, that question came up because when I wrote down all the recipes there were nearly 250 and we only had room for 55 in the book, so there is a lot of stuff left over. You can knock out a hundred of them because they’re dated slightly, but there’s still a lot that’s not in there so it’s possible. I don’t know how it works, if they ask me I’d have to think about it but no plans at the moment.
Buy the book
The Sportsman by Stephen Harris
River Cafe 30 commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most influential restaurants in London. Before Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray opened what was a nine table lunchtime-only canteen for the architects and designers who work in the converted Thames Wharf warehouse in Hammersmith that houses the restaurant, there were only fake trattorias serving generic Italian fare. The River Cafe introduced the notion of regional Italian cooking to the UK; of new season’s olive oil, cavalo nero, Tuscan bread soups, hand made pasta and the infamous flour-less Chocolate Nemesis cake, a recipe that no home cook it seemed could master, me included.
Taken purely as a collection of recipes, there is much to recommend River Cafe 30. This is simple, delicious, ingredient-led food requiring, in most cases, minimal skill from the home cook. If you can’t afford the premier league Italian produce that the restaurant’s reputation stands and falls by, then you’ll still derive a huge amount of pleasure from knocking up dishes like linguine with crab; spinach and ricotta gnocchi and pork cooked in milk. The ‘salsa’ chapter alone could transform your repertoire with killer sauces like bagnet made with capers, anchovies, bread, parsley, garlic, eggs, vinegar and oil.
However, this is not a book for the faint of wallet. The basic pasta recipe requires 13 eggs and that chocolate cake, one of a number of recipes recycled from the restaurant’s famous ‘blue’ cookbook from 1995, calls for well over half a kilo of ‘best quality’ dark chocolate. Follow River Cafe 30 to the letter and you’ll be bankrupt and homeless, although you will have a bit of extra fat to live off before you have to sell your extra virgin olive-oiled body to the night.
River Cafe 30 is a beautiful object with a vivid colour scheme inspired by the restaurant’s bright pink wood-fired oven, yellow pass and blue carpet. There are reproductions of menus drawn or painted on by artist fans that include Cy Twombly, Peter Doig, Damien Hirst and Michael Craig Martin along with evocative black and white photography depicting life in River Cafe’s open kitchen (one of the first in the country) and a moving tribute to the late Rose Gray by Ruth Rogers.
But where is the celebration of the countless chefs that have passed through The River Cafe’s kitchen? Not one word about Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall or Theo Randall, to name but three of the most high profile alumni. Three decades of culinary history are condensed into two brief pages of text plus some architectural drawings, a sample of one of the first menus and an article published in the New Yorker magazine in 1996.
Recipe introductions are sparse with little information about why dishes have been singled out for inclusion, their regional derivation or how they fit into the restaurant’s history. There isn’t even so much as a hint of how to use all those salsas.
Despite high production values, there is more than a whiff of cash-in about River Cafe 30. No doubt it will sell by the bucket load, especially to special occasion diners in search of a memento (River Cafe remains an exceptional place in which to eat your tea), but I can’t help but feel that this is a missed opportunity to properly celebrate one of Britain’s true culinary landmarks.
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: 3 stars
Buy this book
River Cafe 30 by Ruth Rogers, Sian Wyn Owen, Joseph Trivelli and Rose Gray
Food Photography by Matthew Donaldson
£28 Ebury Press
I like the way that in Mexico the rice for rice pudding is first cooked in water. Even though the cooked rice is then mixed with milk and condensed milk, the rice still tastes clean and not claggy. This is common everywhere, but I once had a rice pudding with a sprinkling of honeycomb on the top which I found particularly satisfying. I also like the typically Mexican flavouring of cinnamon and vanilla.
5cm cinnamon stick
550ml whole milk
250ml condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
For the honeycomb
75g golden syrup
200g caster sugar
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp ground cinnamon, for sprinkling
2 ripe mangoes, peeled,stoned and cut into slivers
Make the honeycomb first. Grease a baking tray with the butter and set it aside. Put the golden syrup and caster sugar in a large saucepan and let it dissolve over a low heat until you can’t see the sugar crystals. Turn up the heat and cook until the mixture is a deep caramel colour. Turn off the heat and immediately add the bicarbonate of soda. Stir to mix well while it bubbles and foams, then pour the mixture on to the greased baking tray and leave it to cool for 1–1½ hours. Break it into shards and store in an airtight container between sheets of baking parchment for up to a week.
Put the rice in a sieve, wash it well under cold running water, then drain. Tip the rice into a saucepan, add the cinnamon stick and 700ml of water, then bring to the boil. Cover the pan, turn the heat down and cook slowly for 10–15 minutes until the rice is tender. Most of the water should have been absorbed, but if not drain it away and discard. Remove the cinnamon stick. Add the milk and condensed milk to the pan with the rice and stir to combine. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and cook gently for 5–7 minutes until the rice is fairly
thick and creamy. Stir in the vanilla extract. Remove the pan from the heat and leave it to stand for 5 minutes.
Serve hot or cold, sprinkled with ground cinnamon, shards of honeycomb and slivers of mango. If you’re serving the pudding hot, the honeycomb will melt into the rice very quickly, so it’s better to offer it separately at the table.