Eat Green by Melissa Hemsley

Eat Green by Melissa Hemsley

What’s the USP? Environmentally responsible cooking is ostensibly at the centre of Eat Green – a cookbook that looks to create dishes from sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients. The author, Melissa Hemsley, offers up plenty of recipes, all of which will look loosely familiar to fans of her previous cookbooks as one half of Hemsley + Hemsley.

Hemsley + Hemsley? Weren’t they involved in the whole ‘clean eating’ controversy a few years back? Oh no, the Hemsley sisters were very much not involved in the ‘clean eating’ fad. At least, not if you ask them. Back in 2017 the sisters distanced themselves from the movement, just days before being featured in a BBC Horizon documentary on its dangers. At the time, they argued that the term was poorly defined, and they’d never advocated it directly.

“We’re not interested in making anyone feel fearful of food, scared of food, confused about food. We’re the opposite. We never talk about weight, diets, calorie-counting,” Melissa told the press.

So they weren’t part of the fad? Well, not according to them – but the problem with ill-defined movements is that people don’t always agree on where the border falls. Certainly the Hemsley sisters’ books bore many similarities to other titles circling the movement. Their dishes eschewed gluten, grains and refined sugars. Whether mentioned weight and diets or not, there was always a very distinct sense of virtue to the lifestyle their books represented.

Eat Green doesn’t exactly seem free of preachy virtuosity, as titles go. No, and Melissa Hemsley definitely talks up the importance of sustainable eating. She doesn’t spend much time examining why it’s important – but then, that in itself is refreshing. We know the environment is spiralling out control, and Hemsley’s introduction treats our understanding as a given – as it should be.

The recipes themselves do their best to live up to the challenge the title sets. A chart at the beginning provides a helpful map of seasonal fruit and veg, and there are tips scattered throughout for avoiding waste – a really lovely idea that’s executed nicely. Hemsley also offers up suggestions for locally-sourced alternatives where possible. She ignores miso in favour of British-grown fava bean umami paste – which is a bit more of a mouthful than miso on a couple of fronts. 

So Melissa has moved on from clean eating in favour of something that’s more objectively a good idea? Well, yes and no. The central focus of the book is definitely sustainable, ‘green’ eating. But as far as the recipes go, nothing much has changed at all. Nothing here would have looked particularly out of place in either of the Hemsley + Hemsley books.  The whole collection clings closely to what you’d expect from ‘clean eating’ at every possible opportunity.

How do you mean? The ‘Celebrations’ section of the book features such extravagant dishes as chickpea caprese salad and ‘mushroom mince’ lettuce cups.

Ah, gotcha. In fact, there’s a remarkable lack of excitement and variety to the recipes on display. There are multiple pancake and galette recipes, and at least a dozen salads that look more or less the same in their photos – piles of loose leaves and chickpeas, etc, that you can tell will be fighting to roll off your cutlery every bit as hard as you are fighting to get them in your mouth.

It feels as if Hemsley was so eager to present green eating that she neglected to include any imagination. The goal, though worthy, should allow much more varied and interesting dishes than are on show here. As a guide, Tim Anderson’s Vegan JapanEasy, reviewed earlier this year, was overflowing with hugely exciting and endlessly appetising ideas – even though its remit was much tighter.

Alright, alright. Calm down, you’ll have a seizure. After this and that Gill Meller review last week, I’m getting the idea you might not have much room in your heart for the sustainable cooking movement. Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s incredibly obvious that we all need to spend a lot more time thinking about our food habits and doing our best to limit their impact on the world we live in. It’s just…

Yes? Well, why is nobody fun writing a cookbook on sustainable cooking? Why is it always left to people who think a chai parsnip and carrot cake is the best dessert we can manage in our new, environmentally-conscious world?

Killer recipes? The Bubble and Squeak with a Japanese-Inspired Dipping Sauce is a stand-out anomaly, as is the Braised Chicken with Lettuce, Peas and Radish Greens and Mash in a Flash. The one bit of the book that is genuinely brilliant, though, isn’t even a recipe: just before the index Hemsley includes an ‘A-Z of Odds, Ends and Leftovers’ that offers plenty of excellent ideas on how to use those annoying bits and bobs that sit about in the fridge unloved – the tired old fennel, the spare carrot, and so on.

Should I buy it? Look, if you have the Hemsley + Hemsley books, or enjoy any of their contemporaries, you’ll likely get some use out of this too. But this isn’t anywhere close to what I’d call an insightful or particularly useful guide for the average home cook.

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Brighton-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas.

Cuisine: English
Suitable for: Beginners and confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: One star

Buy this book
Eat Green: Delicious flexitarian recipes for planet-friendly eating
£22, Ebury Press

What is Cooking by Ferran Adrià and elBullifoundation

What is Cooking Ferran Adria

What’s the USP? This is not a cookbook and there are no recipes. According to the authors, it’s ‘a compilation of the connected knowledge needed in order to answer the question: ‘What is cooking?’. According to me, it’s nothing less than an intellectual land grab by one of the world’s most famous chefs in an attempt to place himself at the forefront of the study of cuisine and gastronomy as a formal academic subject.

Who is the author? Ferran Adrià is one of the world’s most famous chefs. Along with his brother Albert, he is the architect of what is commonly known as ‘molecular gastronomy’ but which Adrià refers to as ‘techno-emotional’ cuisine.

He closed the doors of his restaurant el Bulli back in 2011 and has since dedicated his time to the elBullifoundation, which, the website says is ‘a private, family-run foundation, promoted by Ferran Adrià and Juli Soler. Established on 7 February 2013, it came out of the need to transform elBullirestaurant, with a vision based on the desire to continue promoting innovation and creativity through the language of cooking and to preserve the legacy and spirit of elBulli for society’.

In practice that means publishing books, mounting exhibitions, the production of a documentary series about el Bulli restaurant, consulting services and whole raft of other projects including the development of educational courses. The one project that Adrià has been talking about almost since the day elBulli closed is the launch of elBulli1846, the re-purposing of el Bulli restaurant as ‘an exhibition lab’ for ‘studies, investigation and experimentation to generate knowledge around the theme of efficiency in innovation’. Although the website explicitly says that elBulli1846 is not a restaurant, that has been talk in the past of some food being prepared and served there, but no one seems to know if and when that will actually happen and if it does, who gets to eat it.

Is it good bedtime reading? Put it this way, there is a lot to read but it might keep you awake all night puzzling out just what it’s all meant to be for. To take an example, in the 48 page introductory section (broken down into a pre-foreword statement, a foreword by Adrià himself, a one page summary, a ten-page descriptive index and a 25 page introduction) you will find a flow chart that explains that, if you want to run a business that generates a gastronomic offering you will need a team of professionals from the sector that have a business culture and that they will need resources for different systems including storage tools and plating tools. In other words, if you want to run a restaurant, you need trained chefs who want to earn money and they will need things like fridges, tongs and spoons. The book continues in this vain, finding complex, opaque ways of expressing very simple and common ideas, for much of its 400-odd pages.

For example, in Chapter One: Let’s Start by Understanding Lexical-Symantic Aspects, you’ll ‘discover’ that ‘not all liquid is a beverage’ and that sometimes it’s food in a liquid state. Congratulations, you now know what soup is. You’ll also find out that 19th century food writer Brillat-Savarin ‘devoted his life to the tasting and enjoyment of food in different settings, which suggests a concept of alimentation that was not limited to survival, but that encompassed hedonism and recognized quality’. I hope you were sitting down for the earth-shattering revelation that people sometimes eat for pleasure.

In the same chapter, you’ll also find the definition of a word used no less than 913 times in the book- ‘elaboration’. Adrià would like you to use the word in place of cooking because ‘helps to give a more specific understanding of a stage within the culinary process’, which is a bit like trying to force your friends to call you by a nickname you’ve coined for yourself. However, Adrià is such a respected figure in modern gastronomic circles that he might just pull it off. Start practicing now if you want to be in with the cool kids, ‘I’m just going to elaborate this Aldi frozen minced beef pie in the heat supplying apparatus that is located within the area dedicated to the preparation of elaborations’. See, it’s fun!

Let’s for a moment imagine that it’s acceptable to take up 85 pages of a 464-page book introducing your subject and defining your terms. It might be then not unreasonable to expect that by chapter three you would be getting to the meat of the subject, that the author would be communicating some information, some facts from their research or at least some opinions or philosophy. And yet on page 97 we are confronted with this piece of spectacularly circular nonsense, ‘We can speak of interpretative creativity when the creation corresponds to the skilful interpretation of other, already existing creations. Whether or not this can be regarded as a level of creative outcome is a matter for debate, as it is a very subjective question.’

But there must be some concrete answers somewhere in the book, surely? How about in the section titled ‘We suggest several main criteria to discover the types of cooking a cook or a restaurant does’. Let’s take Adrià’s own dish, Pea Spheres. Here’s some of the things I ‘learned’ from reading about how it’s classified under 17 different criteria: it’s hedonistic food designed to produce pleasure; it’s an elaboration with food use; it’s an elaboration for the savoury world; it’s served in a fine dining restaurant and designed for customers of middle to high class social profiles, the working classes need not apply; it is an elaboration from a professional kitchen but amateurs with a spherification kit could reproduce it; it’s of the highest level of quality, sophistication and refinement, it is no less than creative culinary art. So, what do I do with that information? How do I apply that to the real world? If I use those same 17 criteria to analyse and categorise the fish and chips I’m having for my tea tonight, how will that change anything. I already know its savoury, it’s working class, it’s not particularly sophisticated and I could make it at home, but I can’t really be arsed. The process seems to be pointless.

But surely, Ferran Adrià and his multi-disciplinary team haven’t spent the last decade producing something of absolutely no value, have they? One last chance. Let’s read ‘As an action that is repeated over time, cooking generates consequences’, a chapter that views cooking from an historical perspective. The first line is ‘History is the time frame in which ‘everything’ happens.’ It’s not looking good is it? Anyway, let’s persevere. What does the book have to say about the Neolithic period? ‘With the Neolithic period came permanent settlements, and this sedentariness brought about sedentary cooking. Gradually, as a result, specialization emerged, with different elaborations giving rise to specialized cooking.’ That’s pretty much it. No specific examples of what the different elaborations or specialized cooking might actually be. It’s time for me to stop this. I’ve gazed long enough into the Adrià abyss. I can feel the Adrià abyss gazing back into me.

What will I love? I particularly enjoyed the infographic titled ‘The chef model: cooks, periods, styles and movements in contemporary fine-dining cuisine in western society’ which lists some of the biggest names in western gastronomy since the turn of the 20th century including Escoffier, Fernand Point and Alain Ducasse but reserves the largest font size on the page for the names Ferran and Albert Adria. History is always written by the victors.

That aside, the book looks great, and, er, that’s about it.

What won’t I like so much? In the introduction, the claim is made that ‘In spite of the large number of publications dealing with cooking or cuisine, we were unable to find any that offered a direct response to our seemingly simple question.’ One has to assume that eBullifoundation is including in that rather sweeping statement authoritative works such as the 1350 page Larousse Gastronomique (which in fact does have a page-long entry on the term ‘cooking’), the 900 page The Oxford Companion to Food (it too has entries on the terms ‘cook’ and ‘cooking), Grand Livre de Cuisine d’Alain Ducasse and Le Repertoire to mention just a few. Set alongside those august tomes, the book singularly fails to justify its own existence.

I admit I may have missed the point, that I may not be sufficiently intelligent to understand how the Sapiens methodology works. Other readers, who may well be more sophisticated and erudite may possibly get a great deal from it. At the time of writing, there has been no other meaningful published review of What is Cooking (i.e. where the reviewer has actually read some or all of the book) and I don’t know anyone who has bought a copy and publicly expressed their views. I can’t imagine anything but praise from Adrià’s peers so the critical jury is currently out. You’ll just have to take my word for it at the moment.

Should I buy it? It’s £100. If you’ve got that to spare, if you wouldn’t miss it at all and if you are the world’s biggest Ferran Adria fan, then go ahead. Otherwise think very carefully before you are parted from your money. If you work in the fine dining sector, it’s worth considering whether you will actually learn anything of value by wading through 464 pages of powder dry theory. Will it help you do your job better? Will your understanding of the craft of cooking and cuisine have increased in a way that you can apply in a practical way to your business? Because there is very little pleasure to be derived from What is Cooking. In truth, this review has been an unpleasant ordeal, a tiresome bore and I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy, of which there are many and to which I’ve probably just added one more.

Cuisine: International
Suitable for: Professional chefs
Cookbook Review rating: 1 star (for the design)

Buy this book
What is Cooking: The Action: Cooking, The Result: Cuisine (FOOD COOK)
£100, Phaidon

John Burton-Race: The Authorised Biography with Michael Cowton

John Burton Race

Where to start with this odd and badly written biography of the former Michelin-starred chef, minor TV personality and tabloid headline-hogger? Well, how about the time Burton-Race returned drunk from a night out with his then wife Kim to find his stepdaughters Olivia and Eve and Eve’s boyfriend with what Burton-Race thought was drugs on the kitchen table. His response? To go to the utility room and unlock the gun cabinet where he kept ‘a Beretta and a special edition Browning worth £7,500’ and return to the kitchen wielding a shotgun. During a struggle, he knocked Olivia to the floor and hit both her and his wife in the face with the butt of the gun.

That may well be all you need to know about Burton-Race, who you may remember from his 2007 appearance on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, but if for some reason you are still considering parting with £20 for this shoddy, thrown-together book then read on. Cowton has based the above anecdote on an interview given by Kim Burton-Race to the Evening Standard in 2007. Cowton writes that Burton-Race himself, ‘was reluctant to talk about it in any great detail’ and that Cowton feels that ‘the incident does not sit well with John. It is something he would sooner forget.’ That Cowton has allowed him to do so gets to the heart of the book’s problem. You will learn as much, if not more about Burton-Race from Googling a few interviews and articles (this one by Jay Rayner from 2008 is particularly good) as you will from reading this biography.

In the second chapter, Cowton describes his first meeting with the chef which partly helps explain why the book is such a mess. ‘Without any prompting, he launches into a stream of anecdotes with no prior considered response to my first question…I suggest it might be appropriate to begin noting our conversation and he agrees. However, trying to get John Burton-Race to rewind when he is in fast forward is an entirely different matter.’ Cowton goes on to claim that ‘As I grow to know John Burton-Race better, and on a more personal level, I begin to slowly unravel the complexities of the man’. If that’s true, he has failed to document his findings. Instead, the impression Cowton gives is that he has been bamboozled by the mercurial chef and has struggled to make anything substantial from that ‘stream of anecdotes’ which are often banal and lacking in any real detail.

At 264 pages, it’s a relatively short book yet Cowton has still found it necessary to bulk it out by taking some utterly bat-shit tangents including a page on the sexism of 1960s-80s era Savoy hotel head chef Silvetto Trompetto and the subsequent achievements of women in the hospitality industry. It should be noted that Bruton-Race never worked for Trompetto or with any of the women listed by Cowton which include Prue Leith and Eugénie Brazier. And then there are the disproportionately lengthy biographies of chefs Burton-Race has actually either worked for or with including Raymond Blanc, Gary Jones (executive chef of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons), Martin Blunos and Nigel Marriage which all include details that have no bearing on Burton-Race’s story whatsoever.

However, important incidents go unexplored. Marriage had an unwanted 15 minutes of fame in the mid-90s when he was secretly filmed physically and verbally bullying a junior chef in the kitchens of Burton-Race’s two Michelin starred restaurant L’Ortolan in Berkshire (now under different ownership). The footage featured in an episode of ITVs The Big Story documentary series exposing abuse within the restaurant industry. It was a major scandal at the time which ruined Marriage’s reputation and did no favours at all for Burton-Race who was also filmed verbally abusing the young chef. Cowton offers no new insight from Burton-Race into the incident, quoting only from reports from the time, again failing to add to the sum of biographical knowledge about the chef.

Cowton’s own deathless comment is that, ‘The situation was not helped when the film crew shot John as this opulent bloke driving in his Porsche, so everybody who didn’t have the money for a bicycle suddenly hated him. All the upper-crusties who thought John Burton-Race was politically correct, brilliantly talented and fun to be with suddenly didn’t like him anymore because they felt he had let them down.’ One suspects that those words were actually spoken by Burton-Race himself, as much of the text which is not in quotation marks reads like transcribed interview re-written in the third person. That maybe a valid approach for a biography, but only when properly considered and edited and with sufficient mediated storytelling from the biographer. Unfortunately, time and again, John Burton-Race: The Authorised Biography reads as if it has been banged out in a hurry with the minimum of care and attention.

Given the number of factual errors and spelling mistakes, it’s surprising to discover via Cowton’s acknowledgements that the book actually had an editor. It’s worth noting at this point that Cowton’s other works include books about Level 42, The Pet Shop Boys and a trilogy on Murders That Shocked the World and that, despite claiming to have a ‘passion for gastronomy’ in his Twitter handle, his unfamiliarity with his subject matter is painfully obvious. Chef Gary Hollihead is referred to as Paul Hollihead on two separate occasions, chef Aldo Zilli is called Aldo Zilley and Gidleigh Park hotel becomes Gidley Park.

Every restaurant in New York visited by Burton Race on a trip in 1994 is misnamed. Daniel is Daniels, Le Cirque is La Cirque and, for some reason, Cowton hasn’t even bothered to Google the name of ‘Robert De Niro’s place in the docks’ (it’s Tribeca Bar and Grill, and it’s not in the docks). In one of the worst sentences ever written in the English language, Peter Luger Steakhouse gets rechristened: ‘Mesmerised by the host of influential quarters, he found himself at the hub of a cosmopolitan gem and visited a steakhouse in Brooklyn called Lugeros.’ I’m sorry, he was mesmerised by what, where?

The book is full of puzzling moments. In a bizarre and difficult to follow anecdote that goes precisely nowhere, Cowton confuses rillette (potted pork), with andouillette, a famously pungent sausage made with chitterlings. On page 143 we learn that ‘John met his second wife Kim in 1996 on a Caribbean island’. On page 144, THE VERY NEXT PAGE, Cowton writes, ‘As John was collecting his Catey Award in 1995, the year also saw him betrothed to Kim’. That’s one year before they met in case you’re having trouble keeping up. More troubling is the head scratching revelation that Burton-Race’s mother and father-in-law abandoned him and his younger sister at some point in his childhood (there is no strict chronology in the early part of the book), leaving them alone in a house in Sarisbury Green in Hampshire and moved to Indonesia with ‘no explanation to the children, no heartfelt goodbyes, nothing – just gone, the taxi’s rear lights flickering and gradually fading into the distance’.

According to Cowton, the children were discovered by chance by ‘an uncle’ and then ‘placed with neighbours’. But then, sometime later (weeks, months, years – it’s impossible to tell), Burton-Race’s mother and father-in-law returned to the UK, took up residence for a brief spell and then returned to Indonesia, this time taking Burton-Race and his sister with them. Given that Cowton says that Burton-Race’s ‘earliest childhood memories are a pile of mismatched fragments’, it’s surprising that Cowton appears not to have tried to verify the exact circumstances surrounding what is obviously an important incident in his subject’s life and which he says ‘had devastating results’ and ‘left both children mentally scarred’. Why would the parents not have been arrested for child abandonment on their return to the UK? Why would they have been allowed to take them out of the country after behaving in such an astonishingly irresponsible manner. Why were the children not taken in by relatives and who were those amazingly generous-hearted neighbours?

A little bit of legwork with public records and the local paper’s archive might have provided some answers, but Cowton seems satisfied to leave his readers with more questions about his subject’s life than when they started reading the book. Much easier to devote pages documenting forgettable TV appearances on programmes like Kitchen Criminals and Great British Menu, which can be called up on YouTube, or interviewing easily accessible chefs such as Michel Roux Junior who has never even worked with Burton-Race but has ‘bumped into him several times at events’ and was willing to contribute a quote or two to fill up a bit of space.

It’s also easier to cram the book full of clichés: at various points in the book Burton Race is ‘never lots for words’, has had a ‘long and distinguished career’ is on ‘a single minded mission’ and ‘a relentless search for perfection’ or has ‘ had to manage the cards he’s been dealt’. There’s plenty of meaningless hyperbole too, culminating with the laughably unsupportable assertion that ‘without question [Burton-Race] has worked monumentally hard to achieve and maintain a level of creative genius unparalleled in his time’ (no one mention Ferran Adria or Rene Redzepi or Daniel Humm or…well, you get the picture).

There’s no question that Burton-Race is a complex figure who has led an interesting life and achieved notable success in his chosen field. In more skilled hands, his story could have made for a rattling yarn (albeit with some unsavoury aspects), instead John Burton-Race: The Authorised Biography makes for a deeply unsatisfactory read. If you want to find out about the life of a flawed British Michelin-starred chef then you’d be much better off with Marco Pierre White’s oddly titled but very readable autobiography White Slave.

Due to a litany of bad business moves and ill health (all documented in the book), Burton-Race’s career is currently at something of a low-ebb with his most recent venture in Torquay, that included John Burton Race hotel and Restaurant, folding within less than two years. From his website it appears that he is currently concentrating on consultancy. If this book is an attempt to get him back into the limelight, he may be in for a disappointment as big as anyone foolish enough to buy a copy.

Cookbook Review Rating: One star

Buy the book
John Burton-Race 2020: The Man, The Magic & The Mayhem
£20, Banovallum Books