What’s the USP? Somewhat delightfully, there isn’t one. There’s no tortuous concept or shoehorned-in theme. There’s no claim of quick and easy recipes, that it’s the only cookbook you’ll ever need or that it’s yet another of that irksome and ubiquitous ilk, the cookbook for ‘every day’. As Robert de Niro once memorably stated in The Deer Hunter ‘This is this. This ain’t somethin’ else. This is this.’ It’s a cookbook. It’s a very good cookbook written by an outstanding chef with thirty years of knowledge, experience and wisdom he’s like to share with you. What else do you need?
Who is the author? Dundee born Jeremy Lee is the head chef of Quo Vadis restaurant and club in London’s bustling Soho. He was previously the head chef of Sir Terence Conran’s Blueprint Cafe in Shad Thames and at Euphorium in Islington where he first came to national attention (Independent news paper critic Emily Bell said that Lee ‘delivers flavour like Oliver Stone serves up violence’, a very 1995 sort of thing to say). Working backwards in time, Lee also cooked at Alistair Little at 49 Frith Street (now home to Hoppers Sri Lankan restaurant and just a ladle’s throw from Quo Vadis in Dean Street) and at Bibendum in South Kensington for Simon Hopkinson. There’s more, but you can buy the book to find it out (spoiler alert, you really should buy the book). Surprisingly, Cooking is Lee’s first cookbook.
Is it good bedtime reading? It is. There’s a reasonably chunky introduction that skips and hops briefly through Lee’s background and culinary career as well as some thoughts on his approach to food and cooking in general. Each of the 24 chapters, themed most around ingredients, includes a full page or so of introduction and many of the 100 or so recipes have substantial intros. There are also a couple of essays, one on equipment and one on stocking your pantry. That’s how you end up with a 400 hundred page book.
Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? The first line of the book reads ‘The simple truth I’ve learned from a lifetime of cooking is that good food is honed from fine ingredients.’ The simple truth that I’ve learned from a lifetime of shopping at supermarkets is that last thing they sell is fine ingredients. I mean, they’re fine for plebs like us, but they’re not fine. The likelihood is that you’ll be able to get most things that Lee cooks with in the book, but probably not of the same quality, unless you live somewhere that has great butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers and delis. You know, central London.
Some ingredients that might prove tricky if you are reliant on Lidl (or even Waitrose) might include fresh artichokes, samphire, monk’s bread, Tropea onions, Roscoff onions, Treviso, Tardivo, Banyuls vinegar ‘very, very good chicken’, ‘excellent duck’. marjoram, summer savory, Agen prunes, fennel pollen, herring, fresh mackerel, whole lemon sole, cuttlefish, verdina beans, skate knobs, cockles, Arbroath smokies, razor clams, smoked eel, quail, onglet, lamb’s sweetbreads, feuilles de brick, kid, hare, dandelion, puntarelle, Catalonga, lovage, salsify and sorrel.
That might seem like a long list, but do not let it put you off buying the book. Help is of course at hand from specialist internet suppliers and, post pandemic, it’s now easier than ever to get hold of excellent quality fresh fish, meat, vegetables and groceries delivered to your door (for a price of course). The excellent list of stockists at the back of the book will be extremely useful to many readers. There are also many recipes that you will be able to source ingredients for with no trouble or you will be able to make substitutions with reasonable ease.
How annoyingly vague are the recipes? There is the odd ‘handful’ of this and ‘pinch’ of that, but they are few and far between. Methods are as well written as you might expect of such a well experienced chef and are as detailed as they need to be and easy to follow.
How often will I cook from the book? A lot. There’s pretty much a dish for every occasion, every time of day and every cook’s mood. There’s maple walnut biscuits breakfast or mid-morning coffee, chard and cheddar omelette for a quick lunch and chicken leek and tarragon pie for a comforting dinner. There a simple as can be puntarelle and anchovy salad for when time is short or a cottage pie made with braised oxtails for when you want to linger in the kitchen. Lee is also particularly good on baking, desserts and sweet things in general so expect an apple tart in your future soon.
However, this is a resolutely British and European book; a pinch of chilli flakes or a few drop of tabasco is about as spicy as things get. There are no modish Middle Eastern influences and India, Asia and South America don’t get a look in. Lee knows what he likes and sticks to it which gives the book a very strong identity. Cooking doesn’t cover every conceivable culinary base, but that’s no bad thing at all. There are many, many books available that will fill those particular needs, just have a browse around this site. Cooking is not an encyclopaedia of the subject but ‘home cooking rediscovered after a lifetime spent in professional cooking’ and all the better for it.
What will I love? You’ll recognise John Broadley’s intricate yet bold black and white illustrations from the menus at Quo Vadis if you’ve been fortunate enough to visit the restaurant (and if you haven’t, I’d highly recommend rectifying that particular situation, especially now as the restaurant has just been refurbished and expanded). They are a complete joy and give the book a unique style.
Lee’s writing style is also highly individual and charming. He has a turn of phrase like no other food writer. A spiced marmalade steamed pudding is ‘made bold with whole ginger and a spice’ and breadcrumbs are fashioned from ‘husks, heels and buckshee slices of bread’. Open the book at random and you’ll find sentences such as ‘I like the Presbyterian forthrightness of leek pie’ or ‘It is near miraculous how much water is released from the chard but perseverance pays a fine dividend’. There’s a kind of effortless poetry on every page that’s utterly delightful and doesn’t feel in the slightest bit forced. Within a single paragraph, Lee can be informative, instructional and celebratory; that’s fine food writing.
Killer recipes: salmagundy (warm roast chicken salad with summer slaw); maple walnut biscuits; chard potato and celeriac gratin; St Emilion au chocolat; hake with parsley, dill and anchovy sauce; smoked eel sandwich; lamb’s sweetbreads, peas, almonds and herbs; duck pea and cabbage hash (the list goes on…)
Should I buy it? With Cooking, Lee has joined the pantheon of great British food writers that includes Jane Grigson, Sophie Grigson, Elizabeth David, Alan Davidson, Alistair Little, Richard Whittington, Shaun Hill, Stephen Bull, Mark Hix and others. It might be reminiscent of older books, but in the current publishing climate, it’s a breath of fresh air. Rather than advising you on hints and tips that will enable you to spend the least amount of time as possible in your kitchen, Cooking is aimed at a readership that actually enjoys the craft and are happily chained to their stoves (you won’t find air fryer or slow cooker recipes here).
Cooking is worth the cover price just to learn how to cook chard properly. But you will learn so much more including the virtues of making a properly good vegetable salad, how to lift the flavour of a rustic kale soup with a spoon of new season Tuscan olive oil and how to make ‘coupe Danemark’ – a delicious yet simple dessert made from chocolate melted with cream, poured over vanilla ice cream and topped with nuts. Cooking is also full of intriguing kitchen miscellanea. Did you know a wishbone used to be known as the ‘merry thought’? Or that there’s a variety of potato called ‘Mr Little’s Yetholm Gypsy 1899’? Of course you didn’t. That’s why you need to buy this book. A genuine pleasure to cook from and to read, Cooking is an essential addition to any keen home cook or professional chef’s cookbook collection.
Suitable for: Confident home cooks/professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars
Buy this book: Cooking by Jeremy Lee
£30, Fourth Estate
Winner of the 2022 Andre Simon Food Award