Jeremy Lee is one of the shortlisted authors in the food category of this year’s Andre Simon Awards for his marvellous debut Cooking. Dundee born Jeremy Lee one of London’s most celebrated chef and heads up the kitchens at 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.
Cooking has quite rightly been described by ESQUIRE magazine as ‘cookbook of the year’ and also ‘long awaited’ which is equally true. What took you so long!
Ah, you are too kind. This was a greatly appreciated gong. Oh golly, so many factors contributed to the time taken, not least building the confidence to realise that not all had been written about food as food evolves constantly as does cooking, ingredients and seasons. It took so long finding the path that would include, Mum and Dad, childhood, home, becoming a chef and the extraordinary learning curve required to acquire the knowledge to run a kitchen, write menus and find the produce with which to furnish the kitchen to produce the dishes. The book was not so different. It was also hugely impactful learning that writing a book and running a kitchen were not the easiest of bedfellows, played a considerable role in a lengthy delay.
The book is very distinctive, in terms of writing style, content and design. Was it a conscious decision to try and do something different or just the way the book turned out?
Ah, thank you. In truth, the arbitrary approach seemed to fall quite naturally on the pages. There was always just the great hope the book would be good but there was never really a structured plan, more an instinctive and intuitive feeling that grew exponentially as the book progressed. I have written much for newspapers and journals but had never written on this scale. The most fascinating thing was the realisation that the book had to feel quite natural and pleasing.
I’ve had the good fortune to see chef’s kitchen ‘recipes’ in situ which are often no more than a list of ingredients and weights if they are even written down. The recipes in Cooking are brilliantly written for the home cook and work perfectly in the domestic kitchen. Did that take some mental re-wiring on your part to see things from the home cook’s perspective?
Ah, years of writing columns for the Guardian, other broadsheets and a fair few journals had taught me much. The most important quality was a genuine and honest approach avoiding myriad pitfalls. Most importantly, taking nothing for granted and ensuring a place in the finished manuscript. There were too a wealth of memories from years watching my Granny and my Mum in the kitchen cooking for her family which were easily tapped being buried deep in our, my siblings and my subconscious.
I’m guessing that you had a lot of recipes to draw on for the book, how did you go about narrowing down the selection?
Oh that was fun, I would say, mostly trial and the occasional error. Writing a menu, you only ever choose dishes you want to cook and eat yourself. It was the same with the book. Some old, some new, some constant, some occasionally. It seemed natural to pay homage to the great writers, cooks, chefs, restaurants, suppliers and producers enjoyed over the years with a growing awareness of being in the now and dishes that would continue to please. Louise Haines who had commissioned and was to publish the book and Carolyn who edited the book were brilliant at steering with the most subtle of quiet comments ensured nothing went in that had not been fully considered and put down on paper fully. Many chapters grew wildly such as fish, a chapter that could have been twice the size until Louise calmly explained about the flow and balance of the chapters.
What are your three favourite recipes in the book or recipes that best represent your style of cooking for readers who might be new to your food?
Oh no, terrible ask. I love them all. It’s like someone in the dining room asking what they should order. Were I to choose, eek, then, roast leg of pork with bitter leaves, onions and sage might be one, another might be steamed kid pudding and probably that good friend, a smoked eel sandwich. But oh, there are so many more.
You’ve done some TV (Great British Menu obviously but I also remember a magazine programme on Channel 4 I think to which you contributed recipe demonstrations including what I recall as an historic version of mushrooms on toast – hope I haven’t misremembered that!) but isn’t it high time you had your own series? Could Cooking be the perfect springboard for that?
Oh Telly…well thank you, you certainly know how to make a cook blush. I love telly and think often of Michael Smith, Claudia Roden and Madhur Jaffrey who presented cooking with such ease, charm and style. Should the stars align, perhaps something charming in the loveliest kitchen with the glorious family we made when turning a manuscript into a book?
What does being shortlisted for the Andre Simon award mean to you?
Oh my goodness, such a nomination means the world. I have judged books several times and it is a task not taken lightly. I know well from my time as adjudicator that each book had to be scrutinised and each decision made, justified to a scrupulous committee. When the judgement of the judge is under scrutiny , oh lordy, one must be so sure and say so. So this is truly a very great honour and I could not bow lower.
What is your desert island cookbook?
Oh my, there are so many. Yet there is always a pile of constant favourites and I think, the one forever on the or near the top is French Provincial Cooking, beside Italian Food by Elizabeth David. Peerless.
Cooking has been a big success, are you planning a follow up?
Thank you. Tis such a great honour. And, well, as it happens, there is to be another ,4th Estate having just commissioned a second book. We barely touched on puddings, and I can say no more as the scraps of paper covered in thoughts once again litter desk and floor at home.
Buy the book: Cooking by Jeremy Lee
£30, Fourth Estate
Read more about the Andre Simon Award 2022