From a young age I have been immersed in cooking and eating. Not as a means of fuel to live, but as an emotional fuel. Jean, my mother was that inspiration, she read Elizabeth David and Constance Spry and cooked all those foods at a time when they were exotic. Even when I was a child food was largely monochromatic in England. I was brought up in Bayswater and we had a decent sized Greek population, so I used to see in their shops, bags of pulses, cheeses, olives, lovely breads. Such items, hard to believe these days, were exotic rarities, colour in a black and white world. Ingredients now found in supermarkets ten or fifteen years ago would require detective work to track down, much time, and plenty of disappointment. In some ways I miss the satisfaction though, that I felt in finding these items, which was not the same as taking it off a shelf and putting it in your trolley at Waitrose. You felt special in that you had it and most didn’t, but heh, I’m living in the past.
Anyway, I am digress. Emotional fuel. For Jean, cooking and food was a communal activity, the social aspect as important as the nutritional aspect. Peeling broad beans on a warm summer morning in the garden amongst friends, even washing up after a meal was a communal activity, a group of people doing their part, washing, drying, putting away, even this was a comfortable, pleasing experience. Lunches with friends, plenty of food and wine, laughter, conviviality, disagreements and arguments too, but even those felt safe in the cocoon of good food. That is what food and eating is to me: it is comfortable and safe, like being wrapped in cotton wool, floating down a stream in dappled sunlight, without a care in the world. It still takes me there now. The world can be falling to pieces (and usually is) but when I start cooking and then sit down with friends to eat, that world no longer exists. For a few hours, everything is as it should be, and the life can damn well wait.
Valencia Airport June 2015
And so it is. I am a middle-aged man, twice divorced, three kids, high blood pressure, cholesterol, fatty liver, type 2 diabetes. I have spent most of my life cooking. I have opened three restaurants,one are still open after 20 years. No mean feat. I have cooked for David Bowie, General Pinochet, David Cameron, Seamus Heaney, Michael Portillo, Princess Diana, Robert Altman, Clive Owen, Malcolm MacDowell, Ken Bates and many more. I know who all these people are, but hazard a guess none have the first clue whom I am. I never played the game. I just love cooking. I never aspired to celebrity.
My point being: relationships. I have and continue to fail with humans, but I have managed two successful relationships in my life to date. Firstly, with my three wonderful, tolerant children. Secondly, and this is why I am here writing these words, is my relationship with restaurants. They have been my home almost my entire adult life. I have worked in them, opened them, enjoyed the fruits of them. But I am still here and while I am, I hope I will still have a restaurant that I can call my own.
But a restaurant is the sum of many parts. My original part was the part of food. This may seem to be self-evident, but food is only a part and as a chef it took me too long to learn this; my world view of restaurants was that we (chefs) were the high priests, but we are in fact just egos, being massaged and managed, important, but not nearly as important as we believe. Only when I opened my second restaurant did I begin to understand this completely; and god damn did it hurt. But when I realized my own fallibility, when I fucked up in the kitchen (rarely I believe), but had good enough front of house, who could cover my arse and turn a customer so that they leave happy, and planning to return, despite my failures, only then, did I realize there is more than one altar at which to worship.
So why does my relationship work with restaurants, where it fails elsewhere? Confidence, arrogance. I know what I am doing and I know what I want.
My restaurant is built in my image in that it reflects me. It is in turn organised, chaotic, in turn rational and irrational, in turn inclusive and exclusive. These depend greatly on me. I am not being grandiose, I am aware it is a small restaurant with little significance. But it is my world. Where I failed to make a normal family life, I made a restaurant life.
As I write this it becomes clearer why I succeed in my relationship with restaurants. I can be myself, I don’t need to hide and that was possibly my first liberation as a young man in a kitchen. The pressure and the immediacy of everything removed inhibitions and allowed me to be me. Unrepentant. This was a narcotic to me, and I was soon mainlining restaurant work. Why else would someone go into a low paid, hardworking job, with almost medieval conditions, when the rest of the west was obsessing with shorter hours, better conditions and health and safely. This was the real deal for a junkie and this was my drug. My relationship has changed and continues to evolve, but has never catastrophically failed.
Sue Miles gave me my break, let me into this parallel world at a restaurant in Barnes called Sonny’s, which is still thriving today. I worked at 192 and then at The River Café for five years. The River Cafe was formative to me, Rose and Ruth believed in a style of restaurant food that I was sympathetic to and their philosophy changed my attitude to food. Basically, they believed in good ingredients cooked simply. Not pretty food necessarily, but robust and flavoursome, naturally beautiful to look at, not contrived pretty. Food with integrity.
My mother had moved to a small white Andalusian village in the mid-eighties and I became immersed in that land, a kind of Spanish Under Milk Wood, full of characters and stories. It was a different world then; ten years after Franco died politics was still not discussed, there was still a generation of subsistence farmers with their mule and an acre or two of terraced land that they farmed; rows of vegetables in between the almond trees. Matanzas, the killing of the pig, still took place, this was woman’s work and definitely not for the faint hearted. Rosario, a wonderful strong woman had a tiny bar on the edge of the village, and her husband Manolo farmed his piece of land, the most beautiful I have ever seen, a small paradise. He would always have a sprig of basil behind his ear, which he swore kept flies away. After she had a matanza the by-products of it would start to appear in her bar: blood pudding, crackling, stews, sausages like longaniza, seasoned with rosemary and garlic. The food she cooked was peasant food, cooked from the necessity of the immediacy of the ingredients. It was a revelation. Patatas a los pobres was a kind of potatoes, peppers, garlic and onion confit in olive oil; she made a wonderful fish broth with onions and Seville oranges. Both these examples show the strengths of simplicity.
Between this food and my time at the River Café my own philosophy of food was formed. Less is more. Simple flavours treated with respect. Cook with feeling, don’t be a slave to a recipe. With the exception of desserts, which are often much more a science than savoury food, recipes are little more than an indication. If you stray from them you will produce a different, not necessarily a worse dish, and that is how you learn and grow in confidence. Confidence is everything, even as a chef of thirty years I sometimes lose confidence and that is when things go wrong. Cooking is a sentient process and it picks up on the mood and feeling of the perpetrator and this is reflected in the final product.
I have a concept that great food is improvised, that great restaurants are theatre. I mean this in the sense that cinema is the same every night. You may see something new when you repeat a film, but that is interpretation, the frames are the same. The performance in a theatre is going to be different every day, there are so many variables that effect the performance, many that cannot be calibrated; this is the same in my restaurants. Some restaurateurs try to minimise these, I embrace them. Obviously with the food you prepare as much as possible to keep the standards as high as you can. But restaurants are wild beasts that have a habit of dragging you to places that you didn’t expect to go. This may sound over dramatic, but this is a vocation, a reason to live, not a job. It is not only the thing I am best equipped to do, it is more than likely the only thing I can do. I don’t come to you as some executive chef, preaching best practice, fuck that. I still work services after more than thirty years, I am not contrived, I do this for me, it is almost as important as breathing, it gives me reason, it gives me meaning, it defines who I am.
So I hope that you will see that this BLOG comes from a beating heart, not from a commercial desire. It comes from a desire to cut through the shit that is commercial food that exists everywhere today.