24th March 2016
Interview: Molly Tait Hyland
Photographs: Monica R. Goya
24th March 2016
Interview: Molly Tait Hyland
Photographs: Monica R. Goya
The smell of cedar incense (Jeremy’s “nod to communism”) fills the flat overlooking London Fields, where he’s lived for the past 18 years. Shelves are stuffed with cherished cookbooks, records and antique crockery – some of it inherited from his Scottish parents. A basket of hand-woven linen tea towels, each elegantly rolled, sits on a small table in the corner. His taste is impeccable.
Jeremy is just back from Cumbria, where he was judging the Dalemain marmalade awards, and he’s returned with a great coil of Cumberland sausage for our lunch. First, though, we layer up and set off to Broadway Market to pick up a few more ingredients. He knows everyone here. In his regal baritone, Jeremy greets stall holders and neighbours with a “Hello darling”. We pause for juices (beetroot, blood orange) and a bouquet of flowers (purple wax and astrantia major), then return home with fresh baguettes and an array of veg.
Back in the kitchen he makes us artichoke tea and we sample new-season green olive oil while the great sausage sizzles. He serves it with a pumpkin and fennel salad and green sauce – a fine, hearty meal perfectly cooked. Lunch with Jeremy is not a rushed affair: the stories continue to flow and we linger on well into the afternoon.
Eighteen years. In the early days, the lights flickered in the hallway and helicopters would hover outside, like in Die Hard or something. I thought Bruce Willis would come leaping through the window. It was nice that [Hackney] had a bit of grit. Back then, the West End was diminishing and the East End hadn’t quite kicked off, a neither-one-thing-nor-the-other time.
This was how I was brought up, piles of everything everywhere, general bedlam. Dad was absolute chaos and mum was driven mad by it.
I was born in Dundee. When I was one, my parents bought a plot of land in a little village just outside Dundee called Kirkton of Auchterhouse. It was right at the foot of the Sidlaw hills, in the fair county of Angus. Practically nothing around us except raspberry fields – it’s the heart of raspberry growing in Scotland, which back then was intact. I remember it being freezing cold – so cold it was just not funny. I went to school in shorts until I was 14. Hardy stock we Scots.
They were amazing. Mad for each other and great fun to be with. Never a dull moment and we laughed a lot. I have two older brothers and a sister. They’re all respectably in film and television. They take after our father. Our grandfather was an illustrator for DC Thomson1 and did all of the girls’ comics. My father followed in his footsteps.
My mum made a dessert every night at home. Everlasting syllabub, almond tart, crème caramel… The great Scottish diet!
I always was interested, I liked being with mum in the kitchen.
No – she did it all. She couldn’t bear anyone helping, but she was very happy to have the company. I would read a book or colour in or something.
She was a fabulous cook. Much missed and it’s a great regret knowing that I’ll never eat her dishes again. She died about 12 years ago – on the job: putting dinner down on the table for dad. It’s taken a long time to get over, it happened very suddenly2.
She was a great mum. She did everything for us: cooked, knitted. She was a wonderful seamstress – couture level, tiny stitches. Never stressed, always calm. She was very glamorous, very chic. Curly brown hair, pale Scottish skin, blue-grey eyes, soft features. I look just like her.
Dead traditional. She was one of the early students of Elizabeth David. For ladies of distressed means you either went into the domestic world to become a cook or you taught – that was all that was offered to women back then. She studied at The Edinburgh College of Domestic Science.
Uh-huh. My father insisted. Everlasting syllabub, almond tart, crème caramel… The great Scottish diet! A pudding every single night, almost always served with custard and cream. So at Quo Vadis every pudding comes with custard, ice cream, double cream, pouring cream. It’s only a teaspoon of each, it’s hardly going to kill ya…
The burnt clementine ice is otherworldly (I always judge restaurants by their puddings).
Jeremy on his favourite restaurants in London – see Address Book
I always baked, I loved making rock cakes. I cooked mum’s black book – her recipe bible – almost cover to cover. I wasn’t allowed to cook French or British food, but I think it tickled mum that her son liked to cook a curry. The first time I cooked dinner, I made lamb rogan josh, a Madhur Jaffrey recipe. I used to cook Greek food too – I did a mean moussaka.
Every Saturday morning he made the most amazing sausage stew. Mum was let off the hook briefly…
We weren’t swots. Our report cards read: “wicked, disruptive, naughty children, bad, bad, bad… ” We weren’t that bad, but they were so strict. Anything would upset them.
Fifteen. I went to the commercial college to get some higher grades with a view of going to study illustration, but dad, being one himself, was not pro me doing it. So I got a job as a waiter at the little hotel that had opened up down the road. I was a terrible waiter, but instead of sacking me, they put me in the kitchen. I never left a kitchen after that…
I was the size of Billy Bunter back then – as wide as I was tall. We wore big tall white hats and looked very, very silly. To them it was odd – why would this boy from a seemingly privileged background go into cooking?
I didn’t choose to do anything, they told me what to do. I fell into this. I served as an apprentice for a few years and they had me cheap as chips. I think the chef started to feel guilty, so he got in touch with his old head chef at Boodles in London and organised for me to start as a commis chef. So I packed my little bag and headed south. That was that. I was 21 and a real nerd. The naughtiness came later.
On St James’s Street. DR Harris was my chemist, Berry Bros & Rudd was down the road. In Fortnum’s I’d buy McVitie’s biscuits, bin bags and other bits and bobs. Back then it was still a grocers shop – huge and glamorous, but still a grocer’s shop.
I hightailed it up to Dean Street and into the French House, and there’s Gaston with his massive handlebar moustache. I had my first vermouth. Gaston said, “You liked that didn’t you? Here’s another one on the house, now get out! Au revoir!”
I was 16 when dad took me to London. We stayed at the Piccadilly Hotel. One Sunday afternoon, he went off to the Tate and said “Shaftesbury Avenue is that way”. There’s your rite of passage! I hightailed it up to Dean Street and into the French House, and there’s Gaston [Berlemont, the legendary Soho pub’s owner] with his massive handlebar moustache. I had my first vermouth – a glass of Chambery. Gaston said, “You liked that didn’t you? Here’s another one on the house, now get out! Au revoir!”
Amazing and terrifying, tons of sex shops. Camisa and the smell of parmesan on the street [see Address Book]; the amazing cookshop on Wardour; the glamorous butcher Slater & Cooke, Bisney & Jones; and Debono, the wholesaler on Frith. There was still a strong food culture – it was all real, all day-to-day living. It’s just alcohol and coffee now…
“One of the best cookery books ever written – and one of the only true voices in nouvelle cuisine before everyone else annihilated it and did unspeakable things.”
Jeremy on his favourite cookbooks – see Bookshelf
I was at Boodles for six months, but it was too old-fashioned. Catering companies and delis were opening up and serving really good stuff. I went to cook for one called Duff & Trotter, then I went to work at Bibendum with Simon Hopkinson, that’s where it all changed completely.
Terence [Conran] had brought down all the drapes and let the sunlight in, the wallpaper was ripped off the walls and he kicked out fusty. It wasn’t hushed and clinking cutlery, there was a bright, fresh interior and simple white round plates, clean and delicious was the order of the day. It was great fun – uproarious and outrageous and we loved it. As much fun in the kitchen as it was in the dining room, in fact, more. Later, I jumped ship to Alastair Little.
Glory bejeezus! Twenty-two years ago. I fell madly in love with climbing the stairs of this wonderful Bauhaus building [the Design Museum in Wapping] and the enormous terrace overlooking the river and the huge East End skies. I was there for 18 years.
I’m in my fifth year now, what an adventure.
Who knows? The battle is to keep a private independent business going in town because of ruthless, unchecked rent increases and running costs. But that’s the job, you make it work. It’s hardly a novel issue and that’s where you have to be on your mettle.
You’re just going to do exactly what you did to Neal’s Yard and Neal Street in Covent Garden – a bunch of shoe shops. Great. That’s nothing against any of them, but you’ll take the curious and interesting out. Why would you bother going into Soho if it’s just a bunch of very rich people living in glamorous flats, complaining about the smell of Chinatown and traffic and the rumbling of the underground?
Being a confirmed bachelor, I don’t like cooking for one. I’ll fry an egg and have it with anchovies on toast, but I prefer a crowd. Cooking for 12 at home or on holiday is a complete pleasure
To start the day, I have a big bowl of granola from Violet on Wilton Way. I cycle through Broadway Market on my way to work and often, on a Saturday, stop at the Longwood Farm van for kefir – that extraordinary yoghurty drinky thing, settle the old doo dahs. Coffee features large (I have far too much) and I’m partial to a bun. I love a bacon manchet, the bacon streaky, lightly smoked, maybe with a fried egg. I’ve come to that late in life. Before, breakfast was toast, butter and marmalade.
Yes, on a normal day it’s all over the place. There’s no rhyme nor reason, no one day the same.
I loathe eating late. I’m not even mad about dinner anymore. It’s just age. I used to eat three massive meals and four baguettes a day – and loved it all. No more.
Lunch. I used to sit down with Sam and Eddie [Hart, owners of Quo Vadis and Barrafina] and have a spot of lunch but I always felt wracked with guilt and couldn’t relax because I needed to be in the kitchen.
Never – being a confirmed bachelor, I don’t like cooking for one. I’ll fry an egg and have it with anchovies on toast. I love that, but I prefer a crowd. Cooking for 12 at home or on holiday is a complete pleasure.
I used to avidly, but less and less. In a restaurant kitchen there’s this infernal, incessant noise from extraction systems, deliveries, hubbub and chat, it’s quite full on. What I crave is quiet and calm.
Well hopefully at this age! A tidy kitchen is a good thing – clean as you go. A little bit of order, you don’t have to be martinet about it.
I used to love smoking in the kitchen, it was terribly good fun. My parents were avid smokers. There were at least three ashtrays in the kitchen – by the kettle, sink and cooker. Mother would just endlessly be going like this [makes smoking gesture].
Regional cooking. Hearth and home – that’s what I relate to. I don’t recognise boundaries and borders at all. I cook predominantly British but boiled mutton, pot au feu, bollito misto… You go down that route and realise that they’re all closely related. Frugality, necessity – that’s where the invention comes.
Roger Phillips – The horticulturalist and food writer takes us around his secret London garden, discusses his deep-rooted love of mushrooms and explains why he sleeps in his kitchen
Erwin Gegenbauer – The master vinegar brewer takes us on a tour of his Vienna factory, explains why local produce is “boring” and makes us breakfast featuring his own honey, oil, coffee, beer and cider
Ryan Chetiyawardana – The cocktail pioneer devises an elaborate pairing menu, explains the deceptively simple idea behind his bars, confesses a major food aversion and recalls his favourite ever meal