The Gannet Q&A

James Ramsden

20th June 2017

Interview: James Hansen
Photograph: Yousef Eldin

Food writer and restaurant owner, James Ramsden was raised on a farm in North Yorkshire and currently lives in east London. He has written four cookbooks and contributed to The Guardian and The Times. His current focus, however, is on restaurants. Ramsden co-owns Pidgin in Hackney – awarded its first Michelin star last October – and is opening Magpie in central London on 11 July. He also hosts “arguably the most poorly researched, badly prepared, ill-informed, over-opiniated and hopefully entertaining food podcast”, The Kitchen is On Fire, with his business partner and best friend Sam Herlihy.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

There are too many! Though the one that jumps to mind is Schønnemann in Copenhagen. It was the first weekend away with my then girlfriend, now wife, and we stuffed our face with herring and cheese, drank silly amounts of their house-brewed beer and aquavit, chatted to the elderly Danish couple on the next table who enlightened us with their techniques for cheating the Danish breathalyser test, and generally just had a great, great time.

ŸWhat’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

I’m afraid I’m one of those dicks who says they don’t use cookbooks, I just read them. My most read cookbook is probably The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.

What’s the worst supposedly-good thing you ever ate?

Tripe. It’s gross. Stop pretending to like it. I’ve eaten it countless times to try to convert myself.

Like many of us, I’m trying to eat healthier, and eat lighter, and in terms of my palate I’m into lighter wines now. But every so often you do have to submit to a loads of foie gras and feel guilty but not really

Describe your perfect breakfast.

I’m not a massive breakfast person but if I have a good hour, a newspaper, unlimited toast, butter and marmalade, and adequate coffee, I’m pretty content.

No restaurant is perfect but which one, for you, comes closest, and why?

You mean other than Schønnemann? I think the perfect restaurant has to be appropriate for pretty much any occasion, which is of course pretty near impossible. I’ve yet to have a bad time in Otto’s. It’s not too worried about what it comes across as, it’s unbelievably old-fashoned. It’s genuine: it is what it is. You are going to drop a minimum of 100 quid each and spend four hours there. It’s a horrible room, actually. I wouldn’t go for dinner, I’d go for lunch – because you know you’re going to lose the afternoon. And Otto, he’s always there, and he treats you like you’re his regular. Like many of us, I’m trying to eat healthier, and eat lighter, and in terms of my palate I’m into lighter wines now. But every so often you do have to submit to a loads of foie gras and feel guilty but not really. Often you go to a restaurant and think this would be better here, I’d change that, this would be different… Not so. It’s doing what it does very very well, and it’s pretty damn near perfect in that regard.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

Either the opening scene in Eat Drink Man Woman or the tricky diners in Big Night. Actually I’m going to resist the urge to avoid being a predictable middle-class one-time student and tell you I also love the moment in Withnail and I when he eats a Sunday roast in the car.

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

Hmm, pizza?

What’s your greatest talent in the kitchen?

I can debone a chicken in under a minute.

What’s the best thing you cooked at home in the last month?

I did a pretty decent turbot at Easter, baked whole and served with oyster beurre blanc and cucumber.

What ingredient or food product are you currently obsessed with?

Fermented tofu.

Describe a kitchen object you can’t live without.

Is “a knife” too easy an answer?

Here was someone who was writing about food in a very funny way – in retrospect, possibly not that well-informed about it – and made it entertaining. And I thought, Right, well, I want to write about food

Share a useful cooking tip.

Simple doesn’t mean simplistic. Probably not a tip, but true.

Who is your food hero?

It’s a slight difficulty with the food hero thing because I don’t really have a food hero…  I would have to go with the two people who are the reason I started food writing: Nigel Slater and Giles Coren. I loved Nigel Slater’s writing about cooking, because, like any Nigel fan, it’s evocative, it’s personal, it’s uncluttered but it’s comforting. There’s no pretension to it. He’s written so much it gets a bit samey, but that’s the same with any writer: it’s the same with Giles Coren for sure. With him, it was just funny. I hadn’t really read any food writing up to that point, I’d just read recipe books. Here was someone who was writing about food in a very funny way – in retrospect, possibly not that well-informed about it – and made it entertaining. And I thought, Right, well, I want to write about food.

If you had to limit yourself to the cuisine of just one country, which would it be and why?

China – lot of options there.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

A lot of podcasts, currently Waking Up, Ezra Klein, Marc Maron, Adam Buxton and Harmontown. Music-wise, anything that won’t wake my toddler but that also won’t send me to sleep.

Describe the thing that most annoys you as a customer in a restaurant.

Lack of imagination / cynicism or disingenuousness on the part of the restaurant. You can smell it a mile off.

What food trend really gets on your nerves?

Any restaurant that opens a place based on a trend as opposed to because they love it – see above.

What’s your biggest food extravagance?

Wine. I always swore that I wouldn’t become a wine snob. And I don’t think I am a wine snob. But the more you know the more you know. Doing the wines at Pidgin, as I have for the last eight or nine months, and changing the wines every week, as we did for 18 months, I began to understand more about good wine vs bad wine. So I’d rather spend on a little bit more on a bottle that’s great. There are some very, very good cornershop wines. That’s probably an exaggeration, but you can’t go too far wrong with Casillero del Diablo. If the choice is between a burger with a stonking bottle of burgundy, or the T-bone with foie and some shitty bottle of Merlot, there’s no question which one I would do. I think our priorities are slightly wrong when it comes to wine. We’ll go to the pub these days and spend five quid on a pint of ropey lager, but the idea of spending more than eight quid on a bottle of wine is anathema. If you look at the economics as well, you can get a very good bottle of wine for ten quid. As soon as you get below that, because of tax and transit and all, if you pay a fiver for a bottle of wine, the wine in the bottle is 35p. I don’t mind slumming it on food, but with wine, it’s different.

Pidgin is at 52 Wilton Way, London E8 1BS; www.pidginlondon.com

Follow James: Twitter | Instagram

Posted 20th June 2017

In The Gannet Q&A

 

Interview: James Hansen
Photograph: Yousef Eldin

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