The Gannet Q&A

Ed Smith

22nd December 2016

Photograph: Oliver Smith

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Ed Smith has lived in London for 10 years, by way of the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire, where the world’s best asparagus is grown. He began his working life corporate lawyering at a large City firm but left in 2012, to retrain as a chef at Westminster Kingsway. That led to a few restaurant shifts, the opening of a pop-up restaurant, a stint working in food TV, a street food business (for someone else) and helping to build Cannon & Cannon’s British cured meat wholesale business. Eventually and perhaps inevitably he gravitated towards food writing, and that’s what he does now – a bit of freelance journalism, his website, and his first cookbook, On the Side, which will be published by Bloomsbury in Spring 2017.

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

I can remember every course and most of the conversation at a Young Turks pop-up at The Loft Project in 2011. 2 April 2011, to be precise. And I’d happily head back in a time machine to repeat it.

To my mind, the supper clubs and pop-ups of 2009-2011 kicked-off the restaurant scene we have in London today. A bunch of amateurs got a taste of cooking for strangers, forging the way for career changes and street food businesses; professional chefs decided they wanted a piece of it (and young chefs realised they didn’t have to work for decades before doing their own thing); restaurants started to realise they could serve great food and allow their customers to have fun at the same time; and blogs enthused punters and started the kind of hype that social media and indeed the press create around every new opening now.

James Lowe and Isaac Mchale’s Young Turk supper club at Nuno Mendes’ Loft Project was a relatively early example of the young pro’s having a go. And it remains the best-value, most joyful meal I’ve ever had. There was course after course of interesting, modern, but ultimately just tasty food, great wine matches, and Daniel Willis’ inimitable, amiable and totally competent service backing it up. An extraordinary beef and oyster tartare and a dish of Jersey Royals with crab meat and monks beard stood out; now everyone cooks in a similar style to those Young Turk pop ups of 2011 through 2012, but not always with the same success.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling that we were eating the most important food at the most important venue in London at that precise moment

It was £60 all in and I’d got a couple of last-minute cancellation places. I went with one of my brothers, though ultimately we sat on a long, communal table of strangers who really liked food (as oppose to really liking taking pictures or being first to a new opening). It wasn’t weird or a chore to mingle — conversation flowed, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling that we were eating the most important food at the most important venue in London at that precise moment. Much as I don’t want to blow smoke, I feel like the trajectory of those two chefs since, and indeed London’s food scene, has proven that to be the case.

Describe your perfect breakfast.

Probably the one served at Coombeshead Farm: bircher made from a variety of ancient grains with a dollop of great yoghurt; absolutely belting, properly toasted toast made from fresh sourdough, with butter and honey on the side; then a carb-light cooked element with belly bacon, hog’s pudding and silky scrambled eggs. All eaten in a (relatively) calm room with morning light streaming in, and with four fingers of kombucha and then half a glass of cold apple juice to wake me up.

A photo posted by Ed Smith (@rocketandsquash) on

My perfect breakfast would have better coffee than theirs, though. Ideally an acidic, berry-toned Kenyan filter served in a jug so I can pour the coffee little by little into a nice ceramic cup. Don’t mind whether it’s a V60 or Chemex. I’m not precious.

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

I read and note cookbooks for inspiration, rather than follow them religiously. So they’re actually all pretty clean. One is more dog-eared than the others, though.

People always talk about Roast Chicken and Other Stories, but for me, Simon Hopkinson’s best book is Week In, Week Out. This is a compilation of recipes from his many years as The Independent’s cookery writer. It was published in 2007, though obviously collates things written many years before that. Yet the recipes are timeless — sometimes because they’re the kind of good, classic French dish that could never go out of fashion, and otherwise because they’re a non-faddy and still remarkably contemporary interpretation of global cuisine.

All the recipes work and the intros are sensible and helpful. I reach for it both when simply wanting random inspiration, but also if in search of a recipe I imagine someone else has done before, almost always finding what I’m looking for.

I read every recipe column in the papers, every weekend. If these were repeated, they’d still be among the most relevant and the most tempting.

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

Dunno. Anything involving truffle oil or that relies on saffron? I also didn’t think much of Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong — a budget but still Michelin-starred dim sum place. The signature baked pork bun was sickly after the first bite, rice flour shao mai were overcooked and gloopy, pork liver cheung fun barely filled and gloopy.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

I enjoy and empathise with the grilled cheese sandwich scene in Chef.

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

Saltimporten Canteen in Malmo. It’s only open 12:00-14:00, Monday to Friday, with just two dishes on offer — one fish or meat, one vegetarian. Local workers (plus a few food tourists) line up in a queue to collect a plate as if they were at school. There are maybe three staff, each sharing the serving, washing up, money collecting and plate clearing duties. But they’ve all worked at top-end restaurants and are now smashing out an informal lunch service.

The food is quality, seasonal, local, beautifully cooked and presented, and isn’t much more than the cost of a Pret sandwich and a packet of crisps. The room is pure paired-back Skandi cool, all buffed concrete, bare render and plain wood, though it doesn’t feel cynical or try-hard, as it undoubtedly would if someone replicated it in Britain. In fact, it just couldn’t be done over here — rent would be too high to get that perfect cross of capable chefs, large, atmospheric room, and a community of appreciative office workers.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

Recently James Blake The Colour in Anything and Bon Iver 22, a Million. Otherwise it’s Classic FM, Radio 3, the murmur of Test Match Special, or a none-to-serious podcast, like James Ramsden’s The Kitchen is on Fire. But, to be honest, more often than not I just like a bit of silence. I think being able to hear food cooking is important. And, as is apparent from what I’ve mentioned I’m listening to, it seems I’m getting old.

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

Probably McCain’s Southern Fried Curly Fries. I was partial to a Romantica too — the thinking boy’s Viennetta.

Who is your food hero?

Nigel Slater.

What’s your greatest talent in the kitchen?

I can hear from 10 yards if you’ve overcooked it.

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

This kohlrabi & smoked mackerel gratin was pretty good.

A photo posted by Ed Smith (@rocketandsquash) on

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

Japan. So many of my favourite things are covered: sushi and sashimi, obviously, but also all the best noodles, grilled fish and pickles, deep-fried things, ferments, etc. I’d just miss good puddings. (Matcha soft serve is not a good pudding.)

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

I dislike other customers if they don’t seem to have any empathy for what it’s like to cook and serve in a restaurant; and chefs and front of house if they treat customers and their preferences with nonchalance or disdain.

Eating out should be simple: good ingredients, cooked well, served with a smile in a comfortable room. But people seem to complicate it

Every eater should have to do a five-day shift at least once in their life, and every worker should have to eat out three or four times a month. We would all have a better time.

What food trend really gets on your nerves?

I’m annoyed that eighty percent of new restaurants have to have concept, a story, or be influenced by the food of x, y, or z country (which the founders may or may not have been to when “researching” the menu). Eating out should be simple: good ingredients, cooked well, served with a smile in a comfortable room. But people seem to complicate it.

What’s your biggest food extravagance?

I don’t really have a budget limit when it comes to ingredients, restaurants, restaurant tourism and basically anything vaguely food-related. Which is totally different to my normal spending patterns (and means).

A photo posted by Ed Smith (@rocketandsquash) on

Posted 22nd December 2016

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Photograph: Oliver Smith

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