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A Lunch With: Jeremy Lee

Simple fare isn’t about convenience, Quo Vadis’ head chef says, but about consideration and clever shopping – as his new book, Cooking, so beautifully illustrates. Over a tart laden with the last of summer’s plenty, we natter about the things that matter, from beans to butter

A Lunch With: Jeremy Lee

If Jeremy Lee hadn’t just written a book, publishers would be banging down his door. The head chef of Quo Vadis, the Soho institution founded in 1926, is a raconteur with rolling Rs and crisp Scots enunciation, an arch sense of humour and a penchant for good-natured gossip. His phrasing turns on a pin, and his stories, salt-and-peppered with naughty jokes and starry anecdotes, are regaled with merry wit. In short, he’s jolly good fun – not to mention a fabulous cook and a consummate host. No wonder the commissioning editors wanted a piece.

He’s currently stirring the pot – figuratively, you understand – as he prepares lunch. Or should that be breakfast? We’ve pitched up at his Hackney flat at 9am, ready to chat about that new book, Cooking: Simply and Well, for One or Many, and are met by a mountain of glossy pastries, served with a brick of butter – “always salted, darling” – and a behemoth bowl of homemade jam. Next thing we know, we’re being whisked off to a nearby florist, where Jeremy grabs huge armfuls of greenery with which to dress the table. Stems arranged, he pops To Catch a Thief on his wondrously wide-screen television while he gets on with chopping, flouring and rolling (“Cary Grant makes an alright cooking companion”), leaving us to peruse his bookshelves.

Books loom large in this cook’s life. His mezzanine flat is, simply put, filled with them. “These?” he says when questioned about the groaning shelves. “They linger somewhat. I can’t edit for toffee.” There are titles on art, on fashion, on film. But, mainly, there are those on food: bacon curing, tea, chocolate and cheese. Alice Waters has her own shelf. Mrs Beeton and Elizabeth David are nearby, rubbing shoulders with Meera Sodha and Sally Clarke. There are well-known titles alongside the downright obscure. We spot a copy of Acetaria, the psalm to salad written by John Evelyn – “the original vegetarian” – in 1699.

Jane Grigson is of particular import, and Cooking – illustrated with the same delightful line drawings as Quo Vadis’ oft-changing menus – owes much to Grigson’s Good Things. (Jeremy’s own well-thumbed copy belonged to his mother.) “It’s funny and informed, witty and wise and full of joyous cooking,” he says of the 1971 classic. “Wherever the page falls open, I’m always delighted.”

This is true of Jeremy’s own book too. Flicking through Cooking gives one the same feeling of stocked-up security as opening a full larder. His recipes for proper pork chops, a good anchovy dressing and a timeless tart of neatly sliced apples are full of the comfort of home – a notion that Jeremy is pleased by. “I’ve always wanted Quo Vadis to be a reflection of that,” he adds. “It’s a myth that you ought only to eat things in restaurants that you wouldn’t make in your own kitchen. Some restaurants are for high days and holidays, yes, but some are for respite.”

The book has taken a while to “stitch together”, he explains. In part this was due to successive lockdowns, but Jeremy was also battling with a sense “that it’s all been read and said before. And I didn’t want to just repeat what others had done.” Rest assured, he hasn’t. While this is a book full old friends, it is as much a place to learn to cook as one to return to when you’ve perfected the art of the unsunk soufflé. “Food at home shouldn’t be neat or rigorous. The Italians have a type of dumpling called malfatti, which means badly made. That’s the spirit of home cookery to me, not some shiny perfectly round pizza from an advert.” Pleasure comes not from perfection, he adds, but from “the immediacy and brightness of your ingredients”.

There are, Jeremy says, very few rules to simple cooking. But – over a rough-puff tart piled high with the last of the summer’s tomatoes, Graceburn cheese and the meltiest anchovies we’ve ever tasted – those there are, we gleaned a few for you. The only other instruction, surely, is to get your hands on a copy of Cooking – and quick.

Think about what you’re cooking with

“Good ingredients don’t have to be expensive – and given the shape of things now, we’ve all got to be clever about how we shop. Soaking beans from scratch is the best example of this – not only do they taste better, they’re cheaper too.

“I’ve loved how, in recent years, folk have returned to the kitchen. In lockdown, when meals were all that broke up the day and the supermarkets were ruling our lives, I noticed how much more people wanted to shop at markets. Buying fresh from British suppliers – and only picking up the amount you need – is far more sustainable.”

Prepare your pantry

“The canny cook will always keep their pantry topped up – even if said pantry is just a single cupboard. When you use up a tin, buy another two. When you make pastry, make double and put half in the freezer – it works out costing less too, which then justifies the occasional splash on, say, some beautiful Trombetta courgettes.

“The more time you spend in the kitchen, the easier it becomes to create something out of what feels like nothing. You soon learn that recipes don’t need to be complicated to taste good – a loaf of bread, some eggs and some anchovies can be transformed into Scotch woodcock with the flick of the wrist; the last of the season’s beans and tomatoes, a shallot and some good oil and vinegar can become an homage to summer in a salad. They’re both joyous things, delicious, nutritious. Cooking like that is a state of mind, rather than a particular skillset.”

Simplicity doesn’t always equal speed

“Good things take time, and simple cooking is not about just getting things done. I think it was the late Alastair Little who said, so succinctly, that cooking is not about thinking you can do something quickly. Softening onions will take 25 minutes if you want them to taste nice. And the more time and effort you put into something, the more calming it will become. Frying onions in a furious fury and burning them is more stressful than doing them gently.”

Jeremy’s recipe for a rather large tart of tomatoes, courgette and three cheeses

“I made this using one-third of batch of rough-puff pastry, made from the recipe in Cooking, leaving the rest frozen for another adventure. Just sayin’…”

300g puff pastry
4 large tomatoes, bull’s heart, cuore del Vesuvio, San Marzano, green, yellow or whichever best and most beautiful are to hand
1 Greyzini courgette
1 Roscoff onion
1 garlic clove
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 large handful of spinach, picked, washed, drained and coarsely chopped
1tbsp olive oil
6 scrapes of a nutmeg
Half a jar of Graceburn cheese
250g ricotta
1 small tin of the very best anchovies (I use Arroyabe, to be had from the Ealing Grocer)
1tbsp capers
125g freshly grated parmesan
2tbsp pistachios, roasted and coarsely chopped

Heat the oven to 225° Celsius and line a flat tray with baking parchment.

Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured board to about 3-4mm thickness. Carefully lift and place it on the lined tray. Place the whole thing – tray and all – into the fridge.

Slice the tomatoes, not too thin. Slice the courgettes thinly. Peel and slice the Roscoff onion very thinly, and the garlic too. Drain the Graceburn of any excess oil, then heat a pan with in 1tbsp olive oil and fry the spinach, adding the nutmeg.

Spread the cooked spinach on a separate tray to cool it quickly. Squeeze the greens lightly to be rid of any excess liquid.

Remove the pastry from the fridge and prick it all over with a fork. Leaving a 2cm border, dot the pastry evenly with teaspoonfuls of ricotta and shards of Graceburn. Spread the spinach over the cheese. In a most artless but even manner, lay over the slices of tomato.

Strew with the thinly sliced garlic and then the sliced onion. Add a flurry of lemon zest. Season liberally with freshly ground pepper then a smattering of sea salt. Scatter with capers and then lay on the fillets of anchovy, reasonably evenly.

Lift the tray to the oven and place in the middle, turning the heat down to 200° Celsius. Bake for 10 minutes then lower the heat to 180° Celsius and bake for 30 minutes more, checking now and again that the pastry is not colouring too swiftly.

Once baked, scatter the pistachios over the tart followed by a great cloud of freshly grated parmesan, before taking it to table.

Many salads and much wine are most welcome company for this lunch.

Further reading

Cooking: Simply and Well, for One or Many, published by Fourth Estate, is available now

Fancy another helping?

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