“I slightly regret giving up my newspaper column; I thought I’d got nothing left to say, but it turns out that I do!”
Simon Hopkinson is a most unusual man. His book Roast Chicken and Other Stories has been voted Britain’s most useful cookbook of all time, but he says he can’t remember all the recipes he’s written. He’s revered by chefs everywhere, but calls himself a cook. And he doesn’t go out for dinner (although he’s a prolific luncher). From his first restaurant in rural Wales to running Bibendum in the nineties, Hopkinson has a formidable track record and has now written eight cookbooks and presented two cookery television series. Although he hasn’t cooked professionally since 1994, if he does collaborate with a current chef or restaurateur (such as his recent Fête du Beaujolais lunch and dinner at Noble Rot), social media goes into paroxysms of delight.
One of the most pleasureable experiences I had as during my time as a newspaper editor was to be in charge of Simon Hopkinson’s recipe column when it appeared in The Independent Magazine. He had started writing it in 1995 – OFM’s Allan Jenkins had looked after it before me – and turned in elegant, friendly and authoritative recipes every week until he gave up in 2003. I was distraught, and so were his legions of fans. Luckily many of the recipes from that time are collected in one of his many books – Week In, Week Out.
One of the hallmarks of Hoppy’s columns was his encyclopaedic knowledge of restaurants, chefs, books and ingredients. Talking to him each week about what the subject would be – whether he was inspired by a forgotten food figure or the arrival of rhubarb into the greengrocers – was a pleasure. And of course he’s only got more knowledge and more stories as the years have passed.
Having lunch with Hoppy is both entertaining (one puts aside at least four hours, ideally) and informative (in my part-time job as a private chef, his is the advice I most yearn for). CODE’s founder Adam Hyman and I spent a delightful afternoon with him at a restaurant near where he lives in west London.
Where do you stand on cook versus chef ?
Well, for instance, you’d have to call the chef at Grosvenor House a chef because he’s running a huge team. At those big establishments there has to be someone in charge. People outside don’t realise that it’s the word – chef is chief; it’s actually a very simple thing, it’s very obvious. Now I call myself a cook because I’ve left the professional kitchen. But now it’s everywhere. I mean Delia is referred to as a chef, it’s stupid! I mean, she’s a cook, she’s a brilliant cook.
I do cook like a professional, but that’s because I’ve been doing it for a long time! Fay [Maschler] always thought I was a better cook than chef. I sort of know what she was saying but at the same time, I did send out some good boys from the kitchen – Henry Harris and Jeremy Lee, for example.
Television has had a huge effect on people’s perception of chefs… Do you watch?
I watch them all, every programme. Always on catch-up, because my television has been broken for years! One of the funniest things I remember was an early 80s show called Take Six Cooks. Prue [Leith] was on it, Nico [Ladenis] was on it… It shows how long ago it was because Prue’s dish was avocado with a strawberry vinaigrette. Anyway, host Kay Avila was looking at this gorgeous mushroom consommé, which was clear as a bell, and Nico said ‘look Kay, it’s like a lovely pearl”…
And what is the main characteristic of a pearl? That it’s OPAQUE! We all laughed in the kitchen.
These days I shout at the screen, when they do things like close the oven door with two hands. I shout “you’re doing that wrong!” Recently I was slightly disturbed to see a recipe very similar to one of mine being shown with no reference. It was… curiously close to mine. And oysters and sea urchins being rated against each other… I mean! I sound rather curmudgeonly, don’t I?
Oh dear. Do you watch any of the US ones, like Chef’s Table or The Mind of a Chef?
No, I don’t have Netflix. Perhaps I should get it. Rick Stein’s are always pretty good and nice to look at. I don’t mind that they’re quite like travelogues. Keith Floyd, you look at the dishes now and they are really, really awful – his cooking was so sloppy. Matt Tebbutt recently asked me to go on Saturday Kitchen but I said I couldn’t. I can’t do live stuff like that. And I can’t go on as a guest, that’s a cop-out!
Might you ever do another TV series yourself ?
Goodness no. It’s all too complicated now, I’m just concerned with the cooking [laughs]. I would love to do a programme where it’s all cooking but that doesn’t happen any more; I suppose that’s why Delia isn’t around. But I’m very pleased to be one of the inspirations for the very funny Damien Trench character on In and Out of the Kitchen – it was on the radio and now it’s been turned into a book. [Creator] Miles Jupp is so clever.
We’re at Six Portland Road, one of your favourite restaurants, I believe.
I don’t really go anywhere else. It’s a family restaurant with a husband and wife running it and it’s my local really, I almost am at the end of the road! I love going back to the same place time and again – and I love set lunches. Here it’s very good value, I mean £16.50 for two courses… And doesn’t it look good – absolutely delicious brill on the bone. This terrine looks nice, a proper thing of beauty. Not many people make them any more – the worst ones are those ones they cook in layers, so you get that hard cooked layer of mallard breast. A terrine should be mixed together, like this – a proper farce and little bits of fat.
Old-school, that’s the term.
The other day I went to a memorial for a great old-school pastry man called Victor Ceserani, who had co-written that wonderful book Practical Cookery. He died aged 98, and the Roux’s did a service and a hooley for him, and there was me, Richard Shepherd, Brian Turner and Ricky Stein, at a table, sitting around. Also sitting with us was this really old-fashioned chap named Michael Nadell – a pastryman from the 70s. Actually, he was on Take Six Cooks too. Everyone was on such good form, it was a lovely day.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in cooking?
I fear that it’s all too rich. For instance, nobody now can cook a steak and kidney pudding without frying off the meat, cooking it all before and then putting it in the suet. It upsets me so much. The whole point of it is five hours from raw ingredients, so all the kidney juices, the steak juices, the onion juices – and that is the trio – they all soak into the suet. Five hours and everything is done, it’s a perfect crossover of ingredients. They look at it now and say ‘oh that’s grey’ but that’s how the original Fray Bentos puddings were – now it’s all dark brown. It looks nicer but not a good taste. I used to eat a lot of those Fray Bentos puddings; I don’t any more. When they were good they were brilliant. It wasn’t a guilty pleasure, it was just a pleasure.
Hearing you talk about food makes me long to be your editor again, as I was at The Independent when you had your column.
I slightly regret giving that up. I just felt I’d got to the stage where I didn’t have anything left to say. It turned out I did, as I’ve written a lot more since then. But would I want a regular column again? I don’t know… well I do have Country Life one week a month. I would like to do more… but it really is a lot of work, though. I really like that Felicity Cloake column – the perfect one of things, like lasagne.
Talking of which, I’m about to cater a dinner for which they want beef wellington, so I shall use your recipe.
Oh god, the most frightening dish. The fillet can be different sizes, and you can’t see what’s going on. You MUST do some testing. Get Dorset pastry if you’re using puff. The first ones I watched being made, they cut the length of the fillet and stuffed it with black truffles and foie gras (from a tin in those days), then wrapped and cooked it. You always have to pre-cook it – sear it with loads of butter, take to room temperature and then wrap it. You must have pre-heated trays in the oven. I am not envious of you… I do love that sort of old-fashioned thing, though, like the whole salmon with aspic cucumber ‘scales’.
How often do you cook?
I cook every day! For my neighbours too, often. They’re from up north like me and the chap said once, oh we used to have this thing called ‘fatherless’. And it was boiled potatoes, and white sauce, and that was it. So I make it for him – using the boiled onion water (you must boil onions until they’re really soft), with potatoes steamed, or cooked in the onion water. So you have layers of boiled onion, soft potatoes and white pepper, and then you pour over the white sauce and bake it until the surface blisters. I do add a little cream. It is just delicious – the most comforting thing. A bit of a parsimonious dauphinoise, just so good. It would be a good accompaniment, but he likes it just on its own.
Simple pleasures. Have you been to Claude Bosi at Bibendum?
No, I haven’t been but I wish him well. I will go in a while but not yet. One never goes back, but maybe in a year or so. A good transfer really. It would be wonderful if he got three stars, and it would be a lovely swansong for Terence [Conran]. They play music there now? NO! They must switch it off when Terence comes, surely.
Would you ever open another restaurant?
God no! People forget, but it was 23 years ago that I was at a kitchen stove. I couldn’t bear it any more. People say ‘do you miss the kitchen?’ and I say, “why would I have left if I thought I’d miss it?” When I eat out people say, “would you like to see the kitchen?” and I say no, why would I want to see the kitchen? I hate going into restaurant kitchens now…
Lunch continues with Simon regaling us with stories about and opinions of many of the world’s most famous chefs. There’s the one about ‘chef xerox’; the chef who ‘must carry a gun around in his pocket, so often does he shoot himself in the foot’ and the horrible personality said to have burnt a waiter with a cigar. None of them is printable. But we hear he is writing his memoir, slowly but surely. We can’t wait.
This article was first published in Issue 13 of CODE Quarterly.