The Bloody Good Cook
Food trends come and go. Take nouvelle cuisine, for instance. And edible flowers. Or the ‘spork’, a spoon/fork combination, which went the same way as the ‘spife’ and the ‘knork’. The Good Cook, a new six-part series for the BBC, isn’t interested the latest fads in food. It’s about honest-to-goodness recipes, from an honest-to-goodness cook — Simon Hopkinson. It just so happens that it’s also the most eagerly-awaited food series in years.
People love Simon Hopkinson. He is the cook’s cook. He was once Head Chef at Bibendum — a celebrated London restaurant that, along with River Cafe and Kensington Place, helped to kick-start the revolution in British food in the 1980s. And he was the author of Roast Chicken And Other Stories – voted “The Most Useful Cookery Book of All Time” by a panel of distinguished food writers. TV has been after him for years.
He has a kind, gentle spirit you don’t find in many restaurant chefs – something to do with the fact he left restaurants behind in 1994. He decided to leave Bibendum after the success of his writing in Sainsbury’s Magazine and the Independent. “In the July” he says, “I realised I didn’t like cooking in the restaurant as much as I used to. I knew it was something I was going to start to hate – it just came earlier for me than others. So I resigned and said I would leave at the end of the year.”
Then came the night in November. It was a Sunday — and Alain Ducasse, one of the world’s greatest chefs, was in for dinner. “We did something like 90 covers in an hour-and-a-half,” he says. “And one of the maitre d’s was being particularly irritating. I don’t get violent when I lose it – I crumble. So the general manager took me to his little office, and I had my moment for 30 minutes before I did the last couple of tables. It made me realise I was right to hand in my notice.”
That’s when Hopkinson had his first stab at TV – following in the footsteps of Elizabeth David. “But I ended up in tears, in the garden of a French farmhouse, saying ‘I can’t do this — the camera — I just can’t do it’.” Then he filmed with Rick Stein. “And I was close to tears with that one too. But when Rick did another series, going from Bordeaux to Marseilles, I did a bit of chatting — with eating-lunch shoots, going-into-the-kitchen shots and cooking-bouillabaisse shots. I was much better.”
When he was approached by the team that put Nigel Slater on the small screen, he decided to give TV another go. He signed up for media training — to deal with the fear. “And feel happy with ‘the black hole’ — that’s what I used to call the camera. I did some walking and talking while they filmed. They said ‘Talk as if you’re going shopping’. I went ‘What am I going to say? I’m going to the shops — to do some shopping’?” It clicked. And, as it happens, Hopkinson is a natural.
The big idea of The Good Cook is what Hopkinson calls CLWs, or Can’t Live Withouts – the cornerstones of cooking, whether it’s bread, parmesan or salt. The recipes are designed to leave viewers feeling inspired — and very, very hungry. “Initially I didn’t want to do that weird tasting thing at the end” says Hopkinson. “I didn’t want to do that ‘Mmmmm’. They just said ‘Okay Simon. Not a problem. But just have a quick taste’. And then filmed me. Cheats.”
Despite what it looks like, The Good Cook is not set in Hopkinson’s kitchen — it’s a studio set, built in Shepperton. “It’s like my real kitchen — with a sitting room and a table off it — but it’s a much bigger and better model”. Hopkinson brought in a few bits and pieces to make himself feel at home. Like his aluminium steamer. And the vegetable peeler which used to belong to his father. “But they bought me a new set of electronic scales. And when we finished filming, they were my souvenir.”
Even though the set isn’t real (“you know Nigel’s wasn’t real either, don’t you?” he says), Hopkinson has tried to root every other part of The Good Cook in reality – we see Shepherd’s Bush market, for instance, where he does his real-life fruit and vegetable shopping. And the banks of the River Thames, where he takes his morning constitutional. Partly to undo the damage of the cigarettes – and partly to keep off the weight. He put on a stone filming the series.
Hopkinson loves his comfort food. And he knows – like the rest of us – that everything tastes better with butter. Everything. “There’s just too much olive oil around now” he says. And in the first programme of the series he actually says the line “More butter, more butter, more butter”. It’s not a recipe instruction from Hopkinson – it’s a way of life. Whether it’s coq au vin, or sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce, hiss food is best approached in loose trousers.
The Good Cook is full of useful tips. Hopkinson advises the viewer to use dried pasta (“nothing wrong with it” he says). And instead of using a grater to grate his parmesan, he recommends using a mini food processor. Hopkinson likes the cheese grated very finely. “Like you see in a trattoria – when it comes in a little dish with a lid. I love it like that. It mixes into the pasta so easily. And when you grate it in a mini food processor, you can freeze it in small amounts. It doesn’t clag up at all.”
These are the useful, practical tips of a a cook. Not a chef. And Hopkinson won’t be flattered if you get it wrong. “I don’t mean to get precious about it” he says, “but the meaning of ‘chef’ has got lost. It means ‘chief’. And I’m not chief of anything any more. People call Delia a chef — she’s never been a chef. She’s just a fantastically good cook. I stopped being a chef when I stopped being in charge of my kitchen. And that was a long time ago.”
His greatest pleasure remains cooking for family and friends. Last night, it was the computer repair man. Hopkinson’s mobile phone is five years old, and he likes to listen to his music on a record player, so you can imagine what his computer looks like. It’s why he keeps the computer repair man on-side with cheese and onion pie. “You should smell it, when the onion juices burn round the edges” he says. “I wish everyone could smell that pie. Now they can – they just have to follow my recipe.”