THE CHEF: JEREMY LEE
Posted on December 06 2023
Few chefs are as warm, welcoming, witty and mischievous as Jeremy Lee. Currently leading the kitchen at Soho stalwart Quo Vadis (QV), Lee’s twenty year career has taken in stints with London restaurant icons such as Alistair Little, Simon Hopkinson and Terrance Conran.
We sat down with Jeremy in the wonderfully appointed dining room at QV to discuss his first book which was published last year.
K: We’re very close to the one year anniversary of your cookbook Cooking: Simply and Well, for One Or Many.
JL: It is! Oh my goodness me, I know, shockingly, how did that all happen?!
How has the past year been?
This year, gosh - what a rollercoaster. There was a book tour, of course. Only a little one; but wow. And then we’ve been reconfiguring the ground floor of Quo Vadis. So it’s been pretty full on and I’m looking forward to a holiday in Scotland very much.
You must have been offered lots of book deals over the years. What was it that finally pushed you over the edge?
Oh God, well, it all started after lunch at Rose Prince’s beautiful house in Battersea where I sat next to the incredible Louise Haines, the publishing director at Fourth Estate. It was Louise who said “Okay enough talking. Start writing”. And you don’t say no to Louise Haines. So I began very gently with a very, very vague idea over a long period of time. Slowly it came together.
Of course, having written a few newspaper columns I foolishly thought that it would be much the same. But in reality it was a meteoric learning curve and I had completely underestimated entirely what actually was involved in writing a book.
So it took quite a while to get it finished but it wasn’t a book that could be hurried for some weird reason. It really needed to be itself. We wanted it to come very beautifully formed.
Are there any differences between developing a dish for the restaurant or for home cooks?
Well what I find fascinating more and more and more is how inextricably linked it all is. We are very blessed that the food at Quo Vadis is a kind of home cooking. It harks back to bouncing on a stool in mum’s kitchen back when I was a kid.
But really it doesn’t matter if you’re cooking at home or professionally - great shopping makes for great produce, makes for great cooking. It’s all about finding good things.
In fact, for a while I actually wanted to call the book “Good Things”; but apparently some long since dead author had already nabbed that title. So I asked Louise if we could get a crystal ball or hold a seance or something and, you know, ask for their permission!
The book contains lots of recipes to share with friends. How do you approach entertaining at home?
Oh I think straight to the greatest hits. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I think that’s why those amazing traditions like the Christmas turkey is, you know, just the one. It’s just amazing and it works. And you know, if you do change tack it’s usually met with puzzlement - why would you change it? Where’s this? Where’s that?
And definitely keep it simple. Because the last thing you want to do is break yourself so that by the time you have folk around you’re sobbing into the sink.
Cooking for a crowd is pretty expensive now. So I think balancing choice cuts with really frugal vegetables is a lovely way to go. Lots of herbs and salads I think are a wonderful thing. And in fact, we notice it more and more at the restaurant. The days are diminishing when you used to get this massive slab of meat on a plate with just a tonne of vegetables. Folk don’t like to eat like that anymore.
What are the ingredients you return to most often?
Oh, golly. Well it totally depends on the season. In Autumn it’d be the damsons and elderberries and wild mushrooms. Winter I’d probably go lemon and rhubarb. In Spring, peas and broad beans. And in Summer it has to be tomatoes.
The hilarious thing about summer is that the moment our produce is at its best we jet off to some faraway island. But that thing of tomatoes piled high on grilled, slightly charred bread with sea salt, stonking olive oil, vinegar and herbs is just delicious.
It’s often said that the kitchen at Quo Vadis is one of the nicest places to work in London. How important is that to you?
Oh god it’s everything I mean folk can sense when there’s a growling chef, snarling and terrorizing everyone in the kitchen. You can always tell. And blessedly I never really got that. I dodged those kitchens. I was in the ones where the produce was great, the menus were really witty, the chefs were usually owners - very well read, highly intelligent.
And I just try to do the same in my own kitchen. So long as work is progressive, and you’re learning and handling beautiful produce then work is fun. Which is more important than ever. For decades this business got away with goodwill from employees. And now the tables are turning - if there’s a dull, dark, possessed air in the kitchen then people will leave. Which do you want, Harrison Ford or Darth Vader? The math is not hard!
After the stress of a busy service, how do you relax?
Lordy. It’s a funny one because relaxation comes in all shapes and forms. I have to say that a pot of tea in bed with a book is the best of all.
But I do love shopping for food. I find it very therapeutic and I’m very blessed living near London Fields, Broadway Market and Victoria Park as there’s a wealth of bakeries and coffee shops. So I’m often loading up bags of naughty biscuits and pastries and insane amounts of coffee.
And I always have to have something in the diary on the horizon - a little jaunt to some friend’s house on the weekend or something like that. I find that very helpful, particularly when you come back from somewhere, immediately put something else next, that’s a very nice thing.
There’s a section in the book dedicated to the importance of kitchen tools. Of all the tools within your kitchen, which brings you the most joy to use?
God, that’s such a brilliant question. Nowadays I think we’re always looking for those gadgets that are gunna zap it all for us in a trifle; but I think it’s amazing what you can do by hand. For example, I love making biscuits, pastries, pies and so forth. And usually I’d make them in the food processor. But recently I’ve found that you can achieve better results with a dough scraper. A simple dough scraper to combine the flour into the butter and then with an egg cracked in. Before you’ve batted an eyelid you’ve got the most beautiful dough in your hands.
Finally, Jeremy, could you transport us to your favourite hidden gem?
Oh, I would say it’s a beach on a Hebridean island, with a big fire and pals, a tonne of langoustine and lobster, staring out to sea.
So has all from Cooking given you a taste for more book writing?
Well there has been a tapping at a typewriter so to speak, there is mutterings of something coming up from the deep…