Table Talk: Jeremy Lee

Ebullient Scot and consummate raconteur Jeremy Lee is the head chef of Quo Vadis in Soho, where his smoked eel sarnies have become legendary. Inspired and influenced by British food writer Elizabeth David, Lee’s big break came when he landed a job at Sir Terence Conran’s Bibendum on the Fulham Road in the ‘80s, where he worked under Simon Hopkinson. In 1994 he was made head chef of Conran’s Blueprint Café at the Design Museum in Shad Thames, where he was given free rein with the menu. He moved to Quo Vadis in 2012, where he champions British produce and cooks according to the season. He’s known for his generous portions.

Describe to me your earliest food memory….

It would have to be my granny’s lentil soup. She looked after us a lot when we were tiny tots and it was vital to have a pan of lentil soup simmering on the stove at all times to nourish me and my ever-growing siblings. It is almost a national dish of Scotland and granny made an ace one.

Did you always dream of becoming a chef or did you fall into it?

I think I was pushed. I had a job as a waiter to earn some money while studying for art college and was so rubbish, they put me in the kitchen. And that, as they say, was that.

What is the dish that you have created that you’re most proud of?

It is interesting that a smoked eel sandwich has become synonymous with our menu, but frankly there are so many ingredients that we love throughout the year that feature as soon as they come into season. I find it difficult to choose one dish that I’m most proud of, because how can you choose between langoustine, asparagus, gull’s eggs, grouse and quinces? We love them all equally.

What is your ultimate food and wine match?

An exceptional white Burgundy with the freshest langoustine, just cooked, served with a bowl of mayonnaise makes for a peerless table.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve ever had in your life?

Too many to count and I would never favour one over the other. But I will say that blessed with many friends who are excellent cooks, in and out of the restaurant business, I do get to eat quite well, and always in good company.

Lee’s famous smoked eel sandwich at Quo Vadis

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten while on your travels?

I think the weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten was the offal of porcupine. It’s a long story, very much for another time. Mum’s the word.

Who is your culinary hero / heroine and why?

My mum. Such a good cook, such an inspiring woman and very, very missed.

What’s the biggest blunder you’ve made while on the job?

Here we have a embarrasse-des-riches. Take your pick. Shall we just say, nothing in nature has a right to be perfect, least of all a cook.

What is your favourite season for food and why?

Autumn. There are so many good things that I love to cook in autumn, like game, mushrooms, wild fruits like plums and blackberries, quinces and medlars.

What single ingredient do you rely on most in the kitchen?

The wealth of ingredients on which a kitchen depends is without number, but let’s start with salt. In the odd quiet moment, I love to look at Andy Harris’ website and peruse his spices.

What is the best bottle of wine you’ve ever drunk and why?

Well, now. I had the great good fortune to work with, know and be friends with the late, great Bill Baker, who was genius and could find beautiful, rare bottles of Burgundy and Rhône wines and give me the head’s up. I won’t even try to remember what those wines were, because if I were to consider the cost now, I think I might faint. Suffice to say, they were doozies.

What is your guilty pleasure food and why?

There is no guilt associated with good food, so long as you buy wisely.

If you had to only eat one country’s cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

I confess, I find this odd. Were I stranded somewhere, I would certainly be eating and cooking locally to say the least. Freed of such constraints, I would like very much to think I would continue to enjoy the many wonderful styles of cooking our dear world has to offer.

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