If the cliché of the celebrated chef is of an effing and jeffing egomaniac with a simmering temper and a knife-edge personality disorder, then Jeremy Lee is the glorious exception. Warm, gregarious, solicitous, the very life and soul, this irrepressible Scotsman has endeared himself to generations of lucky London diners, first at Terence Conran’s Blueprint Café in the Nineties and Noughties, and for the past decade at the Hart brothers’ magnificent revival of the landmark Quo Vadis, on Dean Street in Soho.
Lee made his bones under Simon Hopkinson and Alastair Little, among the architects of the renaissance in modern British cooking. Alongside contemporaries such as Fergus Henderson, of St John, Lee takes as much credit as anyone for the extraordinary flourishing in our national cuisine over the past few decades.
He’s also a stylish and enthusiastic writer on food, as devotees of his column in the Guardian Weekend (RIP) will remember. Like his cooking, Lee’s long (very long) awaited first book, the gorgeous Cooking: Simply and Well, For One or Many, with photos by Elena Heatherwick and illustrations by John Broadley, is authoritative, substantial, witty, romantic, beautifully presented and completely moreish.
Cooking: Simply and Well, for One or Many
It is as much indebted to Lee’s Dundee childhood as his years at the stove in smart Sassenach restaurants. And while many of the recipes in the book were developed in professional kitchens, it is home cooking, and the home cook, that his book is about, and for. He starts with the ingredients, always, and keeps things simple, also always. The book is as much a hymn to nature’s fecundity as it is to the pleasures of preparing food. It is arranged alphabetically, and Lee exults in seasonal vegetables from first, artichokes (“kitchen thistles”) to last, wild garlic (“a most exuberant not to mention abundant leaf”). Along the way he indulges in biscuits, blood oranges, chocolate, fish (“shiny darlings lifted from the deep”) offal, potatoes and soup, among other delights.
Those spoilt types, like me, who are fortunate enough to eat occasionally at Quo Vadis will turn immediately to pies (“even the planet must have a crust”), knowing that no one on Earth makes a better one, before checking the index (I’ll save you the bother: it’s pages 144-5) for Lee’s smoked eel sandwich, for my money the greatest thing to appear on any menu (or cookbook page) since, yup, sliced bread.
It seems almost redundant to point it out, so obvious is it, but I’ll say it anyway: Cooking by Jeremy Lee is the cookbook of the year. If you know anyone at all who loves spending time in the kitchen, buy them this book.
Cooking by Jeremy Lee (4th Estate, £30) is out now.