Kiss the cook
Photography: ANTONIA PESENTI
8:49AM, Sep 19, 2012
People in a thoughtful mood write lists of their ex-lovers. I've written a kind of love story set in the kitchens I have known. These strange places of organised chaos and stainless steel are manned by crews of the most disparate nature. There's the chef who records Sunday church services for the local elderly, while right next to him is an up-and-coming professional boxer. All are brought together in their whites in the kitchen, getting ready for service. Then there is the head chef, whose word is law. They have the loyalty of the kitchen behind them, but must avoid becoming too chummy.
How did I find myself in the kitchen completely untrained? The fickle finger of fate. While I was studying art, I helped decorate a restaurant that was about to open, and I asked the head chef if I could work as a commis. The chef was a complete thug, and terrified commis didn't know what to do and were too scared to ask. A good night out for these gentlemen was getting shitfaced, doing a moonie and collapsing in their vomit.
This experience, not surprisingly, sent me running into architecture for seven years. But the finger started to wiggle again, and we set up a club for a month. I was to be the chef in my very own kitchen. We were rough at the edges, but people would smile and wait. This was a caper and I loved it. My fate was sealed. When I finished architecture school, the restaurant I had worked in offered me a job and asked me to change their menu. This was not a relaxed experience - the chefs didn't want to be told what to do by an architect. It didn't last long.
So I moved on to a dodgy nightclub with an ancient oven and a bouncer who would let all the crack-heads and bad people in and keep all the nice people out.
It was at The Globe that I found my one and only mentor, Charles Campbell, who sat in the corner of the kitchen smoking and drinking warm vodka and telling me stories of Elizabeth David as I cooked. The only time he left his stool was to dance to a CD of Sioux Indian music; some days we danced to encourage customers, other days we danced to make sure we cooked well. After service we would sit down and plan the next day's menu, joined, bizarrely enough, by Lucian Freud, who was taking a break from painting.
And here begins the love story: Margot fell into the club very late, I cooked her some kidneys and lentils, and then we sat and drank much Lagavulin. We discussed business, and within 10 minutes we were lovers. Here is where the French House Dining Room, our first restaurant, was conceived. A heady mix: love and the kitchen. I can't have cross words with my chefs and then hug and kiss them. This was a giddy time. The only inconvenience was that we had to shut the kitchen when we went on our honeymoon. I had worked in a few salubrious establishments, but Margot was a chef. She knocked me into shape and then complained that I had ruined her with my approach to cooking. For any of you who know Margot, she is no broken reed.
Then my head was turned, and my business partner Trevor Gulliver showed me 26 St John Street, now St John Bar & Restaurant. The site, a former smokehouse, had lived many lives and was layered with pork fat, smoke, rubble and psychedelic paintings. It was love at first sight. This has been my daytime home for almost 20 years, and I still get a thrill when I walk through the door every morning. This is my current lover, so to speak, as are St John Bread & Wine and St John Hotel.
Where I do most cooking now, though, is in my kitchen at home. My flat belonged to my parents, but they moved to the country. In the years we've lived here, we've given it a lived-in look: shelves groan under the weight of pans and strange stainless steel things hang from hooks ("Ah, you're a chef. I know what we can get you: an unknown kitchen object!"). It's a very thirsty house: wine and spirits evaporate, and no bottle racks are needed, as we drink straight from the case. Our kitchen table is an extraordinary thing: it remains bright white after being awash with red wine more times than I wish to remember. It's important to get rid of one feast before commencing the next one. As I sit here writing this, I hope Charles is gulping on a bottle of Cossack Sword, looking down from a sturdy cloud.