There are two types of famous food males: chefs and cooks…
… the former, alpha males to a man, are all about the show: the foams and drizzles, the leaning towers of expensive ingredients, the pursuit of perfection. Great, if you like that sort of thing.
And then there are the cooks, the Nigels, Bills and Jamies of this world, for whom cooking is an imprecise art, more about the feeding and enjoyment of good food with friends and family than the razzle dazzle. You can add to their ranks James Ramsden,
an upcoming cook and food writer, who at the annoyingly tender age of 25 is about to publish his first cookbook, Small Adventures in Cooking.
“For me, the best thing about cooking is giving pleasure to others – that’s the most fun part. It’s probably the whole homo erectus thing of being the provider,” says Ramsden over a lunch of soft-shell crab with Tabasco aioli, eggplant chips, and truffled egg on toast at Spuntino, the grungy and very cool New York-style diner in London’s Soho.
“I love eating out and home cooking but as two completely different things. My style is modern British home cooking. I would very much like to open my own restaurant one day, but not as the chef. It would be relaxed and mellow; I certainly wouldn’t go all fine dining on your ass. Once every few months eating at that kind of restaurant is a real treat, but unless you’re with the right people it can be uptight – having every course explained to you, your wine glass filled half a millimetre. It can take the fun out of eating. I like places like this [Spuntino], with tumblers of wine and little bits of meat, and good vegetables. Just anywhere laid back, where you can sit and chat.”
“Small Adventures in Cooking is about making everyday cooking a bit more exciting,” says Ramsden of his first book. “Pushing people a bit beyond their comfort zone, but hopefully without it being terrifying, time-consuming, expensive or off-putting. It’s about pickling fish, or cooking cheaper cuts of meat like ox cheeks –experimenting a little.”
Ramsden’s fearlessness in front of the stove probably owes a lot to his American mother, who first taught him the baking basics when James was just three. “I used to stand on a stool when she was baking and I’d be allowed to roll out pastry. I couldn’t actually cook at that age, it was more about licking the spoon, but I took an interest in food. I started cooking for the family when I was 11. I remember doing spaghetti with homemade pesto and prawns, from mum’s Marcella Hazan. I had my first dinner party when I was 14 and made coq au vin for my school friends. My friend Clemmie brought a girl called Sophie who I fancied. Nothing happened but I think it started to cross my mind at that point that cooking could help with the girls!”
Ramsden, who trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, started his career by writing a recipe column for his university paper. A friend of a friend put him in touch with the food writer Fiona Beckett, and James started writing and filming cooking videos for her website Beyond Baked Beans, and contributing to her book, The Ultimate Student Cookbook. Fiona suggested that, if Ramsden was serious about food writing, he should start a blog. ‘The Larder Lout’ was born in 2008, and James began blogging recipes, pieces of food writing and videos, all with an irreverence and wit that marked him out from so many breathless contemporaries. Commissions for The Guardian, The Times and a column in Sainsbury’s Magazine soon followed. As the then features editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated, I first commissioned James in 2009, for an article on the perils of raw food diets. The result was a tightly-written and hilarious piece of copy that food writers 20 years his senior would’ve been proud to have penned.
“There wasn’t really a Damascene moment when I decided to be a food writer, but reading Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries was one of those formative moments, when I thought ‘wow, I didn’t realise reading about food could be this pleasurable.’ And I love Giles Coren’s restaurant columns – I like his irreverence and his humour. There’s just so much posturing and pretension in food and I like the fact that he just doesn’t really care. Obviously cooking and eating is something that happens three times a day and we should give it its due care and attention but there’s so much pretension out there, people take food so seriously. Humour, irreverence and light-heartedness are essential.”
As if writing for the broadsheets and publishing a cookbook weren’t enough, James also runs a fortnightly supper club, The Secret Larder, with his artist sister Mary. The supper club is held at the pair’s flat, in a converted school in North London. “I love it, I love having strangers in my flat– some stranger than others! Occasionally you get people who really have not got what the whole supper club thing is about and are unfriendly, but then sometimes we get people who’ve been back 3 or 4 times. It’s the most rewarding thing when they come back and bring someone new – there’s a little community that’s built up around the supper club.”
At The Secret Larder, you can try the same kind of relaxed modern British recipes that appear in Small Adventures in Cooking, such as spiced lamb shoulder, grilled aubergine with tahini and pomegranate, and a curious sounding Soviet salmon soup, inspired by a chap called Sergei and a three-month “unbelievably bleak but quite cool” stint teaching English in Moscow.
Small Adventures in Cooking is all about the pleasure of feeding friends and family and, in Ramsden’s words “the community of food.” It’s also the first cookbook to have Twitter hash tags after each recipe, so you can make them and discuss online with fellow cooks. “There’s no such thing as the perfect recipe,” says James “so hopefully people will cook from the book, add their own touch and discuss them on Twitter. If there’s one thing I’d like people to take away from this book, it’s that it hopefully makes exciting food more everyday and less ‘foodie’, less of an involved and elite thing. It’s about not being scared of cooking – after all, it’s only food.”
So according to James, what’s the best recipe to cook…
For a crowd: “Probably the spiced lamb shoulder – it’s big, tasty and economical. Even if I was rich, I’d choose lamb shoulder or pork belly over a big fillet of beef.”
To impress a girl: “Maybe something sexy like Osso Bucco, or something veggie like my roasted squash with Taleggio, walnuts and honey….
(image from ‘SMALL ADVENTURES IN COOKING’ / Photography (C) STEVEN JOYCE)
Followed by Zabaglione done ahead so you’re not stressing too much, or grilled figs with honey and pistachios.”
To soothe a hangover: “I’m a creamy pasta kind of guy, or there’s my hangover eggs in the book. Eggs and chillies are both great for hangovers, and I swear by a cup of tea first, before a cup of coffee.”
Above: Eggs Benedict from ‘SMALL ADVENTURES IN COOKING’ / Photography (C) STEVEN JOYCE
For a late-night snack: “Most recipes in the cornershop chapter are good if you’ve had a few sherbets. Tinned sardines on toast with a quickly made-up tartare sauce would be good, or my pizza pitta – a lightly toasted pitta with tomato puree, tinned fried onions, Philadelphia, chilli, smoked sausage if you have it and dried oregano. It sounds wrong but it tastes so right.”
Katy Salter is a food journalist, recipes editor of goodtoknow.co.uk and author of the most excellent blog Pinch of Salt http://www.pinchofsaltlondon.com/
You can also follow her on twitter at: http://twitter.com/ksalty