Jeremy Lee

24th March 2016

Interview: Molly Tait Hyland
Photographs: Monica R. Goya

24th March 2016

Interview: Molly Tait Hyland
Photographs: Monica R. Goya

We arrive at Jeremy Lee’s east London flat on a blustery Saturday morning bearing coffee and expecting fun. We aren’t disappointed. Jeremy, chef proprietor at the landmark Soho restaurant Quo Vadis, is known for his simple, delicious food (think smoked eel and horseradish sandwich, onglet with pickled walnuts and arguably the best sticky toffee pudding in London). He’s also known for his mischievousness and great warmth, immediately evident to anyone who meets him, and today he’s on top form.

The smell of cedar incense (Jeremy’s “nod to communism”) fills the flat overlooking London Fields, where he’s lived for the past 18 years. Shelves are stuffed with cherished cookbooks, records and antique crockery – some of it inherited from his Scottish parents. A basket of hand-woven linen tea towels, each elegantly rolled, sits on a small table in the corner. His taste is impeccable.

Jeremy is just back from Cumbria, where he was judging the Dalemain marmalade awards, and he’s returned with a great coil of Cumberland sausage for our lunch. First, though, we layer up and set off to Broadway Market to pick up a few more ingredients. He knows everyone here. In his regal baritone, Jeremy greets stall holders and neighbours with a “Hello darling”. We pause for juices (beetroot, blood orange) and a bouquet of flowers (purple wax and astrantia major), then return home with fresh baguettes and an array of veg.

Back in the kitchen he makes us artichoke tea and we sample new-season green olive oil while the great sausage sizzles. He serves it with a pumpkin and fennel salad and green sauce – a fine, hearty meal perfectly cooked. Lunch with Jeremy is not a rushed affair: the stories continue to flow and we linger on well into the afternoon.

Continued below...

How long have you lived in this flat?

Eighteen years. In the early days, the lights flickered in the hallway and helicopters would hover outside, like in Die Hard or something. I thought Bruce Willis would come leaping through the window. It was nice that [Hackney] had a bit of grit. Back then, the West End was diminishing and the East End hadn’t quite kicked off, a neither-one-thing-nor-the-other time.

Your flat is lovely. You have so many things!

This was how I was brought up, piles of everything everywhere, general bedlam. Dad was absolute chaos and mum was driven mad by it.

Can you tell me about where you grew up?

I was born in Dundee. When I was one, my parents bought a plot of land in a little village just outside Dundee called Kirkton of Auchterhouse. It was right at the foot of the Sidlaw hills, in the fair county of Angus. Practically nothing around us except raspberry fields – it’s the heart of raspberry growing in Scotland, which back then was intact. I remember it being freezing cold – so cold it was just not funny. I went to school in shorts until I was 14. Hardy stock we Scots.

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What were your parents like?

They were amazing. Mad for each other and great fun to be with. Never a dull moment and we laughed a lot. I have two older brothers and a sister. They’re all respectably in film and television. They take after our father. Our grandfather was an illustrator for DC Thomson1 and did all of the girls’ comics. My father followed in his footsteps.

My mum made a dessert every night at home. Everlasting syllabub, almond tart, crème caramel… The great Scottish diet!

When did you become interested in cooking?

I always was interested, I liked being with mum in the kitchen.

Did you help with the cooking?

No – she did it all. She couldn’t bear anyone helping, but she was very happy to have the company. I would read a book or colour in or something.

So your mum was quite a cook?

She was a fabulous cook. Much missed and it’s a great regret knowing that I’ll never eat her dishes again. She died about 12 years ago – on the job: putting dinner down on the table for dad. It’s taken a long time to get over, it happened very suddenly2.
She was a great mum. She did everything for us: cooked, knitted. She was a wonderful seamstress – couture level, tiny stitches. Never stressed, always calm. She was very glamorous, very chic. Curly brown hair, pale Scottish skin, blue-grey eyes, soft features. I look just like her.

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What sort of food did she cook?

Dead traditional. She was one of the early students of Elizabeth David. For ladies of distressed means you either went into the domestic world to become a cook or you taught – that was all that was offered to women back then. She studied at The Edinburgh College of Domestic Science.

Did she make a pudding every night?

Uh-huh. My father insisted. Everlasting syllabub, almond tart, crème caramel… The great Scottish diet! A pudding every single night, almost always served with custard and cream. So at Quo Vadis every pudding comes with custard, ice cream, double cream, pouring cream. It’s only a teaspoon of each, it’s hardly going to kill ya…

The burnt clementine ice is otherworldly (I always judge restaurants by their puddings).
Jeremy on his favourite restaurants in London – see Address Book

What was the first dish you cooked that excited you?

I always baked, I loved making rock cakes. I cooked mum’s black book – her recipe bible – almost cover to cover. I wasn’t allowed to cook French or British food, but I think it tickled mum that her son liked to cook a curry. The first time I cooked dinner, I made lamb rogan josh, a Madhur Jaffrey recipe. I used to cook Greek food too – I did a mean moussaka.

Did your dad ever cook?

Every Saturday morning he made the most amazing sausage stew. Mum was let off the hook briefly…

What were you like in school?

We weren’t swots. Our report cards read: “wicked, disruptive, naughty children, bad, bad, bad… ” We weren’t that bad, but they were so strict. Anything would upset them.

How old were you when you left school?

Fifteen. I went to the commercial college to get some higher grades with a view of going to study illustration, but dad, being one himself, was not pro me doing it. So I got a job as a waiter at the little hotel that had opened up down the road. I was a terrible waiter, but instead of sacking me, they put me in the kitchen. I never left a kitchen after that…
I was the size of Billy Bunter back then – as wide as I was tall. We wore big tall white hats and looked very, very silly. To them it was odd – why would this boy from a seemingly privileged background go into cooking?

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And after that you chose to come to London?

I didn’t choose to do anything, they told me what to do. I fell into this. I served as an apprentice for a few years and they had me cheap as chips. I think the chef started to feel guilty, so he got in touch with his old head chef at Boodles in London and organised for me to start as a commis chef. So I packed my little bag and headed south. That was that. I was 21 and a real nerd. The naughtiness came later.

Where did you live?

On St James’s Street. DR Harris was my chemist, Berry Bros & Rudd was down the road. In Fortnum’s I’d buy McVitie’s biscuits, bin bags and other bits and bobs. Back then it was still a grocers shop – huge and glamorous, but still a grocer’s shop.

I hightailed it up to Dean Street and into the French House, and there’s Gaston with his massive handlebar moustache. I had my first vermouth. Gaston said, “You liked that didn’t you? Here’s another one on the house, now get out! Au revoir!”

When did you first visit Soho?

I was 16 when dad took me to London. We stayed at the Piccadilly Hotel. One Sunday afternoon, he went off to the Tate and said “Shaftesbury Avenue is that way”. There’s your rite of passage! I hightailed it up to Dean Street and into the French House, and there’s Gaston [Berlemont, the legendary Soho pub’s owner] with his massive handlebar moustache. I had my first vermouth – a glass of Chambery. Gaston said, “You liked that didn’t you? Here’s another one on the house, now get out! Au revoir!”

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What was Soho like back then?

Amazing and terrifying, tons of sex shops. Camisa and the smell of parmesan on the street [see Address Book]; the amazing cookshop on Wardour; the glamorous butcher Slater & Cooke, Bisney & Jones; and Debono, the wholesaler on Frith. There was still a strong food culture – it was all real, all day-to-day living. It’s just alcohol and coffee now…

“One of the best cookery books ever written – and one of the only true voices in nouvelle cuisine before everyone else annihilated it and did unspeakable things.”
Jeremy on his favourite cookbooks – see Bookshelf

Talk me through the rest of your career…

I was at Boodles for six months, but it was too old-fashioned. Catering companies and delis were opening up and serving really good stuff. I went to cook for one called Duff & Trotter, then I went to work at Bibendum with Simon Hopkinson, that’s where it all changed completely.

In what way?

Terence [Conran] had brought down all the drapes and let the sunlight in, the wallpaper was ripped off the walls and he kicked out fusty. It wasn’t hushed and clinking cutlery, there was a bright, fresh interior and simple white round plates, clean and delicious was the order of the day. It was great fun – uproarious and outrageous and we loved it. As much fun in the kitchen as it was in the dining room, in fact, more. Later, I jumped ship to Alastair Little.

When did you start the Blueprint Cafe?

Glory bejeezus! Twenty-two years ago. I fell madly in love with climbing the stairs of this wonderful Bauhaus building [the Design Museum in Wapping] and the enormous terrace overlooking the river and the huge East End skies. I was there for 18 years.

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Then you went to Quo Vadis.

I’m in my fifth year now, what an adventure.

Do you think you’ll be there forever?

Who knows? The battle is to keep a private independent business going in town because of ruthless, unchecked rent increases and running costs. But that’s the job, you make it work. It’s hardly a novel issue and that’s where you have to be on your mettle.

It’s shocking how Soho is changing.

You’re just going to do exactly what you did to Neal’s Yard and Neal Street in Covent Garden – a bunch of shoe shops. Great. That’s nothing against any of them, but you’ll take the curious and interesting out. Why would you bother going into Soho if it’s just a bunch of very rich people living in glamorous flats, complaining about the smell of Chinatown and traffic and the rumbling of the underground?

Being a confirmed bachelor, I don’t like cooking for one. I’ll fry an egg and have it with anchovies on toast, but I prefer a crowd. Cooking for 12 at home or on holiday is a complete pleasure

Can you talk me through what you eat each day?

To start the day, I have a big bowl of granola from Violet on Wilton Way. I cycle through Broadway Market on my way to work and often, on a Saturday, stop at the Longwood Farm van for kefir – that extraordinary yoghurty drinky thing, settle the old doo dahs. Coffee features large (I have far too much) and I’m partial to a bun. I love a bacon manchet, the bacon streaky, lightly smoked, maybe with a fried egg. I’ve come to that late in life. Before, breakfast was toast, butter and marmalade.

At work, do you just taste and nibble?

Yes, on a normal day it’s all over the place. There’s no rhyme nor reason, no one day the same.

Do you ever have supper or a late night snack?

I loathe eating late. I’m not even mad about dinner anymore. It’s just age. I used to eat three massive meals and four baguettes a day – and loved it all. No more.

What is your favourite meal?

Lunch. I used to sit down with Sam and Eddie [Hart, owners of Quo Vadis and Barrafina] and have a spot of lunch but I always felt wracked with guilt and couldn’t relax because I needed to be in the kitchen.

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How often do you cook at home?

Never – being a confirmed bachelor, I don’t like cooking for one. I’ll fry an egg and have it with anchovies on toast. I love that, but I prefer a crowd. Cooking for 12 at home or on holiday is a complete pleasure.

Do you ever play music or listen to the radio?

I used to avidly, but less and less. In a restaurant kitchen there’s this infernal, incessant noise from extraction systems, deliveries, hubbub and chat, it’s quite full on. What I crave is quiet and calm.

On The Menu

Lunch with Jeremy Lee
East London, February 2015

To eat:

Cumberland sausage with pumpkin and fennel salad and green sauce »
Baguettes from Pavilion bakery

To drink:

Flat whites from E5 Bakehouse and Climpson & Sons
Beetroot and blood orange juice
Artichoke tea
Water

Any good kitchen wisdom?

Well hopefully at this age! A tidy kitchen is a good thing – clean as you go. A little bit of order, you don’t have to be martinet about it.

Do you have any unusual kitchen habits?

I used to love smoking in the kitchen, it was terribly good fun. My parents were avid smokers. There were at least three ashtrays in the kitchen – by the kettle, sink and cooker. Mother would just endlessly be going like this [makes smoking gesture].

Are you influenced by one cuisine over all others?

Regional cooking. Hearth and home – that’s what I relate to. I don’t recognise boundaries and borders at all. I cook predominantly British but boiled mutton, pot au feu, bollito misto… You go down that route and realise that they’re all closely related. Frugality, necessity – that’s where the invention comes.

Quo Vadis is at 26-29 Dean St, London W1D 3LL; www.quovadissoho.co.uk
Follow Jeremy on Twitter and Instagram

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  1. A British publishing and television production company best known for producing The Dundee Courier, The Sunday Post, Oor Wullie, The Broons, The Beano, The Dandy, and Commando comics. Source: Wikipedia
  2. A digression on Jeremy’s mother: “Her name was Eileen Mabel Nieve – very Dundee all round, but born in India. My grandfather was a jute agent for one of the big firms in Madras. When she was eight, she came back to Britain with her mother and sister on leave to prevent them going “native” (what a world!), and then World War II broke out. Like many families who were living in rather ridiculous borrowed splendour (really quite splendid because jute was phenomenal), coming back to Dundee was having the carpet ripped from under them – their lives were forever altered.”

Posted 24th March 2016

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Interview: Molly Tait Hyland
Photographs: Monica R. Goya

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