Simon Cooks

By Colman Andrews

Published on July 11, 2001

''I really hate it when people talk about 'British cuisine','' says Simon Hopkinson, who is by anybody's reckoning one of the best and most influential chefs in the UK today. ''It's British cooking—and even that is something I find very difficult to define.'' We are sitting in the living room of the cozy London apartment Hopkinson shares with his two rambunctious Burmese cats, Philip and Lucy. On the shelf behind us is the chef's collection of glass, ceramic, and wooden eggplants, and on the walls is a casually impressive assortment of art—including graphics by several well-known contemporary artists, some Bruce Weber photographs, a number of exquisitely moody paintings of Pembrokeshire houses by his friend John Knapp-Fisher, and a signed print of a Glen Baxter cartoon showing a man in trunks, swim mask, and flippers brandishing a wooden spoon as he tromps into a dining room, above the legend ''Asking Simon to lend a hand in the kitchen was always a big mistake....''

Not this Simon. As chef at the definitive modern London bistro Hilaire in the mid-1980s and then at Terence Conran's groundbreaking Bibendum for seven years, Hopkinson helped launch the much heralded British culinary revival, trained and/or inspired scores of other young British chefs, and, not incidentally, offered London some of the best—and least pretentious—food it had ever tasted.

I'm here because Simon Hopkinson, who has evolved from a cooking chef into a writing one—no longer working in a restaurant kitchen, but penning popular columns for several publications and turning out handsome, sensible, highly usable cookbooks—has agreed to cook us a Sunday lunch and to share with us his not always party-line opinions about the current state of restaurants in his native land. (''I frankly don't think London cooking today is as great as everyone makes out,'' he says to begin with. ''Everyone's doing the same thing. There are far too many new restaurants opening, and one gets fed up with all the frothed soups and griddled tuna. Nothing smacks of individuality.'')

We've picked a cool-weather menu from his latest book, Gammon and Spinach _(Macmillan, 1998): cold curried apple soup, salt cod hash, braised beef brisket with pickled walnuts, and steamed ginger pudding. (Hopkinson's two other cookbooks, both coauthored with Lindsey Bareham, are _Roast Chicken and Other Stories, published by Ebury Press in 1994, and The Prawn Cocktail Years, published by Macmillan in 1997.) Now, the day before the lunch, Hopkinson is going shopping. In his case, this doesn't mean an early-morning trek to the wholesale markets; it certainly doesn't entail choosing tissue-swaddled vegetables and faux-Lalique flagons of olive oil from some trendy food boutique. But it doesn't mean supermarkets either; Hopkinson evinces distaste for those institutions as a matter of principle. Instead, he likes to buy foodstuffs the way a nation of shopkeepers has for centuries: from small neighborhood shops.

Our first stop is a tiny, crowded grocery called the Lisboa Delicatessen, part of a Portuguese shopping community near the Portobello Road. Here, in the back room, bacalhau—dried Portuguese salt cod—is stacked like plywood, and a young man uses a band saw to detach a couple of pounds of it for us from a whole fish carcass. Next it's off to a tiny, old-style greengrocer, Michanicou Bros., where boxes of fragrant exotic fruits present a bright front to the street—Saudi figs, Chilean blueberries, Australian mangoes, and more. Here, Hopkinson buys mint for the soup and potatoes and spring onions for the hash. We finish up at Olympia Butchers, where, beneath an Elvis clock and a Shari Lewis Lamb Chop puppet, 81-year-old Michael Kassabian and his fifty-something son Sid and daughter Rose offer Hopkinson beautiful beef brisket on the bone (though UK law requires them to detach it before selling it to him, to protect him from the ravages of bovine encephalitis).

Back home, Hopkinson sets the salt cod to soak in cold water and browns the brisket in rendered beef drippings. He's going to finish making the beef this afternoon, he says, because, like so many long-cooked meat dishes, it's better the second day. His recipe includes three old-fashioned British condiments—not only pickled walnuts but also anchovy essence and mushroom ketchup. These used to be available at ordinary food shops, he observes, but now take some trouble to find. This fact distresses him. ''I love great, old-fashioned haute cuisine,'' he says. ''But I suppose in the end it's not something I want to spend very much time on. It's probably accurate to describe my cooking as a combination of French bistro and traditional English. But I'd have to add that I love tradition in all things.''

Hopkinson was born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1954. His father, Bruce, was a dentist; his mother, Dorothie, taught grammar school. ''Both cooked very well,'' Hopkinson recalls. ''Dad experimented more, but Mum was a very good housewife-cook. I suppose I started to cook myself because I was greedy and wanted to make sure I got enough. At the age of 13, I first thought about cooking for a living, and by the time I was 15, I knew for sure that that was what I wanted to do.''

He got a holiday job in the kitchen of the well-respected La Normandie Restaurant et Bar in Birtle, just outside Bury, and at 17, when he finished school, he went to work there full time. ''The Normandie was run by a Frenchman named Yves Champeau and his brother Jean-Pierre and their families,'' Hopkinson explains, ''and it was very traditional. Yves was a bastard, but I loved him. He was always testing me. He'd adopt a very solicitous tone and say, 'Are you sure you are not too tired, Simon? You want to go home?' Of course, that just made me work all the harder. The Normandie was my apprenticeship.''

There followed stints in the kitchens at Joan and Arthur Stirling's Hat and Feather in Knutsford and St. Non's Hotel in St. David's—where Hopkinson first discovered Elizabeth David, and where ''there were lots of keen young people in the kitchen, and it was all very exciting''—and then at the ''extraordinary'' Druidstone Hotel, on the cliffs overlooking the sea in south Pembrokeshire. By the time he left the Druidstone, Hopkinson had decided that he was ready to have his own restaurant, and he found a little building attached to a guesthouse in the Welsh town of Dinas. There, a month before his 21st birthday, he opened a five-table restaurant called the Shed, doing everything but waiting tables himself, and offering diners such things as game pate with Cumberland sauce, grilled lamb chops with bearnaise sauce, and Grand Marnier souffle. Pioneering British restaurant critic Egon Ronay's _Good Food Guide _opined in 1976 that Hopkinson cooked with ''tender loving care a wisely short list of demanding dishes''. The problem was location. ''One night,'' Hopkinson recalls, ''I did 36 covers—but then one November I didn't have a single customer for an entire week.'' A later edition of Ronay's guide remarked dryly, ''It is not exactly a place with a passing trade...,'' and after two years, the Shed was forced to close.

Hopkinson tried again with a modest establishment called Hoppy's, above a pub in nearby Fishguard, and then left the restaurant trade for five years, spending two of them as a restaurant inspector for Ronay (''Eating lunch and dinner out five days a week and getting paid for it—I was having such a good time!'') and three as personal chef to entrepreneur Christopher Selmes in London. It was at Selmes's house that he first met the design-and-retail genius (and sometime restaurateur) Terence Conran, and the two renewed their acquaintance when Hopkinson was hired as chef at a bistro called Hilaire on the Old Brompton Road in 1983. One of the dishes on the menu was a traditional steak au poivre, which Hopkinson had learned at the Normandie. One night, the chef recalls, Conran came in and ordered it. ''Later in the evening he said, 'If you ever want to open your own restaurant, I'll back you.' I went to see him about three weeks later. He said, 'Let's look for a place.' I found one, but he said there was too much to rip out. I found another one, in Soho, and he said, 'Oh, Soho's awful.' I think all this time he knew that the Michelin Building was coming up. We started to become good friends, and every time he'd come in to dine, he'd send little notes to me in the kitchen saying how much he liked something he'd eaten. One night he sent one with a drawing of the Michelin Man with a note that said 'I've got it!''' In late 1987, Conran, publisher Paul Hamlyn, and Hopkinson opened Bibendum to great acclaim, and the history of modern British restaurants changed course. Steak au poivre (see recipe), incidentally, has never been off the menu at either Hilaire or Bibendum. ''It's Terence's favorite dish,'' says Hopkinson.

When I arrive back at Hopkinson's apartment around ten o'clock on Sunday morning, the chef—who is 44, quiet, intense, and compactly built—is hard at work in his kitchen. It is a small room, crowded with things: copper and cast-iron pans on one shelf; a souk's worth of spices, seasonings, and condiments stacked two-high on another, with a rank of mismatched coffee mugs hanging underneath; pieces of Le Creuset cookware in various colors scattered everywhere. Shoehorned into one corner is a small black Brittania range. ''I'm not fussy about what I cook on,'' says Hopkinson. ''When I was growing up, we had a coke-burning Aga, and I was quite fond of that—but I'll even cook on electric quite happily.''

The cold curried apple soup is finished, luminous yellow in an orange pot. ''I say in Gammon and Spinach,'' notes Hopkinson, ''that I've made the soup successfully with stock cubes. What I suppose I didn't quite dare say is that I actually prefer it made with cubes.'' The braised brisket, finished the previous afternoon and now just out of the refrigerator, suggests a snowscape in its oval casserole—rocks and stumps of meat and vegetables set into a white blanket of chilled fat. Hopkinson drains the salt cod. ''I like there to be salt still in it,'' he notes, ''so I don't oversoak it.'' He fusses around, looking for bicarbonate of soda to help leaven the ginger pudding. ''I know I bought it,'' he says. ''Now where is it?'' It eludes him, so he improvises. ''I'll use twice as much baking powder,'' he decides. ''But it won't be as light as it's supposed to be.''

In the midst of Bibendum's success, Hopkinson did the last thing a hot young chef is supposed to do: He retired. ''I've never liked the administrative side of things much,'' he explains. ''I just wanted to cook, and lots of other things were getting in the way. I was also getting disillusioned with the whole restaurant scene, the way the business was changing. I really just needed a break. I was getting stagnant. Initially I wanted to cut out altogether, but Terence persuaded me to stay involved, and I'm glad I did.'' His last night in the Bibendum kitchen was New Year's Eve, 1994. By that time, Hopkinson had started writing for the Sainsbury grocery chain's food magazine and the Independent _newspaper, and he realized that this was something he could do more of. Later, he began a series of columns for the new _Food Illustrated _as well. Cookbook editor Jill Norman asked Hopkinson to write a book, and the result was the well-received _Roast Chicken and Other Stories. He is now working on a book he describes as ''in effect, Roast Chicken II''.

He also says that he has started thinking about cooking in a restaurant again, ''but something small, maybe in the country''. While the popular press raves about the restaurant scene in London today, Hopkinson has misgivings. ''There is a sort of lemming mentality,'' he says. ''You used to have chefs putting dishes on the menu because they liked them. Now it's 'So-and-so is doing it, so we should too.' And the chefs all wear this stupid gear—funny clown trousers and all—and apparently enjoy a kind of rivalry which I think is detrimental to their cooking. I don't think chefs read enough of the right books today—Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, books that teach you to enjoy food. And I don't think they go out to eat enough, unless they're going to poach recipes. I find this all rather disturbing. I actually preferred eating in London 15 years ago.''

Around 1 p.m., Hopkinson's friends arrive—Jason Lowe, the photographer who has shot his columns and books for the last two years, and Caroline Harris, Lowe's girlfriend and a prominent young movie costume designer (The Governess, A Midwinter's Tale)—and we sit down to lunch. The cold curried apple soup, scattered at the last minute with chopped mint and cayenne pepper, is intense, spicy-sweet, almost mysterious. The salt cod hash is Mediterranean comfort food, an appealing jumble of bright flavors. The braised brisket is sheer luxury, the meat sweet and tender, the sauce complex, the pickled walnuts a happy surprise. And the steamed ginger pudding, while it may be denser than Hopkinson would like, is savory and reassuring as only English desserts can be. It would be difficult to imagine a more satisfying or delicious early spring meal.

Continue to Next Story

Want more SAVEUR?

Get our favorite recipes, stories, and more delivered to your inbox.