Pearls of Wisdom: Jeremy Lee

By Stefan Chomka, 17-Feb-2012

Related topics: People, Restaurants, Pearls of Wisdom

The newly-installed head chef and partner at Quo Vadis in London reflects on his Soho surroundings after 16 years at Bermondsey’s The Blueprint Café, which is owned by D&D London.

We introduced a line about the day’s weather forecast on the new menu because it’s so British. All we can do is discuss the weather, certainly before we can talk about anything remotely personal.To have it at the head of the menu seemed a perfect little conceit to get the conversation going.

Being a Presbyterian Scot, I’m not that good at change — hence being at Blueprint for 16 years. But I think the menu at Quo Vadis will be more fun and playful. We don’t have the ‘destination’ thing that we had in Bermondsey, which gives us more freedom.

My first job in London was at Boodles.Then I was with Simon (Hopkinson) at Bibendum, then with Alastair Little for four years. Simon and Alastair taught me about taste in all things, and a simple motto that ‘the best is not good enough’: it’s got to be great or it’s not worth bothering with.

I’m the worst person to ask about my own cooking style. But (former Independent food critic) Emily Green once wrote: “He serves up flavour the way Oliver Stone serves up violence.” I thought that was incredibly funny and flattering. I suppose I try to bring a lightness and freshness to great dishes of old.

The reason behind all the boxes on the menu is so all the classics can remain as a constant. The daily-changing stuff is in the middle. We also have a wonderful illustrator who gives us tongue-in-cheek pictures.

This deal gives me a restaurant, bar and bakery, which I’ve always wanted – as well asprivate-dining rooms and our members’ club. The restaurant has only 90 covers, which is perfect. I’ve had fun designing the menus for the bar as well: sardines on toast with a fried egg and little rolls called manchets, served with smoked mackerel, potted beef and the like.

Keeping up with the Joneses is terribly difficult. Chefs need to eat out a lot and clock what’s going on. But that means not being at your stove – it’s a tricky balance.

Given the horrible couple of years we’ve had economically, it’s impressive how strong the camaraderie in the restaurant business has been. There was a ‘back-stabby’ time when people were trying to get ahead in the boom days. It’s reassuring to see that’s changed.

I’m loving what Jackson Boxer is doing at Brunswick House Cafe. Young Tommy Adams at Pitt Cue Co is rather special, too.

I used to love having lunch with Sir Terence Conran. He is to interiors of restaurants what I think Simon and Alastair were to kitchens. He has an uncanny eye: I still think Bibendum is one of the most beautiful restaurants ever, and The Blueprint was an inspired move. It was years before anyone else thought of putting a restaurant into a gallery or museum. What a building and what a location – I miss her very much and I think I always will.

This business is huge. It used to be a tiny handful of folk who were interested, now you’ve got the entire world’s eyes on you.

I’m from Dundee – about 200 years ago they would have put me into the church, because that’s what you did with the third son. But I fell into cooking. My mother was a genius cook and my inspiration.

I adore a steak and kidney pudding, but you usually can’t eat for a week after it. So we are serving smaller portions, rather than each item being a daunting prospect.

I’m not a grand chef, so I don’t want grand chef prices either.

If anyone says ‘chef’ in my kitchen they get spanked. They seem to respond incredibly well to ‘darling!’ A happy kitchen serves happy food. If you get antsy, it quickly reflects on what the cooks produce.

I still find myself crossing the threshold of St John often. I think what Fergus (Henderson) did was brilliant and brave and a logical step in the evolution of restaurants.I’m surprised he hasn’t been made a duke.

The dish I’m particularly pleased about is the smoked eel sandwich. It seems to begoing down a storm, so she’ll stay.