The single most revelatory thing I ate last year at a restaurant was a dish described simply as ‘carottes râpées’ - grated carrots - at the wine bar P. Franco in Clapton. The chef was Anna Tobias, one of London’s best chefs without portfolio, and this was early on in her residency, marking a break with the very technical, culture hopping, gochujang and shiso, bro-ish food of the previous chefs who had manned the P. Franco induction hobs. The carrots were revelatory for two reasons. The first was simply: they tasted fucking unbelievable. Mid mouthful I was trying to use my perfume knowledge to work out what they tasted like - amber, orange blossom, vetiver? “What has she put in here?” I kept saying to my companion. We talked to Anna afterwards and she laughed “I think it’s just lemon juice, sugar and a little bit of salt”.
Which leads me to the second reason - how ballsy is it to put a dish of grated carrots on London’s trendiest menu dressed simply with lemon juice, sugar and salt? To me, this is more impressive than the actual dish: a kind of Duchampesque provocateurism, a challenge to the egos of every (mainly male) chef who feels the need to keep upping the ante on how clever they can be. Carrots and lemon juice. But of course grated carrots and lemon juice is extremely clever, it’s a cleverness based on generations of knowledge that adding lemon juice to good carrots produces a reaction that transforms them, it requires the chef to find good carrots, grate them to the right consistency, add the seasoning, and then leave well alone. I still cannot work out if this process requires the chef to abnegate their ego or if you can take pride in knowing that you’ve outflanked the entire industry by serving grated carrots on a plate.
I still think Anna was the wrong choice for P. Franco, a place which required big statement Instagram dishes to pull people to Clapton. Can you make people cross the city for a stroganoff? I’d like to think that the simplicity of cooking like this, cooking which focuses on the pleasure of the eater rather than the cleverness of the chef, is due for a serious comeback once everyone starts cooking again. Of course, it was already there - in Anna’s food, in Thom Eagle’s, in Nick Bramham’s Italian food at Quality Wines, in some of Steve Williams food at 40 Maltby St, and in Alex Jackson’s, as evidenced by his restaurant Sardine and his dinners in homage to Elizabeth David and Richard Olney. Alex has also been thinking about this return to ‘simplicity’ and what food after this might look like after this when chefs start cooking again. His deep love is not France’s la grande cuisine, but rather the cuisine of the ground, the cuisine of Provence and Olney, of food that hides technique rather than displays it like a peacock. I’d like to think that will be new room for this kind of cooking, a cooking which derives value not from the addition of more and more components, but from the ingredients themselves, and the virtue of knowing when is enough.
In Defence of Lumpy Brown Soup, by Alex Jackson
For years at work I’ve been cooking French food: a cuisine supposedly refined, classical, luxurious, expensive. But the food that I like from France is different; bien rustique, fatty, loud, tasty, colourful and, for the most part, cheap. French food for me is not starched linen, tall paper hats and commis chefs passing things through sieves. It’s proper country cooking, more farmhouse than fine dining - tomato salad, apple tart with good cream, a fine chicken in an old pot. When I lived in Paris briefly as a young man (mais oui), we didn’t have a lot of money and we saved up to go out to a restaurant. There were chequered paper tablecloths. The next table sat inches away, and we made new friends. The house wine was very drinkable. It was cheap, which spoke to us loudly. The menu was very short and said exciting things like Salade de Lentilles €3 or Crevettes & Aïoli €3.5. After that we had some salty duck confit, lumpy mash, two bottles of house wine, all the cheese, and the time of our lives.
In Letting Well Alone, an essay from her book An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, Elizabeth David describes a Provençal repast that sounds perfect to me, but sits uneasily with modern conceptions of a restaurant meal. Nyons olives, tomato salad, pâté de campagne, courgette and rice gratin, beef daube, and, to finish, a compote of lemons and green melons. Its simplicity is supposedly its strength, but hang on, isn’t the balance all wrong? The gratin contains no meat or fish, and there’s nowhere near enough cheese in it. The stew’s sauce isn’t shiny enough. The dessert is literally just some jam. David outlines the temptation for the ambitious cook to improve upon the meal she had - the sauce made more glossy, the jam turned into a sauce for ice cream, the presentation gussied up, an extra twist added here or there. It’s an admirable ambition but one that comes of a desire to show off one’s creativity and technical skill and the expense of, well, good taste. Sound familiar?
That’s not to say that everyone thinks like this. There are many chefs both here and overseas that have always cooked simply, without pretension, with love, and in the spirit of the home cook in their heart; Alistair Little, Sally Clarke, Simon Hopkinson, Rowley Leigh, Rose Gray and Ruthie Rogers, for instance, need no introduction. At Chez Panisse in California, even Alice Water’s ‘peach on a plate’ approach, maligned by some as simplicity pushed to the point of actually being quite annoying, has its devotees.
The problem comes to a head when the punter is asked to pay top dollar for a pile of tomatoes, a simple stew, a lentil salad. Seeking out the best ingredients possible and doing very little to them can be an expensive business. There are numerous problems: a peach on a plate is either sold below the margins required to cover high overheads, or you’re charging £8 for a fruit. And even if it’s quality is without question, perhaps your idea of a perfect peach is different: bought for a euro fifty at the market, unwrapped from the crumpled paper bag you brought it home in, eaten in a room with an open window, juices dripping down your wrist and onto your arm.
For David, there was “Nothing about that meal which couldn’t be reproduced by a moderately skilful English cook, professional or amateur”. The “I could have made it at home” Tripadvisor brigade would have had a field day, for there’s a certain expectation for a restaurant meal to be at once technically accomplished, adventurous and ambitious. Whatever happened to, simply, delicious?
I have the impression that for a sizeable chunk of the UK’s dining public, if you’re out for an expensive meal, particularly a French one, the restaurant should be posh, the dining an ’experience’ and the food suitably jazzed up to boot. There must be a protein and a garnish. Every dish should have all the textures, all the colours, all the techniques, and a challenging flavour profile. A bowl of lumpy brown soup doesn’t quite fit this model, neither an overly subtle tian de courgettes au riz, nor a casserole of beef stew, plonked in the middle of the table. More’s the pity, for in these uncertain times we are all craving some simplicity, some comfort, something to share that is homely and basic.
One wonders if the economic model for hospitality will remain the same once this chaos is all over. Maybe rents will be cheaper, VAT lower, wages higher, restaurants simpler. Is this realistic? I’ve started to think through the process of reopening my own restaurant. What do we want to cook, and what do people want to eat? These are valid questions, and some of the most exciting ones, but the question of cost again rears its head – if restaurants are able to weather this storm, what kind of market will they be reopening to? Will diners return in the same numbers as before? I don’t doubt the enthusiasm of the public to go out to restaurants again, but if the economy is in tatters, people’s wallets might remain shut. With fewer diners, restaurants will be looking to shore up their average spends to cover their costs. Is this the time to do away with frivolity, to trust that your customers want something simpler than before? These questions are harder to answer.
Maybe post-lockdown will be like the Last Days of Rome, or rather Marco Ferreri’s ‘La Grande Bouffe’: bring me Chartreuse of Pheasant, Hare à la Royale, Magnums of Champagne, and can Ritter Fresh get us some Ortolan in? Or will we look back to Fergus and Margot Henderson’s first menus at The French House, down a path of least resistance to the delicious - a kind of culinary Occam’s Razor? Personally, I’d like to think that what people will be looking for on their plate after this will be a bit different and the food will become less about the creative or artistic and more about the soothing and restorative. Because let’s be honest, forget ‘textures of beetroot’, some lumpy brown soup is what we’re really going to need.
Potato Soup with Bacon and Cream (lumpy brown soup)
Oil and Butter
1 onion, finely sliced into half moons
1 leek, finely sliced into rounds
2 fat cloves of garlic, finely sliced lengthways
Pinch of fennel seeds
Sprig of thyme, bay, rosemary, sage, whatever you have
4 big floury potatoes, diced according to how big you like your lumps
Water or ½ water, ½ chicken stock, enough to cover the potatoes
1 tbsp Crème Fraîche or double cream
Salt & Pepper, to taste (lots of both)
A handful of smoked bacon lardons (optional)
Put the onion, leek, garlic, fennel seeds and herbs in a pot with the oil, butter and a good pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally for at least half an hour on a low heat, or until all is sweet and very soft. Add the potatoes, stir about for a bit, then add the water or stock. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook for around half an hour, until the potatoes have started to fall apart and thicken the soup. Finish with the crème fraîche or cream, and a big grind of pepper. Fry the bacon separately, if using, and scatter over the top of the hot soup along with a good bit (all) of the rendered fat.
Alex Jackson is the chef patron of Sardine restaurant in London. He kindly waived his fee for his writing. The illustration was done by Isabella DiGuilio, a chef at London’s other great French-ish restaurant, 40 Maltby Street. Isabella was paid for her work for this newsletter.
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