Page Tasters: Rachel Cooke, Observer Journalist & Food Magazine Columnist
For someone who considers herself a creature of culinary habit, Observer journalist Rachel Cooke has a hell of a lot of recipe options to hand. She adores books — one of the reception rooms in her North London home is used solely as a library — and an ample part of the collection is of a cookery nature.
Some 200 cookbooks can be found lining her bookshelves and sitting in neat stacks in the dining room. It's only down to regular donations to a charity shop that her collection does not explode much beyond this figure.
Rachel regularly writes book reviews, refreshingly non-formulaic profiles, and a column in Observer Food Monthly magazine. She's my favourite writer at The Observer and I got in touch with hopes of interviewing her for the blog. Happily, she agreed to meet. I went round to her North London home, which has an enviably grown-up decor (love the drinks cart) to talk about pages of taste.
We had a chat at the kitchen table where she divulged which cookbooks she takes to bed, what it’s like interviewing celebrities over a meal, recipe pet hates, and “the greatest thing that has ever happened” to her (hint: it involves a cookbook).
What makes a good cookbook? Does the author need to be a good writer?
I think cookbooks fall into two camps. There are some that are just beautifully written and then there are some that are just very practical. If the recipes are really good I don’t mind if there’s no writing.
The most important thing is that the recipes are straightforward, you can follow them and they work. There’s a very good book called The Pedant in the Kitchen by novelist Julian Barnes about the pain of following recipes. It’s very funny.
Obviously the recipe needs to work, but I do like a nice bit of writing. Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David I think are beautiful writers. I think some people —I won’t name any names — really overwrite.
How many of your cookbooks would you say you’ve actually cooked recipes from?
Very few; you basically have about six that you use over and over again. Also, you have a favourite book and that’s your favourite for a couple of years and then you get sick of it.
If you could keep three cookbooks for practical reasons, and three for their beauty as books, which would you choose from your collection?
I would keep the ones that are like bibles to me. Tamasin Day-Lewis's Kitchen Bible is brilliant. I really like Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries because it’s day by day and you can look in it and think 'Oh it’s the 24th of November, what is Nigel cooking?' I also really like Nigella Lawson’s first book How to Eat.
Three books as objects? I would choose the Action Cookbook by Len Deighton, which is a book from the 60s. It used to be a series in The Observer when I was a child, and the recipes are really good.
Also, Good Savouries by Ambrose Heath, because it is a beautiful book and I love savouries. And when the Independent newspaper started they had a cook called Jeremy Round, who wrote really well. He writes beautifully about cooking with seasonal ingredients in The Independent Cook.
How often do you read cookbooks for pleasure?
I must admit I read them a lot less now than I used to. I think this is because when I was younger I wasn't able to cook at all, and that was when I really read a lot of cookbooks. But now that I cook every night — and I cook every single night; we don’t eat any ready-made food — I don’t read the books as much because it’s like I found an outlet for my greed, I suppose.
A lot of it is to do with the difference between being single and being married I think. When I was a single girl, I just read cookbooks because I never cooked for myself. I used to make Welsh rarebit or whatever. But now I’m married, it sounds so awful and kind of un-feminist, but I sort of feel that now we should always eat together. You expand your cooking horizons. We often have two courses. We always have a main course and we often have pudding. My husband loves ice cream so there’s always ice cream. At the weekends anything goes. I’m really greedy.
Do you read cookbooks in bed?
I read lots of cookbooks in bed. If I’m really tired I read a cookbook rather than a regular book because you can read just a recipe or two. Jane Grigson I like reading in bed. I love reading Rick Stein’s seafood cookery in bed. I find I don’t buy fish much anymore because it’s so expensive but I like to read about it.
I love Rowley Leigh, and I love reading him in bed. I do make some of Rowley’s recipes but not many because he’s a bit above my skill set, or there are certain things I’m frightened of, like cooking lobsters. So I would rather read about someone else cooking a lobster than cook one myself.
What are your pets hates in cookbooks?
When they list ingredients that are almost impossible to get hold of. I’m being driven mad at the moment by the Bocca di Lupo cookbook, which I praised and now I wish I hadn’t. Some of the recipes call for quite weird ingredients and his get-out is that he’s set up a website where you can order these ingredients. I wanted to make pistachio ice cream from his recipe and he says to use a certain pistachio paste, that you can’t buy in England, you need to order it from the website. Well, it wasn't available on his website, it was out of stock. Things like that really annoy me because your hopes are dashed.
I hate really complicated recipes, you know where you have to make a sauce and then make a stock and so on; making meals within meals.
I like specific instructions. A recipe might call for a 'handful' of an ingredient, and you think what does that mean? How big are your hands? I really like thorough instructions.
People who are really good cooks say that photos are irrelevant in cookbooks, but I really like a nice photo. For one thing it kind of tempts you and for another it gives you a very good idea of what it should look like. It’s annoying when the photos aren’t near the recipe. I think a photo needs to be next door to the recipe.
I hate pomposity, people who have pretensions and delusions of grandeur. If people write in a way like, 'I walked outside into my garden and I took a handful of wild strawberries and I tasted their juices on my lips and I was in heaven' — I hate that kind of stuff. I just think 'Oh come on!' I’m sure you know the kind of people I mean.
I need to feel that the writer really loves to eat. It drove me nuts when Sophie Dahl had that series on TV and she pretended to be going 'Mmm double cream!' Because we know in our bones, any woman alive knows, that Sophie Dahl watches what she eats, extremely. I found that exasperating.
And Lorraine Pascale, she’s a lovely girl, I've interviewed her. I think her recipes are brilliant. But the idea that every night she’s going home and eating double-chocolate cheesecake and a rack of ribs… she is about (holds hands a few inches apart) that wide. I switched on her programme the other night and she said 'Ooh at this time of the year you just want comforting food!' and I was thinking yeah, you do. But I bet you a million pounds she eats a salad for her dinner.
This is why I love Simon (Hopkinson) because he’s fantastically greedy, and he doesn’t say ‘I love eating tripe' if he doesn’t mean it. It’s an instinct. The great thing about Nigella, for all her many faults, is you can tell that she loves to eat.
Speaking of Simon, he used your recipe for cheese biscuits in his recent book – how did it feel being IN a cookbook? And he even prepared it during an episode of his TV series!
(She bursts out laughing and goes borderline-giddy) It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me! It’s awful though, because I stole this recipe from my stepmother. So it’s totally dishonest, but it’s so thrilling. It's actually in two of his books, the vegetarian one and the recent one which had the TV series.
He ate the biscuits here; he's a friend. Most chefs, I would not want to cook for. But Simon is just so wonderful, because he loves to be cooked for, he’s not critical and he’s really honest about how things go wrong for him too.
He said to me 'Would you mind if I used the recipe in the book?' and I was like 'Would I mind?!' I felt like the Pope has given me absolution for the rest of my life, I was so happy and proud.
I said to my husband, 'You know how when you go to a posh restaurant sometimes the chef’s book is on a stand by the doorway? Do you think it would be too much if I put it on the stand in our doorway with an arrow pointing to my recipe?' And he said 'Yeah, it would'.
But now those biscuits, they’ve slightly become a curse in that if people come here they become really disappointed if there are none. I’m so bored of making them, I could make them in my sleep.
How did your column in the Observer Food Monthly come about? Did you always want to write about food?
The previous editor just said she wanted me to write a column, and she’s not someone you can say no to. But I don’t pretend to be a food writer. I would no more say that I was a food writer than I was an opera writer. I’m just playing the role of the enthusiastic amateur, which is what readers are. My main thing is I love books, so I always try to make (the column) in some way about books.
I had already been writing for the magazine for about 10 years, and had done all these things like I’d gone deer stalking and written chef profiles, but it certainly wasn’t me putting myself forward for it. I mean I can’t even clarify my own stock.
You often interviews celebs. What is it like dining with them? How do they approach a menu?
If I can avoid it, I don’t eat with them. I find it very distracting if you are trying to grill someone, and they can use the restaurant to get out of difficult questions, like 'Oh waiter...' I really like to be able to enjoy my lunch and I don’t want to be thinking about how will I ask them this embarrassing question about their divorce or whatever.
So, I avoid it. But occasionally they insist, or their publicist insists. And in that case I really hate it. Because they don’t really eat. That’s the thing about most famous people — they just don’t really eat. Maybe they’re nervous, I don’t know. But you can’t have a nice convivial time.
I had lunch with Debbie Harry recently and it was so agonising. There’s this whole thing of 'would you like a drink?' 'No I don’t drink'. 'Would you like a drink?' Eh, no I don’t drink'. So we have something like green tea (groans) which I would just never drink.
Certain actors just aren’t interested in food. There are certain things they will always order like the chicken salad, but hold the dressing. You can see them looking for the thing that’s not going to make a mess because they don’t want to dribble, and that’s low in calories. Also, their eye is on the clock, so they only want one course.
You've interviewed some of the most acclaimed chefs in the world. What have you discovered?
The thing that has always amazed me — and I’ve written about it furiously and as a result have been banned from a couple of places — is there were occasions where they just didn’t feed me. And they are chefs! I went all the way to Padstow and back in a day to interview Rick Stein and we did the interview and no food was offered. The only food I had was a crab pasty that I bought myself in the pissing rain on the dock. I wrote about this and he was furious.
When I arranged to interview Michel Roux, I was invited to go to the Waterside Inn in Bray and I thought, brilliant. I had to sit in a tiny gazebo in the rain waiting for him. And then a waiter arrived with some sandwiches, and they were like Marks and Sparks prawn-mayo-type sandwiches. Then finally he arrived, he got inside the gazebo with me, we did the interview like two little gnomes, and I never tasted a single thing from the Waterside. And that to me is just bizarre.
I think that one of the problems with a lot of well-known chefs is they’re not really interested in hospitality. It’s not about being convivial, it’s not about being a host. And that to me was like a revelation. Because I thought well why would you be a chef if you didn’t want to make people happy and feed them? That was a big eye opener.
It was very funny because word got out that I got grumpy if I wasn’t fed so when I went to interview Antony Worrall Thompson he said, 'Don’t worry, the roast pork is in the oven!'
How often do you eat out?
When we were in our twenties and first came to London we were always going out to the hot new place. I do love going out to eat but it’s much less of a regular occurrence than it was and I go to the same old places that I really love. We go on holiday to the same place in Italy every year and eat at the same place every year. I love Italian food.
You write about your husband being an incredibly picky eater in your columns, how does this affect your home cooking?
I plan what meals I'm going to cook in advance. I’m married to a really fussy eater, so I have a rota of about eight or nine dishes and they are basically on a conveyor belt and they just go round. Very occasionally I put a new dish in to see how it goes down. And I know immediately because he’ll say 'Hmm interesting' and interesting means 'I don’t like this'. But occasionally he’ll say 'Ooh this is nice' and I’ll think great, I can add that into the rota.
He doesn’t really eat vegetables at all, they are always on the side. I eat them and he doesn’t. We're sort of mismatched in that sense. He loves risotto — we eat a lot of risotto. I'll eat just about anything, but I basically prefer peasant food.