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When people find out I’ve just written a cookbook on London, they immediately ask two questions. The first all but bursts out in disbelief: “London?!?.” And the second follows almost as an attempt to politely redirect the conversation: “Do you live in London?”
The book is really my answer to the first question, but let me start with the second question.
I don’t live in London. If I did, I might never have written the book. When I taught screenwriting in the graduate film program at NYU, I always told my students to “write what you don’t know.” And they’d inevitably look at me as if I’d gotten the sentence backwards. When I was studying for my own masters in film directing, I was repeatedly told to write what I know, shoot what I know, set movies in my own neighborhood and stick to autobiographical coming-of-age themes. This was terrible advice. If writing is a process of discovery, then I must be allowed new territory to discover.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with writing a cookbook? For me, quite a lot. I did live in London as a young girl. When I was ten, we moved to Paris. My mother’s best friend was a Londoner, and we often crossed the Channel to visit her. In those days—this was the 80’s—if you had to travel from Paris to London, you would bring an entire suitcase of Parisian edibles to tide you over. Cheeses, paté, cornichons, charcuterie, perhaps a pissaladiere, definitely chocolates and a tart aux pommes from Poilâne. In other words, the culinary equivalent of a survival rucksack.
When I returned to London in my twenties, eating was simply not an option. The British Pound, always strong, put the city on a par with Geneva and Hong Kong—in other words, not remotely affordable. Those were the years when finding a stale granola bar at the bottom of my duffle bag constituted a good meal in London.
And so it came as a very delicious turn of events when I started traveling to London as a screenwriter. The film industry in London is called “a cottage industry” for good reason. It’s a small world, largely sequestered in Soho and couldn’t be more different than the sprawling world of studios that make up Hollywood. I loved it. I loved the people. The movies. The conversations. And the food. Yes, the food.
Everyone in London was suddenly talking about food. Little eateries were popping up in every neighborhood with extraordinary selections. Restaurants were packed with people ready to try Moroccan spices, Indonesian ingredients, Spanish tapas, and Peruvian seafood. Had I been a London native or even a London dweller, I might not have noticed this seismic shift in the culinary landscape. I might not have seen through what Virginia Woolf once called the obscuring “cotton wool of everyday life.”
Knowing the city as a frequent visitor, with dear friends and colleagues in every neighborhood from Notting Hill to Shoreditch, I was able to chart the city’s culinary rise with the perspective of one who is neither a stranger nor a local, but rather an insider who dips in and out and notices change.
And dip in, I did! I made countless trips to London while researching The London Cookbook. I scoured the city, leaving no stone unturned, no clue left unchecked. I spent hours with each and every chef. If ever a book were over-researched, it is this one. It could easily have run 600 pages with accompanying audio interviews and another 200 recipes, not to mention, a companion history of British cuisine and another devoted to correspondence.
Through the research, patterns became quite clear. There is most often someone at the heart of every dramatic shift in culinary history. In London, these last twenty years, there have been a handful—Terrance Conran (Bibendum), Fergus Henderson (St. John), Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray (The River Cafe) and, most recently, Yotam Ottolenghi (Ottolenghi), who not only raised the bar to radical new heights, but who also trained and mentored an entire generation of cooks: Jamie Oliver (Fifteen), Sam Clark (Moro), Anna Hansen (Modern Pantry) among them. And they too are mentoring a new generation; Jacob Kenedy (Bocca di Lupo) and Tim Siadatan (Trullo) spring to mind. I found this incredibly moving. These are chefs who believe wholeheartedly in teaching, in nurturing talent, and, in so doing, have quite literally shifted the city’s culinary landscape.
I noticed something else too, a trait of human nature that made me smile whenever I tried a new spot, however, humble or brash. Once people have tasted good food, their palates become ever after hungry for good food. Expectations rise, and the demand to fill them again and again moves the bar higher and higher. This is progress in a nutshell, and it is incredibly exciting to witness and document—and, in this case, eat! So happy cooking, happy eating and perhaps, even, happy traveling.
Check back next week for recipes from some of Aleksandra's research!