FT Foodies: Simon Hopkinson

The chef and author talks to Natalie Whittle about the suet puddings that take him back to childhood and who would work in his dream kitchen

Simon Hopkinson was born in Lancashire. He rose to prominence as chef at Hilaire, London, in the early 1980s and went on to open Terence Conran’s Bibendum in 1987. He left the restaurant in 1995 to write about cooking, publishing the popular Roast Chicken and Other Stories and, more recently, The Good Cook, a collection of recipes from his BBC television series.

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Do you have a Proust’s Madeleine, a food that takes you back to your childhood?

It has to be my mum’s cheese and onion pie; that or rice pudding. I never made the recipe with mum curiously enough, but I remember the smell as it came from the Aga. It was very comforting.

What were your school dinners like?

Fantastic. Really good suet puddings like Dead Man’s Leg, with suet and jam. I ate anything at that age.

Do you remember cooking as a boy?

I remember making my first mayonnaise with olive oil from Boots the Chemist. My dad was quite a flamboyant cook and liked giving dinner parties; my mum made the everyday things.

Do you believe the saying “never trust a thin chef”?

I think that quote is from Fernand Point, in his book Ma Gastronomie. It refers to a different time, it doesn’t really apply any more.

Does your mind empty when cooking?

No – I am always honing things and making notes.

Do you ever get recipe writer’s block?

It takes time and trouble to get recipes right. I’m very particular – I want them to work. But the most important thing is the joy of eating the dish.

Do you still buy cookbooks?

Not very often. There are certain recipes I go back to the cookbook for – rice pudding, for example.

Who would work in your dream kitchen?

Richard Olney. I stayed with him in France for a couple of nights years ago. We had a beautiful fish soup, a perfect reblochon cheese and salad decorated with just-cooked egg, blue hyssop flowers, and home-made vinegar made from wine dregs. We drank a Bandol red.

What do you consider bad manners at a table?

I’m not very good with lateness, but I don’t mind how people eat. An old friend of mine, Bill Baker [the late wine merchant], one of his favourite phrases when the wine wasn’t flowing was, “Bit of a dry old do here”. I suppose keeping an eye on the wine is a good idea.

What will you cook for supper this evening?

Imam bayildi [the Turkish aubergine dish]. I bought the aubergines in Chinatown and I’m going to play around with the recipe.

What is irreplaceable in your kitchen?

My dad’s potato peeler. I take it with me if I am cooking at a friend’s house.

Simon Hopkinson is consultant to the Montpellier Chapter Hotel in Cheltenham, www.themontpellierchapterhotel.com.

His latest book is ‘The Good Cook’ (BBC Books, £25)

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