Chef talk: Simon Hopkinson

The rain is sweeping in a horizontal, summer-cheating slant as I spot Simon Hopkinson standing outside Bibendum, smoking a cigarette. When head chef of this restaurant, he would have presumably had his tobacco fix round the back, but decades later he is front-of-house: a food writer, a television presenter and a part-owner at Bibendum, treated by waiters and maître d’ with unfussy courtesy. Hopkinson himself is watchfully polite, stubbing out his half-started Marlboro Light straight away so that we can begin lunch.

Barely have we sat down in the oyster bar than two paper-wrapped truffle rolls appear at the table. “Good, aren’t they?” Hopkinson says cheerfully, as he orders glasses of Chablis. “Chin chin.” The menu arrives and he considers it with care; it’s easy to imagine him dining studiously across Britain in one of his first food posts, that of Egon Ronay inspector in the late 1970s. “I’m good at eating on my own,” he says. “It never bothered me.”

Two years ago Hopkinson was the self-described “new boy” in the already large school of TV chefs, debuting with the BBC One series The Good Cook. Likeable but rigorous, the programme was confident enough to eschew fast edits, fast knives and, gravest sin of all, linguistic silliness. “I don’t say, for instance, ‘take your carrot, peel it and chop it, put it in your pan and your oven.’ I don’t like the your thing. It’s ‘take a carrot and put it in the oven …’ I’m ridiculously pedantic about getting it right.”

Hopkinson is also well-known for the exception he takes to the word “crispy”, a dislike that was shared by Bibendum regular Elizabeth David. “Years ago she used to come in here and she always used to say, ‘I do not understand this obsession with crispy; crisp is finite.’”

Pedantic, yes, but the desire to explain properly is an appealing feature of his new six-part series, More4’s Simon Hopkinson Cooks, which airs early next month. Each programme proposes (and cooks) a different menu, from Sunday roast to celebratory dinner, aided by tutorials from Hopkinson’s restaurant “chums” (including our own Rowley Leigh) on dishes they are known for. The series begins with a continental supper: negronis, anchovies on toast, green bean salad with shallots and cream, gnudi at the River Café, paella from Fino in Soho and – you know you want to – coffee caramel custard.

This is the kind of food Hopkinson likes. “The school of Heston – and I’m a great admirer of him – is not my favourite sort of food to eat. I like to chat and drink good wine. I don’t want the meal to be inspected and worked over in conversation or with the waiter.”

Though the dishes in Simon Hopkinson Cooks would look simple next to three-star edifices, various technical warnings intimate quietly terrifying consequences: “Don’t use grainy mustard,” he says fiercely of the sauce for his green beans. And: “I hate beans that squeak between your teeth – I like them well cooked.” It goes on.

Hopkinson doesn’t mind long relationships with dishes that refuse perfection. We discuss his recipe for sticky toffee pudding from The Good Cook, the best that I know, and he offers: “I’ve almost done a treatise on it … I’ve worked on it for so many years.” As for prawn cocktail, “I’ve been playing around with it for ages.” Then again, if something works, don’t touch it. Of Ruth Rogers’ gnudi at the River Café – a purist assembly of ricotta, Parmesan, nutmeg, semolina and olive oil – he says: “The ingredients are so few you’d be mad to play around with them.”

Rogers and the late Rose Gray modelled the dish on one they ate at a Florentine trattoria; Hopkinson, too, is this kind of food tourist. In 1996, revisiting the Costa Brava, where he and his family first holidayed, he consulted his Michelin guide for nearby restaurants and found one called El Bulli.

“I drove off thinking I’ll have a nice lunch somewhere. I got lost and when I turned up there were only four other people having lunch. I was so knocked out by it that I went back three days later.” He duly reconstructed the lobster gazpacho from the first lunch and included it in a recipe book.

This experience neatly sidestepped the epic waiting lists that later emerged for El Bulli – something Hopkinson in general avoids: “I don’t know what I’m doing in a year’s time for heaven’s sake … I prefer in Paris, for example, Brasserie Lipp or Chez Georges, very French, no surprises.”

We discuss new restaurants and Hopkinson mentions a recent London discovery that does what sounds like a must-have duck dish. When pressed for the name, he immediately retracts the mention, only revealing the identity after promises of discretion. And then he makes another good point: “Impatience and wanting the next new thing can be destructive. Having a good time in a restaurant for me is knowing the people who run it, who say, ‘Hello, how are you? Nice to see you again.’”

‘Simon Hopkinson Cooks’ airs on More4 on Monday June 3 at 9pm

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