Food & Drink: All things nice

MASTERS OF MODERN COOKERY 5: PETER GORDON Our monthly series featuring chefs and their inspiration continues with Peter Gordon on The Sugar Club and spice. By Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
Peter Gordon was born in Wanganui, New Zealand, in 1953. He started collecting recipes at the age of five, and even pulled a deep-frier on his head at the age of seven. At school he was one of only two boys to take cookery lessons. Started at Massey University, to read horticultural science, but dropped out, heading for Australia. A job as a waiter in a Melbourne restaurant prompted him to get into cooking; he worked in Sardi's, Kews and Rogalsky's before taking off to backpack round south- east Asia, the abiding inspiration of his cooking. Joined his present partners to open The Sugar Club in Wellington. He then moved to the UK in 1990, taking dozens of jobs before The Sugar Club eventually opened, in Notting Hill Gate, three years ago. Published his first book, 'The Sugar Club Cookbook' last year

AFTER CARNIVAL and Portobello Road, Notting Hill Gate's next biggest draw has to be The Sugar Club. The Sugar Club is not an interestingly decadent club relating to US Prohibition years, as its name might suggest, but a restaurant. And a restaurant born, of all places, in straight-laced Wellington, New Zealand.

Three years ago it was relocated by its owners, Ashley Sumner and Vivienne Hayman. They put it down in All Saints Road (famous for 24-hour-a-day police surveillance in its dodgier days), a stone's throw from the Portobello Road food market. And now it has become one of the most exciting restaurants in London. And the stage for one of the most original chefs cooking in Britain today, the charismatic Peter Gordon.

Peter Gordon made his name with an inven- tive style of cooking which has come to be known as Fusion. In his native New Zealand, and in Melbourne where he worked, Fusion is a term which has overtaken the generally geographic description, Pacific Rim, which embraces ingredients and techniques from China, Japan, Malaysia and Thailand. As interpreted by Peter Gordon, Fusion cooking represents a lusty kick up the backside for the dyed-in-the-wool Anglo-Saxon traditions which have ruled Australasia for 200 years.

For a start Peter Gordon employs Asian ingredients, shockingly-hot fresh chillies, savoury smoky Japanese seaweeds and zesty Thai lemongrass and lime leaves. But he also leaves the door open to feast on the flavours of the Mediterranean such as Parmesan, pesto, roast tomatoes and rocket.

Peter Gordon was soon feted by guide books and food critics. The London Evening Standard critic Fay Maschler proclaimed The Sugar Club to be Best Pacific Rim restaurant, and London magazine Time Out elected it Best Modern British Restaurant of the Year in 1996. And Peter Gordon still had the time and energy to write a stunning book, The Sugar Club Cookbook (Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 20).

You might think this was a time to settle down and consolidate, but no. The Sugar Club is on the move and is relocating again, it is to open on 7 July in premises twice the size, in Soho's Warwick Street. In mid-July the old Sugar Club will reopen under the great title, Bali Sugar, but Peter Gordon says he's not going to divide himself between the two.

Leaving the area will be a bit of wrench, he says. He loves the cosmopolitan atmosphere around Portobello Road, the mixture of Caribbean, Thai, Spanish and Portuguese food cultures. The foods in the market there include sweet potatoes and yellow squash, yams and cassava, and a wide range of chillies. Herbs such as coriander and lemon-grass and wild rocket appeal to his sense of the international which is the key to his outlook on food. The British see food in a European way, through the eyes of the French and Italians. For example, yams and cassava are under our noses in the market, but the British don't think of using them, he says. This is the food of immigrants. "I identify with immigrant foods. I'm an immigrant in this country."

This is hardly the way we look at citizens of this so-British, pro-British country, but latter-day New Zealanders such as Peter Gordon cut their teeth on Asian food. He worked as a chef for five years in Melbourne during the time that Australia's cooking was undergoing a remarkable transformation. And then he took himself off backpacking for a year in Thailand, learning about their food first hand.

So, where an English cook, faced with a piece of venison, say, might seek inspiration from France, or maybe Italy, Peter Gordon is more likely to ask himself; how would they prepare this in Thailand? (With chillies you can bet.)

Peter Gordon puts his passion for food down to the influence of his paternal grandmother Molly who died two years ago at the remarkable age of 97.

In the Twenties, when times were as hard there as they were in the Depression in Britain, grandmother Molly became renowned in the family for her Stone Soup. "When things got tough she'd boil up a river stone in water for dinner." That was his father's story, anyway. She was a resourceful and skilful cook who loved to bottle and preserve, using the less familiar herbs she grew in the garden: lemon verbena, many kinds of mint, variegated pineapple, thyme, comfrey.

She grew squashes and pumpkins, threading the stems through the greenery of the macracarpa trees, so that the fruits appeared like orange and yellow lanterns, a surreal sight. On trips to the seaside she'd collect seaweed, to be made into a mulch for the garden. But some would be dried and find its way into soups, in the fashion of the Japanese, a trick that Peter Gordon has not forgotten.

Today, Peter continues in this experimental tradition, unfettered by any feeling there's one specific way to cook. Currently he's making a coconut chutney which ought to carry a health warning. He loves coconut but finds desiccated or canned coconut so slimy or soapy he can't use them.

So he takes fresh coconuts, and roasts them for half an hour in a very hot oven until they crack and split. "Where it splits, the flesh caramelises and you get a fantastic flavour. But it's probably quite dangerous. The steam inside the coconut builds up and they can explode. And when you take one out which hasn't exploded, it's like having a live grenade in your hands." (Note to readers; if you don't want to live so dangerously, pierce the three "eyes" of the coconut first. You can use a skewer or screwdriver. Or crack the shell with a hammer.)

! The Sugar Club, 0171 221 3844 (from 7 July 0171 437 7776; Bali Sugar will be on 0171 221 4477 from mid-July)

TWENTY COMBINATIONS WHICH TYPIFY THE WAY PETER GORDON THINKS ABOUT FOOD

1 VEGETABLE SOUP Serve it with a blob of pesto made with feta cheese, smoked paprika and basil and parsley. "One day we had no Parmesan cheese and no pine nuts and so we invented this. It's lighter, it's different. We now also use it on grilled chicken."

2 LEEK AND POTATO SOUP Serve chilled, flavoured with coriander leaf and ground coriander seed ("to give a lemony taste").

3 PUMPKIN AND COCONUT SOUP (NEW ZEALAND KABOCHA) Bake it with red chillies, ginger and lemongrass, and then blend in a liquidiser with coconut milk, and heat through as a soup.

4 SWEET POTATO (NEW ZEALAND ORANGE-FLESHED KUMERA) Boil it and then mash with olive oil, chilli and garlic, then fry till crisp.

5 SALMON Marinate for two hours in soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil, then grill. "I serve it with pickled cucumbers and Japanese soba noodles (which are made from buckwheat)."

6 CHICKEN Marinate in yoghurt, tamarind and lemon zest, then roast quickly in a very hot oven. "I like to do it with a baby chicken cut into pieces."

7 DUCK Roast the duck breasts, serve with stir-fried Bok Choy (Chinese leaves) and deep-fried cassava chips with chilli. "Boil 5cm [2in] chunks of peeled cassava till soft, drain, and when cool split into segments and deep-fry. They come out like puff pastry."

8 LAMB Rub with toasted, ground fennel seeds, and grill with rosemary. Serve with a salad of sliced raw fennel, green tomatoes and mint with a cabernet sauvignon vinegar dressing.

9 BEEF Uses a pave (a cut close to the rump) and marinate in a mixture of garlic, chilli, ginger and soy (pureed in a liquidiser). First pan- fry to seal, then roast in a very hot oven for 15 minutes. Serve with sweet potato and a fresh bean and watercress salad.

10 VENISON Roast with star anise, seasoned with sesame and olive oil, lemongrass and lime leaves. Serve with roast tomatoes.

11 EGGS Poach and serve on Swiss chard which has been braised with lots of garlic. Sprinkle with deep-fried fine chilli rings. "They bring tears to your eyes as you cook them. Have the doors and windows open. Better still, do it outside."

12 FISH BROTH Make a clear soup with turbot bones. Add coconut milk, shredded leek, sharpen the seasoning. Serve with fish dumplings of pureed fish in nori flakes (crispy Japanese seaweed) and salmon roe. "I like to put in lots of floaties."

13 SQUID WITH CHORIZO See the recipe overleaf. Serve the dish with Jersey royals and roast tomatoes.

14 ASIAN VEGETABLE RISOTTO Make a risotto with arborio rice, using vegetable broth flavoured with coconut milk, with finely shredded lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal and ginger, onions and carrots. Leave to cool. Make into patties, roll in polenta, and pan-fry.

15 SALAD OF BABY GEM LETTUCE AND PUY LENTILS Toss lettuce and a tablespoonful of cooked lentils in a dress-ing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lots of herbs. To lift it, add oven roast tomatoes or red onions and plenty of croutons.

16 ASPARAGUS Grill with olive oil. Serve with wild mushrooms and Ragstone goats' cheese.

17 GLOBE ARTICHOKES Braise in olive oil with chopped lemons, garlic and olives.

18 RED ONIONS Slice and marinate in lemon juice with lemon zest for two hours. Then add either to salsas, or a dish of Spanish black beans.

19 CREAMY MUSTARD MASH Boil potatoes and mash with double cream, butter and English mustard.

20 ROAST PEACHES Halve, stuff with chopped lemongrass, unrefined sugar and pistachio nuts. Serve with mascarpone.

squid with chorizo, tomato & new potatoes I love the concept of squid. It's odd in that it's thought of as "fish" - yet it isn't a fish at all. I suppose on a classical restaurant menu it would have to share a space with cuttlefish, that other seafood oddity. This recipe has its roots in Spanish cooking. For 4 large starters 4 medium-sized squid, cleaned and separated into body and tentacles 150ml/5fl oz olive oil 200g/7oz cooking chorizo sliced at an angle into 8 pieces 2 ripe tomatoes, cut in half 8 new potatoes, scrubbed, boiled and then cut into halves 30g/1oz fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves 50ml/134fl oz lemon juice

Squid should be cooked either hot and fast or slow and long - anywhere between will make it chewy and tough. For this dish have your grill, griddle or frying pan very hot. Cut the squid in half lengthways from the pointed "tail" end to the body cavity. Toss in a few teaspoons of the oil, some salt and pepper and then put under the grill; turn after 45 seconds and grill the other side. The heat will make the body curl up, but don't worry. Remove to a large warm plate and do the tentacles, which need about 30 seconds longer. Next, grill the chorizo pieces for about 30 seconds on each side. Put on the plate too and grill the tomatoes for about one min ute on each side. Mix the potato with the parsley and divide between four plates. Assemble the grilled foods on top, drizzling with some of the lemon juice and the remaining olive oil. Sprinkle with seasoning and eat before it gets too cold.

Braised fennel with cumin & ginger Serve this as a salad on a hot day drizzled with olive and walnut oils, or hot in winter with roast cod or leg of pork. For the best flavour choose firm, pale green fennel bulbs. If you find bulbs with the fronds still attached, keep them on too. For 6 salad starters 6 heads of fennel (use only 4 if they're large) 50ml/134fl oz lemon juice 12 teaspoon salt 12 teaspoon cracked black pepper 100ml/312fl oz virgin olive oil 2 teaspoons ground cumin 1 medium leek, sliced finely and washed thoroughly to remove grit 2 fingers of fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced 500ml/18fl oz dry white wine

Set the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Trim the ends off the fennel and cut each bulb in half lengthways., then lengthways again, into quarters, and toss them with the lemon juice, salt and pepper and put in a ceramic roasting dish. Heat the oil in a 2 litre (312 pint) saucepan. When hot, add the cumin, fry for 10 seconds, then add leek and ginger and stir well. Saute, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the leek is beginning to colour, then add the wine. Bring to theboil , pour over the fennel and seal with foil. Place in the oven and bake for 40 minutes, then remove foil and cook for another 20 minutes to brown.

Molly's lemon chicken Gran made this with kumera, the "native" potato of New Zealand. Kumera are unavailable here, but it's becoming easier to get hold of sweet potatoes. The best ones are orange-fleshed and Gran's chicken goes well with a crunchy green salad. Serves 4 1 large free-range or corn-fed chicken 150ml/5fl oz best olive oil 1kg/2lb 4oz sweet potatoes 15g/12oz fresh oregano leaves and 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves 2 medium-sized juice lemons Preheat oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7. Remove the legs, cut them in two through the knee-joint. Remove the wings, then the breasts and cut these into two. Season the joints lightly and brown in a little oil in a frying pan. Peel the sweet potatoes and cutinto 2cm (34in) dice, mix with the herbs, a little salt and pepper and half the oil and put in a ceramic roasting dish. Wipe the lemons and cut them in half lengthways, then slice finely. Place the leg joints on top of the potatoes, sprinkle with the lemon pieces and roast for 30 minutes. Add the breasts, drizzle the remaining oil on them and cook for a further 30 minutes. The chicken is cooked if the juices run clear.

Thai-style salad of Lamb & Peanuts The first time I ate this salad (in Melbourne) it was made with beef and I was blown away. Two years later I was discovering different versions of it in Thailand itself - so different that the beef was often replaced by chicken, duck or even green papaya s! For 6 starters 6 limes 2 teaspoons coconut-palm sugar (demerara will do) 12 red chilli, seeds removed and finely chopped 12 teaspoon Asian fish sauce 12 teaspoon tamari 400g/14oz lamb fillet, trimmed and cut into 6 equal strips vegetable oil 2 teaspoons rice, dry-roasted in the oven until golden, then ground in a spice mill 4 shallots, peeled and finely sliced 60g/2oz fresh coriander leaves 30g/1oz fresh mint leaves picked from the tips of the plants 55g/2oz roasted peanuts, coarsely ground

Grate the zest from three of the limes and then juice all of them; mix with the sugar, chilli, fish sauce and tamari until the sugar has dissolved. Scar the lamb strips in a very hot pan with a little oil, being careful not to cook beyond rare, and rest for a couple of minutes in a warm place. Then slice the lamb thinly and place in a mixing bowl. Add the dressing, roasted rice, shallots, herbs and peanuts and mix well. Divide into six mounds and eat immediately.

Crispy DEEp-fried prawns & okra with manGo salsa The first time I saw okra growing was in a cousin's garden in Conway, Arkansas, when my partner Michael and I were visiting en route to England in 1989. That night - as we feasted on okra and chicken - we were set upon by an amazing tornado that wreaked havoc. This must be why I associate it with exciting things like chilli, spice - and storms! For 6 generous starters 18 raw prawns 12 finger-sized okra, unblemished vegetable oil for deep-frying For the beer batter: 170g/6oz plain flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes 1 teaspoon brown sugar 1 teaspoon baking powder 450ml/34 pint beer For the mango salsa: 1 large ripe mango 30g/1oz finely sliced spring onions 12 red chilli, seeds removed and finely diced 60ml/2fl oz fresh lime juice 1 tablespoon sesame oil 30g/1oz finely sliced fresh basil leaves Mix the dry ingredients for the batter together and then whisk in the beer, making sure there are no lumps. Let it rest for 20 minutes. To make the salsa, peel the mango and cut flesh from the stone in two halves. Dice the flesh and mix with remaining in gredients. Rest for at least 10 minutes before using. Take the shells off the prawns but leave the tail end with its little flipper intact. Remove the intestinal tract by running a small knife along the top of the prawns and pulling out anything that isn't white flesh. Cut the okra in half lengthways, put w ith the prawns into the batter and toss well. In a deep-fryer, or deep pot, heat up some vegetable oil until it is just smoking (350F/180C). Cook the okra by lowering them individually into the hot oil; once they've turned a golden brown remove fromthe oil and drain on absorbent paper. Keep in a warm place while you cook the prawns in the same way. Serve with the salsa.

POACHED TAMARILLO with vanilla-yoghurt bavarois Tamarillos are very sharp-tasting, so they usually need a bit of sugar to make them edible. Serves 6 6 tamarillos 750ml/24fl oz red wine 200g/7oz demerara sugar 2 star anise and 1 cinnamon stick For the bavarois 150ml/5fl oz double cream 1 vanilla pad - use the seeds, which you scrape off 12 teaspoon finely grated orange zest 150g/5oz caster sugar 4 leaves gelatine, soaked in cold water for 4 minutes 600ml/1 pint sheep's yoghurt (cow's milk yoghurt is fine) 350ml/12fl oz double cream, lightly whipped

Bring the wine, sugar, star anise and cinnamon to the boil in a pan. Lightly cut the pointed end of the tamarillos with a sharp knife to make an "X", place them in the boiling liquid and return to the boil, then turn the heat down. Simmer for 15 minutes until the fruit is cooked. Leave to cool in the liquid. Now for the bavarois. Have ready one large mould or six small ones. Bring the double cream, vanilla seeds, orange zest and caster sugar to the boil. Remove from heat and add gelatine, stirring until dissolved, then leave to go cold. (If the mixture sets before the next step, warm carefully over a pot of hot water, mixing well until it softens). Whisk in the yoghurt, then gently whisk in the whipped cream. Pour into the mould or moulds and leave to set in the fridge for at least four hours.

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