This Friday, a new celebrity chef arrives on the nation's television screens, talking about anchovies and porcini, preparing vegetables, and steeling himself to look into the camera lens. Simon Hopkinson is not like other television chefs. Among a slew of egomaniacal attention-seekers, fuming tyrants, curvy seductresses and gurning charlatans, Hopkinson stands out for, well, not standing out. He is, fellow cooks will tell you, a good egg, a friendly chap who loves talking about food – but he's weirdly camera-shy.
He has described the camera lens as "that terrible black hole". In the photograph on the cover of the television show's tie-in book, The Good Cook, Hopkinson, caught shelling broad beans, won't look at the photographer. Previous attempts to turn him into Gary Rhodes or Raymond Blanc ended in disarray. "A camera crew took me," he says gloomily, "to do something 'in the footsteps of Elizabeth David', in an Englishwoman's house in France. But it wasn't well organised, and when they pointed that thing at me, I just couldn't do it."
The BBC's secret weapon was Ian Blandford, who trained Hopkinson to lose his lensophobia. "He came to my flat, brought a little camera and filmed me, and we both watched it. He said, 'Talk about anything, it doesn't have to be food.' Then I did some cooking, and he filmed that, and very gently he made it OK. It was like a psychotherapy session, with him saying, 'You can do this. It'll be all right. Tell me everything you want to tell me...'" And so Hopkinson learnt the art of glancing at the viewer while also talking and rolling out pastry (without the Nigella pout, the Valentine grin or the Sophie Dahl giggle), helped by the lighting cameraman Richard Hill, who, among other encouragements, stuck a large Post-it note above the lens reading "LOOK AT THE EFFING CAMERA".
Apart from telling people how to make restaurant-quality food at home, the show's main theme, Hopkinson says, is "my CLWs. My 'can't live without' ingredients. There are two per programme, and the production team went everywhere in search of them. Down to Collioure, near Perpignan, to film the preparing of anchovies, then to Parma for Parma ham and Parmesan, to Cornwall for salt and dried porcini..." How had he enjoyed Parma? "Oh, I didn't go," he says, shortly, "I had a book to write."
He's not terribly bothered, it seems, by how ingredients are made. "I loved watching the old ladies filleting anchovies and applying salt to them," he says, "but I'm only really interested in what I can do with them." His whole career has been about the alchemy of transformation. Born in Bury in 1954, he began cooking in the school holidays and snared his first job at 17, in a French restaurant called La Normandie. He opened his own eating house, The Shed, near Fishguard, just before his 21st birthday. Coming to London in 1983, he made a success of Hilaire in south Kensington, where he cooked for Francis Bacon, Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde. He was discovered by Terence Conran, who whisked him to glory at Bibendum in the old Michelin building. London gastronomes beat a path to his door. Young chefs queued to learn from him, among them Philip Howard (later of The Square) Bruce Poole (Chez Bruce) and Jeremy Lee (Blueprint Café). But a stress-induced moment of weepy despair ended his chef career in 1994 and he turned to writing books. Years later, in 2005, his first book, Roast Chicken and other Stories, was chosen by his cookery peers as the most useful cookbook in history.
There's a distinctly retrograde feel to Hopkinson's book, an old-fashioned obsession with recipes from his mum's day. There's nostalgia for pies, and tripe, and a time when every provincial restaurant served roast Aylesbury duckling, and when "the familiar, most savoury and deep scent emanating from the bottom oven of the Aga when walking into the kitchen after a cold walk home from the school was, for this little boy, just the best smell in the whole world". Was he trying to recover tastes and sensory experiences we've lost?
"One thing that's been lost is old-fashioned roasting skills in big kitchens," he says. "Remember the old saddle of lamb at the Savoy Grill? There used to be a huge joint of beef to go round a whole dining room. I don't think there are many people around who know how to cook an enormous joint any more. Except perhaps at the Goring Hotel. Now you have a little rack of lamb, a little tube of beef with no bones on it, you have breast of chicken or breast of duck – devoid of any oomph or crunch." He bewails the loss of the family tradition of cooking more than you needed for dinner, so that you dined on cold cuts on Monday.
"I mean, the most perfect food ever is..." he begins.
"...is cold roast lamb with mango chutney," I say.
"...is cold roast lamb with mint jelly," he corrects. "And Tuesday evening, it was rissoles from the same joint."
The formerly shy Hopkinson is an entertaining talker, constantly zooming away from the subject to pursue random facts and memories – such as the Duck Woman, a single-minded cook from the remote Forest of Bowland, Lancashire, whose peerless roast duck (the only main course on her menu) was cooked on a slanted oven tray. Or the nature of sweetbreads, which aren't thymus glands, as I'd thought, but lamb's pancreas, and are definitely not testicles ("We delicately call them Lamb's Fry, so we don't have to say testicles..."). With Hopkinson, you can find yourself discussing the gay subtext of The Go-Between one minute, and the derivation of the word "schmaltz" the next.
His period as an Egon Ronay inspector gave him a lifelong curiosity about food in every culture. He's infectiously enthusiastic about markets and food shops, especially Peck in Milan, which he thinks is the best in the world. (Don't, for heaven's sake, start comparing it to Fortnum's, or you'll get a 20-minute lecture on the superiority of the former.) "Fortnum's is a grocer's shop. It's been the Queen's grocer for years. Peck is about food, on a giant scale. There's wheels and wheels of Parmesan. You see the most wonderful display in the meat section – the veal, beautifully butchered, cotechino and zampone sausages, and something called cima, veal breast stuffed with peas, artichokes, hard-boiled eggs, brains, sweetbreads, the whole thing braised and sliced cold in the summertime..."
He's a demon for using cheap but vividly tasty cuts – such as braised neck of lamb with carrots and pearl barley – and for traditional gravy, rather than the pretentious, all-conquering jus that's been dribbled over every meat dish for 20 years ("I'm not into smears and dribbles."). He's hardline about its constituents. "I like the word 'gravy' because it's English, British, and it says to me, 'slices of beef and roast lamb with cooking juices'." With flour and red wine and the water that boiled the vegetables?
"No, no, no. I like gravy to taste of the meat, not with lots of vegetables added in the continental way..."
Such an admirably old-school purist must – surely – disparage the molecular experimenters who have ruled the restaurant world in the 21st century. Does he think the influence of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria had peaked? Are we over the "look at this tangerine, no actually it's foie gras" stuff? "I had lunch at El Bulli about 15 years ago," he says dreamily. "It took ages to find it and there were about five other people in the place. Ferran wasn't doing then what he does now – it was a proper menu – but I had the lobster gazpacho and it was one of the most astonishing dishes I've ever tasted. Heston is one of the nicest people I've ever met. But he and Ferran – they're magicians. I've never wanted to be a magician. I just wanted to cook nice food. I think it would be bonkers to try something like that at home. It's... theatrical. But it's like music." He sighs. "I hate opera. I love listening to concerts but, to me, watching opera is a nightmare. I can't stand the nonsense of it all... But everybody to their own."
No-nonsense, then, is the key to The Good Cook. It returns the pie, the tart, the cutlet, the leftover, the pot roast and the toasted snack to the centre of the British eating experience. I rudely ask if some of his recipes – his Lancashire cheese-and-onion pie, or his late-night boozer's fried ham and cheese sandwich – were perhaps too simple to be in a cookbook. He looks at me with incredulity. "Not at all. To make that little sandwich perfectly isn't an easy thing. You must make sure you don't put too much of the cheese mixture in, use the wrong ham, use the wrong bread." He sets his newly confident, television chef's jaw. "All I want to do is get things right, and make them as delicious as possible. That's always been my goal."
'The Good Cook' by Simon Hopkinson is published by BBC Books, £25. His programme, 'The Good Cook', begins tomorrow on BBC1 at 7.30pm
Making gravy the Hopkinson way
"Something I've been doing increasingly is this: if I buy a lump of pork, I'll buy a piece of pork belly as well; if buying a leg of lamb, I'll buy some cheap breast as well, if I'm buying beef, I'll buy a bit of shin or something, and if I buy chicken, I'll buy chicken wings as well.
And while the meat, whichever it is, is roasting, you chop up the extra bits of meat, season them and thrown them around the main joint. When the joint is done, you take it out, add water to the extra bits and let them stew for another 40 minutes before spooning it over the meat."Reuse content