Boxer uprising: How three generations of one family have changed the way we think about food
The pioneering writer Arabella Boxer is a great British food legend whose books influenced a generation. Now her deli-owning son Charlie is the toast of london while her grandchildren Jackson and Frank carry the ame for the class of 2011. Together they explain how one family came to change the way we eat and drink today
Sunday 19 June 2011
Perhaps it was when Jackson Boxer wrote his first cookbook that the family realised just how much food had influenced their lives. He was, after all, just six. A little later, his younger brother Frank surprised his grandma, on an outing to the Criterion restaurant, by requesting a lamb shank. He was eight.
"Jackson's book was all recipes he'd made up," laughs his father Charlie. "I can only remember one: it was called 'Half a Strawberry', but it involved a leaf and there was a lot about the presentation."
Perhaps all this is less surprising when one reconsiders the surname. Arabella Boxer, Jackson and Frank's grandmother, is a legendary figure in the British food world, her 12 books well-thumbed and joyously splattered fixtures on all the best kitchen shelves. Now in her seventies, she is most famous for her innovative and handsome work First Slice Your Cookbook, a collector's item these days.
Arabella's son, Charlie Boxer, has, after careers in publishing and theatre, discovered his inner shopkeeper. His bustling deli, Italo, is at the heart of south London's bohemian Bonnington Square. And his sons, those scamps with big ideas and big appetites, have grown to become a restaurateur with plaudits and a chock-a-block reservations book, and the head of an edgy bar and restaurant whose fleeting summer appearances in London causes merry mayhem.
Theirs is a foodie dynasty – a cluster of creativity that, in a quiet way, influences the way we shop, eat and drink. What connects their enterprises is not only the name, but how they have become noteworthy despite being hidden away – Charlie's Italo is buried in a tangle of residential streets; Jackson's Brunswick House Café is perched on a traffic island; and Frank's bar, when it exists, is high within a concrete car park. So how much is nature, and how much nurture?
When the four most foodie Boxers gather at Jackson's place (Charlie's wife Kate is, by all accounts, a brilliantly accomplished cook but directs her talent towards art, while his sister Henrietta, who helps at Italo, devotes the lion's share of her time to theatre) , the talk is of Charlie's recent 50th birthday in the Hebrides. "There were 20 to 25 of us at times," recalls Jackson, the nominated chef for the five-day celebration. "It was a breeze to cook, though, because unlike at the restaurant, everyone sat down at the same time and they all ate the same thing!" It's enough to make most of us reach for the take-out menu, but entertaining is in the heart and soul of this third-generation gastronomist.
Arabella Boxer, married to the journalistic genius Mark Boxer in the 1960s, was brought up in the north of Scotland. "The food was very dull," she recalls now. "But when I was a little older my mother took me to Maine – she was American – and it was just divine. Strawberry ice-cream, corn chowder, chicken pie. I found out what fun food could be."
After suffering a stiff-sounding cooking class in Paris as a young woman, Arabella found herself cooking for Mark's coterie of creative friends (he was the editor of The Sunday Times Magazine and creator of wickedly brilliant political cartoons). "I was never social, but I did like seeing people in my own house," she says. One can imagine that an invitation to the Boxers was a social high point: Arabella is now, and no doubt was then, effortlessly elegant and fiercely intelligent.
In 1964 she created First Slice... Designed by Mark, each page is split into three – starters, main courses and desserts – which are themselves colour-coded by richness. Each section of each page can then be flipped over independently to allow the cook to choose a starter, main and pudding that complement each other perfectly. It was what eager young hostesses were crying out for. Further cookbooks – often celebrating British produce long before it was modish – followed, and a recipe column in Vogue which ran from the 1970s until 1991.
Meanwhile, Charlie was growing up, absorbing his mother's love for food (while rustling up the occasional omelette for his father's bridge partners). "Mum used to take me to the greengrocer in Holland Park and explain to me how they'd go to the market and choose the best fruit and vegetables," he chuckles. "I thought it sounded like a job I'd like to do, but" – he turns to Arabella – "you explained they used to get up very early, and I wasn't good at that..."
The memory has come back to Charlie now since, with his two-and-a-half-year-old deli Italo to stock, he regularly takes a dawn visit to the market and prides himself on having "probably the best vegetables in London at the moment. And they're cheap!"
To walk into Italo is to see all of the reverence and care of his mother's approach to food married with a relaxed aesthetic that is Charlie's trademark. With an emphasis on Italian produce, home-made fresh ravioli and great bunches of herbs sit next to plump tomatoes and crusty fresh bread, while staff bustle behind the counters, making coffee and generously stuffed panini for customers to linger over at an outside table. It's the very picture of bonhomie.
Three years ago, a boarded-up shop occupied this now-thronging corner of the square. Its owner, who had stoically seen the area was fought over by squatters and developers, had retired; the squatters won and created a peaceful network of streets abundant with greenery and a mildly eccentric personality. Into this scene stepped Charlie, with no retail experience but an abiding passion for Italian produce and a fan of the square, after soaking up the atmosphere from the Bonnington Café opposite. He, with his friend Luigi – whose own family had closed their deli not far away – decided to create their own shop. "I have a very strong dislike of expensive food shops and that whole Borough Market thing – the effect where quality translates into high prices and exclusivity," says Charlie now. "People can feel excluded from the food revolution going on."
They don't at Italo. The shop stocks essentials and store-cupboard basics (unusual and good-quality brands, often Italian), along with wine, Rococo chocolates (owner Chantal Coady was once a Bonnington activist) and treats including Gelato Delight ice-creams – worth a detour alone.
Sadly, one item no longer in stock is Arabella's home-made terrine. "I was making two a week, which was fun, and they were very popular," she recalls. "But it was quite tedious after the hundredth." Lucky visitors, however, may spot her on one of her occasional visits to her son's shop.
Also a semi-regular fixture at Charlie's shop is his son Frank, 24. Frank is the wild-haired, youngest of the clan, and his zest for life and what his brother Jackson calls "enormous charm, enthusiasm and grit" make him an asset to the family's operations, which he helps in the long gap between his bar's opening months of July to September.
Less than two years separate the brothers, who "live, work and party together". Their shared love of food and entertaining, plus divergent characters, mean they're a formidable force in the current London scene. They were raised between the loving chaos of their parents' home life – just 24 when they became parents, Kate and Charlie lived with university friends in an expansive south London house – and the measured indulgence of their grandmother. Jackson explains: "My grandmother would pick us up from school and, if the weather was fine, would have prepared an exquisite picnic of delicious little things and it would be laid out just so – the complete antithesis of our parents, whose idea of a picnic was to grab whatever was in the fridge, sweaty cheese and skewers of meat, and cram it in a basket, with knives jabbing you in the leg as you walked..."
From Kate and Charlie, both boys – independently – feel they learnt the definitive importance of hospitality and generosity, and that nothing should get in the way of having a good time. From Arabella they learnt that, in Jackson's words, "food could be elevated with a lot of love and thought".
Jackson studied English at Cambridge, but his already-entrenched love of food led him to work in kitchens including that of Margot Henderson (both at her chic-simple restaurant and for private events) during school and university, and at Great Queen Street, the buzzy London spot, after graduation. At 26, he already has a decade of experience – evidenced in the accomplished cooking and confident operation at his Brunswick House Café in Vauxhall. Such wonderful dishes as Berkswell cheese with fennel and bloodcrumbs, or an English take on risotto with pearl barley and young garlic, have already drawn a loyal crowd.
"I'm prone to procrastination and introspection," is the startling confession of a young man who seems to know everyone in foodie London, "but working in menial jobs in kitchens never allowed me the chance to mope or dwell... Now, a year on from launching Brunswick, I can build an establishment, and that takes concentration – we're in the throes of building a big new kitchen. But if you're not worried the whole time, you're probably not doing it right!"
Frank also found his form in the frenzied atmosphere of a restaurant, but for him it was behind the bar. After a short experiment studying engineering, he "came running home as soon as winter came. It was one of the few unhappy periods of my life." Luckily, Jackson was on hand: Great Queen Street's sister establishment is the fêted gastropub Anchor & Hope and Jackson got his brother an interview; before long, Frank was doing eight shifts a week as a barman, learning (speedily) on the job. "I just love the job," he beams. "It's an enormous blessing that I've found what I want to do for ever."
Two years on from the launch of Frank's Café and Campari Bar on the top floor of a Peckham multistorey car park – a collaboration with the gallerist Hannah Barry and architects Lettice Drake and Paloma Gormley – anticipation is building for July's reopening. Frank's cocktails are already legendary, and the deft, brief menu sounds delicious.
Without doubt, the Boxer clan will be there to back Frank – they're big on moral support. Jackson is proud of his father's food emporium, Frank loves nothing better than to wash dishes at Brunswick, while Charlie – and Kate – nourish them with good food at the family's Sussex home.
And at the heart of it all, still, is Arabella. "I am so proud of the boys," says their grandmother. "They are so young to do so well, so quickly, and to sustain it." One can only imagine what the next generation of Boxers will achieve.
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