Henry Dimbleby: 'I try to make sure Leon doesn't become a sterile chain. Imperfections give something life'
Sunday 03 April 2011
My earliest food memory... It goes back to Devon, where we used to go during the holidays, and mum making plum ice-cream and brown-bread ice-cream. We also used to scramble around the rocks and pick mussels and boil them up in the evening. As a child, my mum [the cookery writer Josceline Dimbleby] didn't teach me how to cook – she would always shoo us out of the kitchen because she was trying to write detailed notes – but she really taught me how to eat, which is much more important.
My store-cupboard essentials... Good vinegar, good olive oil, good salt and good pepper, because with those four things you can take something pretty bland and make it incredible. Also, capers, anchovies, tins of beans and pomegranate molasses: sharp, sweet and great for dressings and marinades. I lived in Japan for a year, so I've got a little Asian section in the cupboard, too, with soba noodles, dried miso flakes, seaweed and a big tub of MSG. MSG isn't as bad for you as they say: we don't use it in Leon, but at home I like it to put it in broths: it gives you that umami flavour.
My favourite cookbook... My mum's first cookbook, A Taste of Dreams, because that's where it all started for me. I still cook from it and it feels at once really modern and really dated: she was cooking with ingredients such as rabbit and lots of spices, which were unusual in 1976, but at the same time there's a cheap recipe for ice-cream which uses Bird's Dream Topping! I'm also very fond of Jacques Pepin's La Technique – it's a classic French book, and Pepin has these amazing hairy arms which appear in all the pictures – and Simon Hopkinson's Week In Week Out, which is a collection of his columns for The Independent.
The kitchen appliance I can't live without... My steel for sharpening knives. Having been a chef, I'd go mad if I had blunt knives, and rather than smoking, I'll happily sit there sharpening them as a displacement activity.
My favourite food shop... The Costcutter on Greenwood Road, near my house in east London: it has really nice big bunches of parsley and coriander, not like the little plastic packets in supermarkets, and they're really friendly. Broadway Market is also great, and there are two stalls I really love there: a Persian stall which sells really good spicy curries and beautiful stuffed dates with pistachios and rose petals, and the Violet Cakes stall, run by Claire Ptak, who is my next-door neighbour. She's a baking genius.
My top table... Bistro Bruno Loubet in Clerkenwell, London. Bruno was my first boss at the Four Seasons. He's always had the balance between pride and arrogance exactly right, and he has the grace of a ballet dancer in the kitchen. I'm also very fond of Mangal Ocakbasi, which is a Turkish grill off Kingsland Road in east London.
My desert-island dish... We've got this tiny garden in which we've planted lots of salad leaves and herbs, and in the summer my wife makes these amazing salads from them with a lovely dressing which is really pungent and evocative. I'd have one of those with a bit of sashimi.
My dream dining companion... Elvis, because if I'd been good-looking, able to sing and had snake hips, I'd have wanted to be a pop star. Also Harold McGee, the food scientist, and Leonard Cohen: he has this one line, "There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in", which I think about a lot in regard to Leon's design and trying to make sure we don't become a sterile chain. Imperfections give something life.
The strangest thing I've eaten... In Laos, I ate barbecued honeycomb with bee larvae inside, then cold duck's blood with crispy shallots on top. They're two of the only foods I've ever really disliked.
Henry Dimbleby is co-founder of the healthy fast-food chain Leon, which has just opened a branch on Old Compton Street, London W1. Leon's cookbook, 'Naturally Fast Food' (Conran Octopus, £20), is out now
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