James Pembroke: The man who's eaten everywhere

Few people know more about restaurants than James Pembroke, who only spent five mealtimes at home during his entire childhood. John Walsh finds out what he learnt.

Who do you think has spent more of their lives in restaurants?  A professional chef? A 60-year-old waiter who started his ­career at 17? Fay Maschler? Egon Ronay? If you consider the proportion of days-in-a-life spent in the realms of the menu and the wine list, a strong contender is James Pembroke.

Mr Pembroke is the genial publisher of The OIdie, Richard Ingrams’s monthly magazine for the over-50s. At 47, he isn’t sufficiently venerable to qualify as a reader. But he’s already put in a lifetime of hours in eating houses. His kitchen table, as a child, was the local restaurant. His mother worked in the British Embassy and for his ­father’s ­accountancy-recruitment practice in London’s Cheapside; she was not a Fanny Cradock in the kitchen.

Pembroke remembers her cooking only five dinners throughout his childhood: they were always “lamb chops scorched into unchewable sticks, ­accompanied by baby-mushed vegetables­ which had seen out their last hour in a neglected saucepan on max revs.”

The family grew up in west London, where he sampled all the restaurants of Kensington, Queensway and Bayswater and reports: “Those restaurants were my hearth, and the French, Italian, Greek, Indian and Chinese waiters were the only adults who smiled, rather than frowned at me.” At their second home near Wareham, in Dorset, they ate in family harmony in the local Red Lion Hotel. 

How they could be so extravagant as to eat out all the time? It was a business perk: in Pembroke’s father’s line of work restaurant bills were tax ­deductible. But his parents favoured a glamorous lifestyle. His father drove a navy-blue Rolls – and once insisted his quaking son drive him to the Isle of Purbeck when he was 16 and had no driver’s licence. They spent every evening in restaurants, he says, both from necessity and to be “accepted” as posh-London rather than petit bourgeois. He himself didn’t care. He ­became obsessed with the places, not for the food but for the ritual – the menu, the wine list, the waiters, the women, the esprit de corps.

His book, Growing up in Restaurants, is a remarkable hybrid of autobiography and history. It’s a chronicle of the English dining-out experience, from the Roman occupation (“before 55BC it was all blue paint and nobody cared”) to 21st-century gastro-pub ­culture, interlarded with personal ­vignettes of the Pembroke family history and personal lifestyle: how he ­ realised, at 15, that he could translate a whole French menu for his startled chums; how he fared at Harrow and the dining clubs of Cambridge; how he took a gastronomic journey across Europe, then India, eating everything and living on next to nothing.

“The book started life one day when I realised that all the men I know had a hobby,” he said. “They all sailed or killed things, while I did nothing but go out for lunch. So I thought I’d write a book about restaurants. After lunching­ at Dabbous and finding a table of advertising people talking about food for an hour, I decided to write about how British eating habits have been taken over by foodies.”

He read every available history book “and I was pleased to find that over the years we’ve had really good food. We just haven’t banged on about it. We’ve been able to marry good food with good fun”.

The book is an entertaining, breezily written tour d’horizon of the English at table, whizzing through the Dark Ages (when the Church introduced the sin of gluttony to make the peasantry feel better about having nothing to eat) to the introduction of sugar and spices under the Plantagenets, the invention of table manners, the sighting of the first cookbook The Forme of Cury in 1390, to the introduction of taverns and inns and their explosion, in the 18th century, into businesses, art movements and political parties.  

It becomes clear that Pembroke’s sympathies are firmly with the bumper­-quaffing trencherman rather than the quail’s egg connoisseur. “Prior to the arrival of the navel-gazing foodie in the 1980s the measure of an Englishman’s gourmandise was not his effete deconstruction of nouvelle cuisine but his ability to consume vast quantities,” he writes. He maintains that the English monarchy managed to avoid revolution in the 18th century because of their eating habits.

“The English royals ate in public,” he said. “They had to come to London for Parliament, and dining rooms didn’t exist until late in the century. So they ate in rooms at people’s houses, and everyone knew they did. Whereas the French court always ate inside the golden square mile of Versailles, the Tom Jones types were with the masses, belching and farting and chatting – they were familiar ­figures, not distant tyrants as the French aristocracy seemed to be.” His favourite period for English gourmandising was the 1690s when, post-Cromwell, an anti-Puritan backlash was in full swing. “After the Bill of Rights was passed, there was a boom in the City, just like in the 1980s, and all these wide boys went in for ­ostentatious dining.”

Pembroke dreamily itemises the menu at the Pontack’s Head in London, whose owner was president of Bordeaux and owned Chateau ­Haut-Brion. For the Royal Society’s ­anniversary dinner in 1694, Pontack’s served: “Bird’s nest soup from China; a ragout of fatted snails; bantam pig but one-day-old stuffed with hard row and ambergris; French peas stewed in gravy with cheese and garlic; an ­incomparable tart of frogs and forced meat; cod with shrimp sauce; chickens en surprise, not two hours from the shell.”

It doesn’t sound a million miles from the cheffy experimentation in modern British kitchens. Which did he admire? Would he jump at the chance to eat Heston Blumenthal’s food? “No I wouldn’t. I’ve never been to the Fat Duck but nothing about it makes me want to go. It’s like your chemistry teacher having a go at cooking, isn’t it? Molecular gastronomy appeals to people who just want to get their Sophistication badge,” he says.

Would he cross the road to go to Russell Norman’s restaurants? “That’s different. The Polpo restaurants aren’t foodie places. The food’s fine, but it’s the atmosphere you go for. You’re served in seconds. You ask for wine, it’s there. They really think about the customer.” Pembroke craves pampering, fuss and white linen. “I want to be suffocated, to feel I’m in a womb,” he says. His favourite memory is of a ­family dinner at Le Gavroche, where “you were being made to feel really special, without being intimidated or patronised”. He dislikes places where “the waiters are like professors, and scoff at you because you don’t know what ‘finocchino’ is”.

Does he think there’ll be an anti-foodie backlash? “I think it’s started, partly because people can’t afford inflated prices any more. Some places now have a bar counter at the back instead of a table, for a chat rather than ­dinner. And bistros are obviously coming back. Russell Norman and Richard Caring have got their ­pricing just right.” And he goes off into raptures about his local Thai restaurant, Esarn Kheaw in the Uxbridge Road, which features a waiter called Thames, “the best waiter in London”.

Pembroke is a rare sighting of a gourmand who loves the ambience and service at a restaurant much more than the food and whose magisterial history of English eating is more about the convivium than the cuisine. He and his wife, Josephine (who used to sing in the Pussies Galore in the 1980s), cook at home but firmly believe in the “no more than five ingredients in a dish” rule. And their children, Leo and Honor, have they been brought up in restaurants? “Not the way I was,” Pembroke says. “But they used to play restaurants. Instead of being, say a knight and lady, they used to play at being diner and waiter. Of course now they’re teenagers they don’t any more, but…”

Mr Pembroke sounds triste. Eating out, real or imagined – it was all so much better in the past.

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