Simon Hopkinson is weary of being called names. "This man is the best cook in Britain," was the uncompromising verdict of The Daily Telegraph four years ago. Rowley Leigh, one of London's most influential chefs in the Nineties (along with Hopkinson and Alastair Little) and currently the brains behind the Café Anglais in Bayswater, calls him "the leading British cookery writer". When the magazine Waitrose Food Illustrated asked 40 leading chefs, restaurateurs and food writers to nominate their favourite food writing in 2006, Hopkinson's small, illustration-free volume, Roast Chicken and Other Stories, first published in 1994, beat the higher-profile works of Delia, Nigella, Jamie, Hugh, Marco and a dozen other first-name-only supercooks, and was dubbed The Most Useful Cookery Book of All Time.
Hopkinson bats away the plaudits with an embarrassed smile: "It's flattering to have such things said, but completely over the top." He has a nose for the untrue, the fake and the plain wrong, that extends to menus. "I don't see why restaurants have to say 'hand-cut' chips on their menu," he fumes. "And 'pan-fried' and 'line-caught'. I do get cross about these things. If your beef is great, you don't need to say it's been 'matured for 28 days'. If your diners can trust the restaurant, they don't need all this information. If the menu has to say anything about lamb, it should just say, 'Dewhurst the Butchers' Roast Lamb'."
This doesn't mean he's an irascible chap. In the flesh, at 55, he's a charming fellow, chatty and gossipy and nervous about how he comes across to the outside world. He loves talking about food and – something that all good cooks have in common – loves reciting the ingredients of a dish in a sort of dazed mantra, like Homer Simpson rhapsodising about beer.
This is him on Piedmontese peppers. "It's one of the great, sunny, southern dishes. You halve a pepper, put in slivers of garlic and a plum tomato, which usually fits snugly inside, bake it in the oven until it's all glazed and golden, take it out, criss-cross it with anchovy when it's warm. Then you" – emotional pause – "eat it." Mmm-hmm.
He tried to explain to me that the dish is "made by the anchovy" but is still delicious without the anchovy. It sounds like a theological crux, like the Holy Trinity. Hopkinson is preoccupied with leaving things out, right now, because his new book is about vegetarian cooking. But he's no convert to the world of tofu and Quorn. The Vegetarian Option, published this week, is the work of a chronic carnivore, who wants to show that meals with no trace of meat or fish can still be tasty and fulfilling.
We met at Hix in Soho, the third new restaurant opened in the last two years by Mark Hix, the award-winning super-chef, who oversaw the kitchens at Le Caprice, the Ivy and J Sheekey along with six other establishments, before he left to go solo in 2007. Hix is also The Independent Magazine's food writer – he took over from Hopkinson – and the two men are well acquainted. Their conversation is full of allusions to pals in the chef world and exchanges of foodie wisdom: an hour of "Have-you-tried-this?" and "I-remember-the-time-when-I ... " moments. They are sweetly competitive. Even the design of the Edwardian water jug between us (a charming sculpted fish) is the signal for heated debate about whether it's called "a glugger" or something else.
So why, Hix asked, bother your head with a vegetarian cookbook? Hopkinson recalls the Eureka moment that started it off: "I was standing in my kitchen one Sunday evening. All there was to eat was a forlorn-looking courgette, some pre-sliced runner beans and left-over parsley. I sliced the courgettes into strips, cooked them and the beans, fried them briefly with garlic and oil, added pepper, sprinkled some chopped parsley on top, and ate it all with chopsticks. And it was delicious because it was just of itself. It occurred to me that some dishes can be lovely just because they're lovely, rather than as accompaniments to meat or poultry."
"There are some perfect marriages of ingredients," Hix nodded, "things that obviously go together, that you shouldn't mess with. Parsnips and apples for instance ... "
"Or parsley and garlic," said Hopkinson, "One brings out the flavour of the other. Or beetroot and horseradish. Put them together and you get this powerful, pungent mix. And I always think the perfect first course for anybody in May or June is asparagus with melted butter or hollandaise. It's not just wonderful, it's suitable for carnivores."
His book divides into 20 chapters on vegetables, each one a marriage of two legumes that traditionally go together: garlic and shallots, ginger and spring onions, fennel and celery. Supplementary chapters on herbs, pasta, pulses, rice, eggs and fruit make you feel ashamed that you haven't concentrated properly on these areas of cookbooks in the past, instead of heading straight for the confit of duck.
How do restaurant chefs feel about cooking for vegetarians? "I don't know why chefs don't like doing vegetarian food," considered Hix. "If you look at their menus, most starters are vegetarian anyway."
"The title of my book is ironic," said Hopkinson. "It's what they say in the kitchen at 11.45am: 'What's the veggie option?' It sometimes brings out the worst in people, as they rush around looking for goat's cheese. The chef de partie who's lumbered with it will sigh and say, 'OK, what've we got?'"
"I'd give them purple sprouting broccoli with a poached egg," said Hix. "It's fabulous. It should be celebrated like asparagus."
"At Bibendum these days," Hopkinson said proudly, "there's a special veggie menu which is brought out if a vegetarian comes in a party, and we weren't warned. We offer five starters and five mains, so it's a nice surprise for them."
"I've done private dinner parties," countered Hix, "where two of the party of eight were vegetarians, and I've just cooked veggie for everyone, with whole roasted ceps as a main course. By the end of dinner, no one had noticed."
What, I asked, were the classic vegetarian dishes? Hix and Hopkinson looked puzzled.
"There weren't many actual vegetarian dishes in the past," said Hix. "Only things like omelettes, or artichoke vinaigrette, or asparagus with hollandaise."
"If you're asking about a composed dish," said Hopkinson, "I don't think you can talk about 'classics', because nobody thought about such things until 30 years ago. But the Italian salad called panzanella, with bread, tomatoes, basil and cucumber, is one. And a dish of white Tuscan beans, you can eat on their own." He considered. "Unless of course you're thinking of Indian food. Dhal is a classic Indian veggie dish. It's part of their religion not to eat meat, but you don't think of it as vegetarian; it's just delicious."
What was his attitude to veggie meat substitutes like nut roast and Quorn? "Giving vegetarian dishes carnivorous names like nut cutlets or nut roast or sausage seems to me a bit daft," said Hopkinson. "Or vegetarian shepherd's pie," said Hix, scornfully. "What does that suggest? A plate of mashed potato?"
A notable feature of the book is the attention Hopkinson devotes to the humblest root vegetable. His Oriental Fried Turnip Paste, for instance, requires a list of ingredients a foot long (they include sesame paste, ginger syrup and Chinese rice wine.) All that sophistication aimed at a turnip. His reverence for such simple things makes you feel you're in safe hands. And his recipe for Mum's Potato Cakes is a lovingly detailed exposition of combining mash with flour, rolling out the resulting mixture and cutting it into roundels before frying the cakes "ever so quietly".
Behind this simple recipe is a touching family memory, a moment of poetry amid the practical cooking tips: "It was always the same glass Pyrex dish that was used for cold and dark, wintry Sunday afternoon potato cakes," he writes. "I can still see the remains of liquid, golden butter glimpsed through the glass, the fire's glowing embers reflected upon its molten surface."
The family home was in a village called Greenmount, a suburb of Bury, Lancashire. Simon's mother, Dorothie, was a grammar-school teacher, his father, Bruce, a dentist. His mum cooked the way she'd learned from her mother. "She did lovely things like rabbit pies, with rabbit from Bury Market. I loved growing up in the early Sixties with that market and its tripe stalls. Mum was a part-time teacher, but she still had time to make proper meals. Like bacon-and-egg pie, which she called a 'qweesh'. Steak and kidney puddings. She used to make a hot strawberry pie which was fantastic, despite its soggy bottom."
There followed a charming, antiphonal interlude as both men reminisced about their childhood food memories. It sounded like this:
Hix: "My nan, you know, was from Lancashire before she moved to the West Country [where he grew up, on the Jurassic coast, near Lyme Regis]. She made Lancashire hotpot."
Hopkinson: "My mum just called it hotpot. In one of those deep, slightly brown dishes, round with sloping sides. She bought stewing beef and onions ... "
Hix: "Did she dice the potatoes or slice them?"
Hopkinson: "Dice. Just beef and onions, water and salt went into the bottom of the oven for about two hours. For the last 45 minutes, she added diced potatoes, put the dish back in the oven, then on to the hob until it went golden on top. But of course that wasn't a proper Lancashire hotpot."
Hix (dreamily): "My nan used to boil onions ... "
Hopkinson: "Ooh. Boiled onions is one of most delicious things in my book. With poached egg and Lancashire cheese on top. I got the recipe from a young chef at The Three Fishes in Mitton."
Hix (still in dreamland): "She used to boil them whole in their skin, then take it off and scoop out the middle bit. It was all mushy inside. Delicious."
Hopkinson: "I never remember her having a bubbling stockpot, or anything like that. I remember chicken bones going into a pressure cooker – but it would be used immediately, for something else."
Hix: "I remember the smell in the kitchen when my mother cooked two ham hocks every week ... "
Hopkinson's father had a very experimental approach for an amateur cook in the late Fifties. "He was adventurous. When I was six, he was buying mussels in Bury Market, and making moules marinières. He cooked scallops, he made paella after going camping in Spain in the early Sixties. He made Chinese dishes, and Indian curries. He'd buy Nazir's curry paste and jars of spices from a restaurant in Manchester. He owned VP Veeraswamy's recipe books."
You can see where Hopkinson gets his enthusiasm. Barely into his teens he invented a dish, a starter of eggs with curried mayo known to the family as "Simon's Eggs". At 15, he left St John's College School, Oxford, to be an apprentice cook at La Normandie, under the apparently tyrannical eye of Yves Champeau, master of French bourgeois cooking. From there he opened his own restaurant in Dinas, near Fishguard, Wales, at only 21; it wasn't a huge success, and he became an Egon Ronay inspector. His big break came when he worked at Hilaire's in South Kensington, cooking for, among others, Francis Bacon, Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde. He was discovered there by Sir Terence Conran, and joined forces with Conran and Paul Hamlyn, the publisher, to create the legendary Bibendum on the site of the old Michelin building in London's Fulham Road.
"We should talk," said Hix, "about Simon's protégés. I was at a big chefs' lunch in Ludlow recently, and there were about five of his discoveries there. He really has produced the most significant scattering of chefs in the foodie world."
It is quite a roll-call of future talents that he took on at Bibendum: among them Philip Howard, now head chef at the two-Michelin-star Square, ("I took Philip on for his looks," says Hopkinson, deadpan. "That and his degree in microbiology"), Jeremy Lee, the flamboyant head chef at the Blueprint Café, and Bruce Poole of Chez Bruce, the favourite restaurant of Londoners, according to the Harden's Guide. But Bibendum was to be the end of Hopkinson's career as chef. In 1994, he had a nervous breakdown in the kitchen during service, wept bitterly and couldn't go on. "It just all got too much," he said. "It was terrible, awful! And that was it for me. I couldn't do it now."
Ask him now if he'll ever be tempted back into a kitchen, and he ducks the question. "I'm still a partner at Bibendum and a director, and I go there and talk to Matthew [Harris, the head chef] all the time." So while his passion for food remains intense, he's not going back into the hurly-burly of chef wars any time soon.
Speaking of which – is he a fan of Masterchef, which half the country has been watching for weeks – and on which this humble scribe has featured, in his capacity as restaurant critic? Hopkinson's genial face darkens. "I think there have been some very odd things on it. Why are the contestants, in the 10-minute skills test, asked to bone out an oxtail? Oxtail is made to be cooked on the bone. Boning out removes most of the point of the dish. As with Irish stew, it's the bones that give it the flavour."
"Boning raw oxtail?" asks Hix, aghast. "That's a terrible idea." Hopkinson goes on: "And did you see the one where they were asked to make paella? They gave them what looked like Uncle Ben's rice to make it with ... my father would have had a fit."
In 30 seconds, the calm, phlegmatic, rather camp Hopkinson becomes transformed into an indignant chef-tyrant. "And did you see, one of the 10-minute tests was to make a Hollandaise sauce, but one person added chopped tarragon leaves to it. And Michel Roux's girl, Monica, said, 'That's lovely – lovely with the tarragon.' I said 'no no, no, that's verging on a Béarnaise! It's not fucking Hollandaise, and they said it was fine! I may be a pedant, but that's just classically wrong."
So, not a fan then? "I watch it out of a perverse pleasure," he says. "But I hate the woman who does the voiceover, and calls Michel Roux 'Mush-shell'. And the doomy music when they walk in ..."
Mark Hix surveys his friend's burst of fury with equanimity. "We all love Hoppy," he says to no-one in particular. "We've always talked the same language."
A enthusiastic hater, is Mr Hopkinson. But a really passionate lover of food as well. If there's any cook in the nation who can do more to turn a humble vegetable into a feast for the gods, I'd be stunned. No, more than that, I'd be butterflied and spatchcocked.
Petit pois à la Française
100g butter, softened
1 large cos lettuce
6 spring onions, white part only, thickly sliced
500g frozen peas
salt and freshly ground white pepper
several mint leaves, chopped
Preheat the oven to 160°C/gas mark 3. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Take a lidded, shallow ovenproof pan and thickly smear the inside – both bottom and sides – with about one-third of the butter. Separate about 10-12 large, outer dark green leaves from the lettuce (depending on the size of your pan) and briefly blanch in the boiling water until just beginning to flop. Plunge into iced water and lay out to dry on a tea-towel.
Carefully and neatly lay the blanched lettuce leaves in the pan, placing the core ends in the middle with the rounded ends of the leaves creeping up the sides, overlapping them slightly and pressing them onto the butter so that they stick. The end result should look like a large, green flower. Reserve a couple of leaves for the top. Cut the remaining lettuce – the heart – across into shreds and put into a bowl. Add the spring onions, peas, seasoning, mint and a further one-third of the butter, in flecks. Mix together and carefully tip into the lettuce-lined pan. Press down lightly and lay the reserved leaves on top. Now bring the edges of the lining leaves over the top to form a kind of "lettuce lid". Melt the remainder of the butter and spoon over the surface. Cut a greaseproof paper circle slightly bigger than the diameter of the pan, dampen it, and then lightly press down onto the lettuce surface and against the sides of the pan. This "cartouche" helps to ensure that as much moisture as possible remains within the pea stew as it cooks. There should be no need for any added liquid.
Finally, place the lid on the pan and slide into the oven. Cook for about an hour. A good sign that it is ready is when the lettuce and peas have become a dull green colour and are very soft indeed. In fact, for me, the end result should almost be redolent of the best-quality tinned peas!
Clearly, the finest peas for this classy and lovely French dish would be ones you have either grown, freshly picked and podded, or those collected from a pick-your-own farm. If not, there is little point in using podded peas from, say, a supermarket, tempting and labourfree that these might seem; they can often be worthless in terms of taste and texture, as any fresh sweetness and tender qualities they may have once had has turned to starch. If in doubt, I would always suggest frozen – and the more petit, the better. The mint is very un-French, but I like it, here.
Asparagus frittata with soft cheese and chives
1tbsp olive oil
salt and cayenne pepper
scant scraping of nutmeg
3 large eggs, beaten
125g soft cream cheese
30g Parmesan, finely grated
2tsp snipped chives
A thin slice of butter
Trim the asparagus bases, peel the lower end of the stalks and thinly slice the spears on the diagonal. Warm the olive oil in a non-stick frying pan, add the asparagus and season with salt, cayenne pepper and nutmeg. Cook gently over a low heat until the asparagus is tender and very lightly coloured; eat a sliver to see if it is cooked through. Tip out onto a plate, set aside and wipe the frying pan.
In a mixing bowl, beat together the eggs, cream cheese, Parmesan and chives until smooth. Return the frying pan to a moderate heat, add the butter and heat until just beginning to froth. Pour in the egg mixture, turn down the heat to low and then quietly begin to bring in the frothing edges to the liquid centre of the pan using a spatula or palette knife.
Now, tip in the cooked asparagus and carefully disperse evenly. Continue to gently lift the more cooked parts of the frittata, so allowing the liquid egg to slip underneath until a happy, soft and curd-like medium has evolved – this should take no more than two minutes or so.
Slide the frittata onto a plate and eat warm or at room temperature, but certainly not hot from the pan.
This would be a fine opportunity to use asparagus spears known as "sprue", which are much thinner and, consequently, less expensive than more perfect specimens. If so, do not bother to peel them, just remove the tougher base stalks.
New season's garlic, saffron and tomato quiche
For the pastry
100g plain flour
65g butter, cut into cubes
pinch of salt
1–2 tbsp iced water
1 large egg yolk
For the filling
100g peeled new season's
200g ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tsp saffron threads
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
100ml soured cream
100ml double cream
100g light cream cheese
30g Parmesan, freshly grated
For the pastry, using a food processor, briefly blend together the flour, butter and salt until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Now tip into a large, roomy bowl and gently mix in the water and egg yolk, using cool hands or a knife, until well amalgamated. Knead together, then put into a plastic bag and rest in the fridge for at least an hour before rolling.
For the filling, put the garlic cloves into a small pan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Drain and refresh with cold water, then repeat. Drain and refresh again, cover with water once more, add a little salt and simmer until very soft. Drain and set aside. Put the tomatoes and a little seasoning into a stainless-steel pan and allow to simmer for a good half an hour or so, at least until the mixture is well reduced and jammy (it needs to be spread onto the pastry base). Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4 and put a baking sheet inside to heat up.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface as thinly as you dare, then use to line a 20cm tart tin, 3cm deep and prick the base. Line the pastry case with foil and dried beans, slide onto the hot baking sheet and bake 'blind' for about 15 minutes. Remove the foil and beans and return the pastry case to the oven for a further 10–15 minutes until it is golden, crisp and well cooked through, particularly the base. Put the milk into a small pan with the saffron, warm through and leave to infuse for 5 minutes.
In a food processor, whiz together the eggs, egg yolk and cooked garlic until smooth. Add both creams, the cream cheese and Parmesan and briefly blend again. Pour into a bowl and stir in the saffron-infused milk. Season lightly. To assemble the tart, spread the tomato over the tart base and then pour in the saffron custard; you may find it less nerve-racking to half-fill the case first and spoon or ladle in the rest once it is in the oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes until set and pale golden on the surface. Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes before eating, as hot quiche tastes of very little.
Book offer: The Vegetarian Option
"The Vegetarian Option" by Simon Hopkinson is published by Quadrille, £20. To order this book for the special price of £18, with free p&p, go to Independentbooks direct.co.uk or call 0870 079 8897Reuse content