Simon Hopkinson: The reluctant chef

It is strange for a chef and cookery writer to find himself in vogue when he has given up cooking and writing
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The Independent Online

Simon Hopkinson wrote Roast Chicken and Other Stories, his first cookery book, 11 years ago. It was a small, neat, undemonstrative volume, with not a single lavish photograph, and it enjoyed only modest success until last month, when Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine published the result of a survey of food writers, restaurateurs and chefs, designed to identify, with unrestrained use of the capital letter, the Most Useful Cookery Books Of All Time. Hopkinson's book finished top of the pile, and there was a flurry of media excitement that he had beaten better-known cookery writers, such as Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson, and indeed better-known cooks, such as Gordon Ramsay, Raymond Blanc, the Roux brothers and Marco Pierre White.

The ensuing publicity, which propelled Roast Chicken and Other Stories straight to the top of the bestseller lists, had something of a whiff of the silly season about it. As one friend of Hopkinson's says: "This was Waitrose Food Illustrated, not a Nobel Prize. I can't help feeling that it has all got slightly out of hand." And yet the figures are plain enough.

As soon as Ebury Press, the book's delighted if slightly startled publishers, realised how much demand there suddenly was for a book that for years had scarcely registered on the company's sales charts, they ordered an urgent new print run of 30,000. They underestimated. In the whole of last year Hopkinson's book sold 800 copies; last week it was selling 900 copies a day. On Amazon, it has even outsold Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

A 51-year-old man from Bury, Lancashire, who lives alone in London with his cats, is the improbable literary star of the summer. Even more improbably, he no longer does the two things that he has become famous for.

It is decidedly strange for a professional chef and cookery writer to find himself in vogue when he has given up cooking and writing. "I'm not really sure what Simon does now," says Mark Hix, who succeeded Hopkinson as this newspaper's cookery writer. "I think he paints a little bit. But it's a great shame that he doesn't cook professionally any more.

"He's a unique guy, with a unique knowledge of food, and his philosophy - simple cooking with the best possible ingredients - has been hugely influential."

The reason Hopkinson does not cook in professional kitchens any more is that he can't stand the heat. In 1994, shortly after the publication of Roast Chicken and Other Stories, he had a kind of breakdown at Bibendum, the Terence Conran-owned restaurant where he was head chef. It was rather like Daniel Day-Lewis suddenly losing it on stage at the National Theatre: a man in a familiar environment, where he is supposed to be in complete control, dramatically caving in under the burden of expectation.

"It just all got too much," Hopkinson recalls now. "I broke down, and was sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. It was terrible, awful. And that was it for me. I couldn't do it now. I'd be terrified. I'd chop my fingers off or something."

Fay Maschler, the influential restaurant critic and a close friend of Hopkinson's, ascribes his "mini-breakdown" to his intense perfectionism. "Food is his whole life, and he is tremendously certain how things should be," she says. "But in restaurants you are constantly having to compromise."

Hopkinson's protégé, Henry Harris, now head chef and co-owner of Racine, echoes this. "I think Simon began to realise, deep down, that Bibendum was not the right place for his cooking. He was having to do 100 covers a night, whereas at Hilaire (where Conran had 'discovered' Hopkinson) it was between 40 and 60. That makes a big difference. When you have a table of six, a table of four and three twos, all wanting their main course at the same time, there has to be an element of compromise."

Nonetheless, Bibendum had established Hopkinson as one of the glitterati of the London restaurant scene. "At the end of the 1980s there was a kind of holy trinity of Simon Hopkinson, Alistair Little and Rowley Leigh," explains Harris. "But I have never seen anyone else, and I don't say this lightly, with the unbridled passion for food that Simon has. I spent two and a half years with him at Hilaire, listening to him, being berated, cajoled and nurtured by him, and I learnt more than I would have done in a lifetime working with someone else.

"I remember him sitting me down and getting me to read a paragraph by Richard Olney on how to make stock. It was brilliant simply as a piece of prose, and Simon loved that. He read everything by Olney, Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David, but for the past 25 years, with those three no longer around, nobody has written a book about food as important as Roast Chicken and Other Stories, with as natural an understanding of ingredients.

"It's what sets him apart. People talk about serving fruit with chocolate, how lovely strawberries are dipped in chocolate - Simon wouldn't do it. He said that there is an acidity in fruit that jars with chocolate. He refused to use white chocolate, too. He said. 'It's not chocolate, so we're not using it.'

"He taught me that Dover sole can actually be too fresh. And he always, always followed the seasons. Even now, when English asparagus has finished, I sometimes think, 'I'll just try that Spanish asparagus, I bet it's as good." But it never is, and I can feel Simon breathing down my neck saying 'you fool!'."

Hopkinson's retirement as a chef enabled him to concentrate on his writing, and loyal readers of The Independent will testify to his excellence in that department, until the writing too began to feel more of a duty than a pleasure. In the past month, however, he has received offers to resume his writing career, and there will doubtless be restaurant proprietors who will dangle a braised carrot trying to tempt him back into the kitchen. He won't go.

"Actually, I think part of him hankers to go back into private service," says a friend. "He used to work for a man called Christopher Selmes, who was a City whizzkid and lived in Cheyne Walk. Simon was very happy doing that, cooking for between four and 20 every night, with no choice, and Selmes had enough money for him to buy any ingredient he wanted, and to serve the world's greatest wines. Simon adored cooking for small dinner parties, possibly joining them for coffee afterwards, but equally possibly, not."

It was the late Alan Crompton-Batt, the man said to have invented the notion of restaurant PR, who persuaded Hopkinson to leave Selmes' employ and return to restaurant cooking. At 21 he had opened his own restaurant near Fishguard in Wales, but its location defeated him. Then he became an Egon Ronay inspector, which is how he met Crompton-Batt.

His next enterprise was Hilaire in South Kensington, where his regulars included Francis Bacon, Albert Finney, Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde. This illustrious clientele and the less than mean streets of South Ken were a long way, in every sense, from Bury. But Hopkinson grew up in a middle-class household where food was venerated. His mother was a grammar school teacher, his father a dentist, and they both cooked.

"Dad did experimental things. Mum was the queen of puddings and rabbit pie and all that sort of thing," he recently recalled. He watched and learned, and by his teens had conceived his own signature dish, a starter of eggs with curried mayonnaise, which the family christened Simon's Eggs.

By 15 he was certain he wanted to cook professionally and practically on the day he left school (he had been a choral scholar at St John's College School in Oxford and, according to Maschler, still sings "like a lark") began an apprenticeship at a nearby restaurant, La Normandie. It was from the dictatorial chef there, Yves Champeau, that Hopkinson learnt the rudiments of French bourgeois cooking. They are still his guiding principles, and he strongly counsels cooking with butter, complaining that we are all in thrall to olive oil.

That is not all he complains about, and, thrillingly, he is not averse to roasting some sacred cows. "Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing are all guilty of blandness," he asserted in a recent interview.

"You know, I think they don't love eating enough and they don't actually love cooking things enough. That may be harsh and they certainly are all great technicians, but none of them have enough greed about food."

This is emphatically not true of him. Henry Harris remembers his parents inviting Hopkinson to their home in Sussex, and Hopkinson cooking an epic banquet which included, among many other things, scrambled eggs pushed back into the shell and topped with caviar, and foie gras seared so violently that through the smoke they could not see from one end of the kitchen to the other.

"Afterwards, I remember thinking that I was never going to eat anything ever again," he says. "We all sat down to watch a film, I think it was Howards End, and then Simon went out and came back in with a cold poulet de Bresse sandwich and a large glass of milk." Hopkinson probably enjoyed the film as much as the sandwich.

"He has tremendous passion for cinema, music, art and literature as well as food," says Harris. "All the things that really touch you in life. He's a huge fan of Patricia Highsmith and told me that I had to read the Ripley books, which I did, and loved them. You can talk to him about anything."

Harris does not mention sport, but a famous sporting dictum comes to mind, coined by the great West Indian writer C L R James, who asked: "What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?" In other words, you can never truly excel in one discipline without embracing others. Hopkinson is its very embodiment, although it is mightily ironic that a man who observes that Britain is a nation of food lovers, only in the sense that we all love turning over the pristine pages of glossy cookery books while waiting for the microwave to ping, has finally gained the kudos he deserves thanks to a supermarket magazine.

A Life in Brief

BORN Lancashire, 5 June 1954

FAMILY Lives alone in west London.

EDUCATION Choral scholar at St John's College School, Oxford; apprenticed at age 17 to the restaurant La Normandie, in Birtle.

CAREER At age 21 opened his first restaurant, The Shed, in Dinas, Wales. After a stint as an inspector for Egon Ronay Guides and as a private chef, he started Hilaire in west London. He launched Bibendum, in central London, with Terence Conran, in 1987. In 1994, he quit cooking following a breakdown, began writing about food for The Independent and published Roast Chicken and Other Stories (1994), followed by Gammon and Spinach and Other Recipes and The Prawn Cocktail Years.

AWARDS Glenfiddich Food Award (1995); Waitrose Food Illustrated Award for the most useful cookery book of all time (2005).

HE SAYS "I've concluded that I'm a cook, not a chef."

THEY SAY "When one goes round to his place, one has food that is simply divine." - Stephen Fry