Tim and Camilla Healy opened the A Cena restaurant in Twickenham in 2001 with the aim to serve high quality yet simple Italian food set in an elegant but relaxed friendly atmosphere. This is an aim wonderfully achieved for A Cena serves some of the best Italian food in London and its sophisticated yet simple style makes it one of the nicest places to enjoy good food with family or friends – or even a quick coffee or snack at their new Panino Bar on your own. It has received much acclaim from the critics: the Guardian described its ‘fearsomely good food’, Time Out its ‘sexy bar … and high level of kitchen craft’ while the Independent named it one of ‘The Ten Best Italian Restaurants’.
Tim spent many years as an international polo player and coach – an experience that is reflected in some of his book choices, with his love of outdoor and Argentinian food. He then worked in a number of restaurants, including St John Restaurant, honing his culinary skills before opening A Cena with his wife Camilla. I met him last Friday morning at A Cena to discuss his Top Ten Cookery Books; a task that proved quite a challenge for someone who owns thousands of cookbooks! It was great talking through his choices and hearing about why certain books mean a lot to him and here I share them with you.
1. Francis Mallmann: Seven Fires (2009) – This choice most clearly reflects Tim’s experience of living in Argentina for 10 years. Francis Mallmann was raised in the mountains of Patagonia, trained in great kitchens in Europe, became a top chef in Buenos Aires and in 1995 gave up haute cuisine for wood-fired cookery. Tim describes Mallmann as a ‘genius’. The book describes seven different methods of cooking outdoors – seven fires. It is his style of cooking that is so superb and the way he manages to judge the process of chargrilling, for instance, so that he catches the exact moment when the meat is at its sweetest before any hint of bitterness creeps in. These are flavours, Tim says, that ‘smash you in the face’.
2. Danny Meyer: Setting the Table: Lessons and inspirations from one of the world’s leading entrepreneurs (2010) – this isn’t a cookery book, admits, Tim, but it’s about the restaurant business and a ‘must’ for any restaurateur. Meyer is an award-winning restaurateur who opened his first restaurant, the Union Square Cafe in New York, and his group of restaurants now includes The Modern in the Museum of Modern Art and Maialino at the Gramercy Park Hotel. Full of wisdom, it’s Tim’s No.1 for anyone who wants to know how to get all aspects of the restaurant business right.
3. John Pawson: Living and Eating (2001) – ‘Not a single recipe doesn’t work,’ Tim told me. As the title suggests, this is a lifestyle book as well as a cookery book with recommendations of the best utensils too. Tim described it as ‘stylish’; a book he always goes back to. Recipes cover all the seasons and importance is given to the ingredients’ provenance; they are written with clarity – and are, of course, delicious too.
4. Darina Allen: Forgotten Skills of Cooking (2009) – This is a ‘must’ said Tim. It tells you how your mother and grandmother cooked; it’s old school cooking that works. It’s about understanding what’s around you; not relying on ‘best before’ labels but learning to look at, smell and taste food and know for yourself what’s OK and what works. It describes lots of practical skills too, like how to smoke food and also includes some traditional herbals remedies.
5. Richard Corrigan: The Clatter of Forks and Spoons: Honest, Happy Food (2008) – Tim loves Corrigan’s simplicity and the way he’s able to take good fresh ingredients to turn them into a great fresh-tasting dish. Corrigan, a leading chef, is a champion of small producers and firmly believes that food should taste intensely of itself.
6. Alan Davidson: The Oxford Companion to Food (2006) – Tim described this as a ‘fabulous’ reference book; an essential for every cook. Huge and authoritative, from the ordinary to the bizarre, any ingredient you want to know about will be here.
7. Nobu Matsuhisa: Nobu Now ((2004) – ‘He’s a god,’ said Tim. ‘These are exceptionally tricky recipes,’ he continued, that will send you searching for ingredients, the best fatty tuna for example. The preparation of the meal becomes a quest; there are off-the-wall parts to the dish; it’s for a dinner party for which you can spend two weeks preparing.
8. Anna Del Conte: Risotto With Nettles: A Memoir with Food (2009) – The book is the story of Del Conte’s life told through the medium of food. It contains forgotten skills, Tim told me; it’s about travelling and it tells you how to understand new flavours. It’s a great book to read and there are some fantastic recipes too.
9. Simon Hopkinson & Lindsey Bareham: The Prawn Cocktail Years (2006) – If you want to make Prawn Cocktail, Beef Wellington, Chicken Kiev or Black Forest Gateau – this is your book, said Tim. He loves retro cooking; this is the stuff he grew up on and brings back memories of childhood and family celebrations.
10. The Silver Spoon, first published in English by Phaidon in 2005 – The book was originally published in Italy in 1950 and became the country’s bestselling and most influential cookery book. A group of cooking experts was commissioned to collect hundreds of traditional Italian recipes and make them available to a wider audience while remaining faithful to traditions. Tim described this as ‘brilliant’ and I could see his copy was well used. It has a wonderfully simple layout where you can look up an ingredient like veal, tripe, or a dish like risotto, and find lots of recipes. Tim said there is a very good kids’ version too – great for teaching kids real cooking.
I really enjoyed hearing Tim talk about all these books and his reasons for choosing them – though he did immediately say he could give me another ten! I asked him which of the ten would be his No.1 and without hesitation he chose Seven Fires. He told me of his passion for outdoor cooking and how his home and garden have been designed to accommodate that love. For him, Seven Fires brings back all the smells, food cooked by proper gauchos and parties of Argentina. The best outdoor cooking requires great skills and this is a book that will show you the way to achieving those skills.