I recently wrote about Joe Allen in Covent Garden being one of my Favourite Haunts, and so it was great to meet head chef Marc Brown today and talk with him about his favourite cookery books. Marc has been at Joe Allen for fifteen years, having previously worked at restaurants like RSJ and Bank.
Marc went to catering college after school and I asked him what his inspiration had been to choose this career. He told me that he came from a home where the kids helped out in the kitchen, doing things like preparing vegetables and generally getting involved in food; something he’s passed on to his own children. He remembers that his grandmother grew vegetables and herbs in the garden, so he learned about using fresh produce at an early age. One of the cooks who really inspired him at that time was Graham Kerr, otherwise known as The Galloping Gourmet, whose popular TV series of the same name ran for years. When a good friend who worked in the food industry suggested Marc should follow his passion for cooking, it seemed a natural progression to go to catering college.
Marc said it had been difficult to narrow his choice down to just ten books; we also talked about the impact of the Internet and how now if you’re looking for a particular recipe, it’s becoming more natural to Google it. But books, we discussed, are not just about recipes but the inspiration and story behind them, and here are Marc’s Top Ten:
1. Larousse Gastronomique – First published in 1938, this culinary bible has been updated many times, most recently in 2009. It’s really a reference book, Marc said, with a wealth of information. It’s a valuable source for any chef or cook – whether they are professionals or enthusiastic amateurs, and it contains information and recipes for almost any dish or food you could want to know about.
2. C.J. Jackson & Caroline Waldegrave: Leith’s Fish Bible – There aren’t many fish you could buy that aren’t included in this book, Marc said. The in-depth information is invaluable, for the book will tell you everything you need to know about preparing different fish and shellfish and cooking techniques, as well as containing most of the classic fish recipes and more modern ones. We talked about fish as an endangered species, farming methods and the controversial fishing methods that have been brought to our attention by people like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Marc quoted Alain Ducasse who said that you have to treat with respect anything you intend to eat. He said that good chefs are always concerned about the provenance of food and getting the best ingredients, which includes the ‘source’ – if animal or fish – being well treated when alive.
3. Heston Blumenthal – In Search of Perfection (2006) – Heston is a god, said Marc. What really impresses him is the lengths Heston will go to in his search for perfection. We talked a bit about the growing number of great chefs in the UK now, how the focus has shifted from France, and that Blumenthal is one of the truly outstanding chefs of our time.
4. Kampa Park – Kampa Park is a Michelin-starred restaurant in Prague, set in an exclusive location on Kampa Island with a view of the Charles Bridge. Marc went to the restaurant eight years ago with his wife and remembers it as being one of the most romantic weekends they’ve had in their 24 years together. They bought the restaurant’s book while they were there and so it has special memories for him. I asked if it was typical Czech food and Marc said, No, it was Michelin food and told me of a kind of Czech bread pudding that was recommended to him – that didn’t impress him at all.
5. Anthony Bourdin: Kitchen Confidential (2001) – This, said Marc, is a good and at times brutal portrait of what life in a professional kitchen is really like. He recommends it to any chef who wants to stay in the industry for its insight. In it, Bourdin recounts his experiences of twenty years in the profession and while some of it is quite shocking, there are also, Marc said, laugh-out-loud moments.
6. Richard, Earl of Bradford & Carol Wilson: Porters English Cookery Bible: Ancient and Modern (2004) – Marc said what he liked about this history of English food is the way it takes us back to the arrival of certain foods on our shores and what people first did with them. For example, he said, tomatoes was at first thought to be toxic so were cooked for ages to rid them of any bad effect. As well as being a great book about the history of English food through the ages with old and classic recipes, it appeals to Marc because it’s one of those books that gives you an insight into what the person writing it is about.
7. John Edwards: The Roman Cookery of Apicius (1985) – As the title suggests, this book takes us back to Ancient Rome and what Marc loves are the stories of the lengths chefs had to go to to prepare a meal or banquet. One of the stories is about a special, strong sauce made from red mullet (a bit like anchovy essence). Red mullet was the only fish in the world the Romans put a tax on and it became worth its weight in gold. There are also descriptions of pots being hung from the ceiling, wrapped in cloth and covered in honey to act as a sealant and preserve food – and also stop the rats getting to them.
8. David Rosengarten, Joel Dean & Georgio Deluca: The Dean & Deluca Cookbook (2000) – Marc described how he came across the amazing Dean & Deluca deli in New York by chance. It is, he says, a very upmarket deli and stacked to the rafters with all the food you could imagine. You can eat in, take away; there is almost every kind of ingredient you could want. The shop’s cookbook has over 400 recipes.
9. Charlie Trotter: Workin’ More Kitchen Sessions (2004) – ‘The Kitchen Sessions’ is an award-winning TV series in the USA. Trotter takes his inspiration from jazz greats, like Miles Davis, and brings the art of improvisation into his kitchens. Marc told me that Trotter’s way of thinking with US food is similar to Heston Blumenthal’s here; the way he deconstructs and goes to great depths to find the flavour he wants, making him one of the most innovative chefs working. Marc likes the recipes and the way Trotter is so passionate about what he does.
10. Chris & Carolyn Caldicott: World Food Cafe (2002) – These are vegetarian recipes from the authors’ cafe. Marc compared reading the book to those of Sam & Sam Clark of Moro, as the authors take you on their journey and you see how the recipe evolves. He loves their passion and finds it inspirational.
When I asked Marc which one he’d choose over the others, what was his No.1, he had to think quite hard but then said, Porters (No.6) because of the way it tells you about the history of food and how people didn’t understand things like spices at first, and used them differently to how we use them today.
I really enjoyed talking to Marc about these books and he seemed to have enjoyed coming up with the list, though said it could be a different list for someone else and there were a lot more books he could have included. But, as I’d suggested, he’d come up with the books that had both a personal interest for him and had inspired him in some way. I’m not sure if it’s possible to like going to Joe Allen more than I already do, but now I know a bit more about the chef behind the food, I think I just might!