Brula was a runner up in the ‘Best Restaurant’ category of the recent Observer Food Monthly annual awards. And being a runner up to Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant, Dinner, can only be an indication of how special this little French restaurant in St Margarets, Twickenham is. It opened on its present site in 2000 and has become a firm favourite with locals but it’s also a restaurant worth a special journey, having been described by Matthew Norman in the Guardian as ‘outstanding’ and Time Out as ‘streets ahead of most neighbourhood restaurants … a rare restaurant that understands the meaning of hospitality.’
Even in an empty Brula this morning where I’d arranged to talk to owner, Lawrence Hartley, about his top ten cookery books, there was a welcoming ambience and a strong feeling of Paris. Lawrence’s love of French cooking came from his Parisian mother and regular visits to the French capital throughout his life. He studied at the much-respected Westminster Catering College and from there became Maitre d’ at The Ivy and later was involved in the opening of the Cafe Rouge restaurants. We talked about how exciting Cafe Rouge was when its restaurants first opened; a real sense of being in France and serving French food that was hard to come by at the time. However, Lawrence has now created his own special corner of Paris in this intimate restaurant and it was great to talk to him about his favourite cookery books and influences. He had made his list in the order of his favourites, so I’ll start with his No.10 as he did and work through to his all-time top book.
10. Larousse Gastronomique – This was first published in 1938 and has been updated many times. It’s ‘such a brilliant bible,’ said Lawrence. You wouldn’t really use it for its recipes but it has information on nearly every food or dish you could think of. He said that if you ever thought they wouldn’t have something in there, you’d look and there it would be. Which I guess shows that it never lets you down. Lawrence described it as a perfect Christmas gift for chefs and restaurateurs.
9. Paris Bistro Cooking, Linda Dannenberg (1991) – With his Parisian background, this is very much a favourite for Lawrence. The book sums up Paris, he told me and he ‘always goes there for comfort’. The book contains all the great Paris bistros with a focus on each. The classic recipes are simple, there are no surprises here, but there are beautiful photos by Guy Couchet that make this a visually stunning book and inspirational.
8. Simple French Food, Richard Olney (1974, new edition 2003) – Richard Olney was one of the most respected and influential food writers of the 20th century. Lawrence describes this book of classic French country cooking as an inspiration. He described how you can see it follow on from Elizabeth David and then Olney’s influence running through to chefs and writers of today like Simon Hopkinson. He likes the way it’s so obviously well researched, from the dishes themselves to the way Olney shows you how to cook in the French way.
7. The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller (1999) – Thomas Keller is chef/owner of this famous Napa Valley restaurant. Lawrence likes the way all the recipes have beautifully clean lines – impeccable, highly refined food that captures all the exactness and science of the best French cooking. It’s also beautifully illustrated with photos.
6. Le Gavroche Cookbook, Michel Roux Jr (2001) – This is a cookbook that celebrates Le Gavroche’s 35 years as one of the finest restaurants in London. Opened by Michel’s father Albert and uncle Michel Snr, Michel Jr has been at the helm since 1991. Lawrence and I talked about how one of the best bits of the professional Masterchef programme is when Michel Roux Jr demonstrates the preparation of a classic French dish. And this is a book where he shows you how to make classic French recipes in such a beautifully simple way that, Lawrence says, you just want to do it. These dishes are timeless and true classics that remain as great as they ever were.
5. Goose Fat and Garlic, Jeanne Strang (2003) – Lawrence described this book as a bon viveur’s tour of south west France, with regional cocktails and meals of five to six courses where the author will knock on a door and ask the host to cook a typical meal of the region. The Times said, ‘each recipe shouts authenticity.’
4. The Ivy: The Restaurant and its Recipes, A.A. Gill (1997) – Lawrence said this was a very personal choice as he was working at The Ivy when this book was written and it was a very special time working there and with A.A. Gill (who still provides his restaurant review fix each week in the Sunday Times). There are different owners at the restaurant now, but Lawrence says it remains iconic and as good. This is a fun book, he says, with some useful recipes and a history of the restaurant, with great illustrations. He thought though that it’s a book that regulars and anyone who has worked there will get the most from.
3. White Heat, Marco Pierre White (1990) – Lawrence described this as the ‘most influential book in the kitchen’ and ‘sensational’. I said I had a signed copy from when White was at Harvey’s, his first restaurant in Wandsworth, and we talked about how monumental an influence he was. Lawrence compared White’s influence in the kitchen to that of the Beatles in music. He has a great philosophy and Lawrence believes the industry still needs him, even though he’s strayed from his original beliefs now. Lawrence would like to see him come back with one brilliant restaurant that encompasses all the best White has to offer.
2. A Day at elBulli, Ferran Adria (2010) – Lawrence said he’d never eaten at this famous restaurant, acclaimed as the best in the world (and sadly recently shut for good), but ‘I wish I had his resources.’ The book documents all the activities and processes of one day in the restaurant (and is a huge 632-page book!) and is illustrated with some stunning photographs. From a scrap of paper and espresso in hand at the beginning of the day as plans are made, Adria offers an extraordinary insight to the workings of the restaurant. Lawrence says it turns the running of a restaurant on its head; there are no usual rules and patterns to fall into but everything is always creative and innovative.
1. Roast Chicken and Other Stories, Simon Hopkinson (1999) – Lawrence’s No.1 book was voted Most Useful Cookery Book of All Time by a panel of 40 chefs, set up by Waitrose Food Illustrated, in 2005 and is on my own top ten list. Lawrence describes it as ‘good and precise’, representing everything we want to do in the kitchen. He thinks Hopkinson is a genius and says this is the first book he’ll go to to prompt ideas when he’s cooking. It’s unpretentious, simple to use and the recipes are beautifully constructed.
It was great talking to Lawrence and there are definitely some books here that I for one want to take a closer look at!
Update: Brula restaurant closed down December 2014. Laurence can now be found at Joe Allen and Orso in Covent Garden. See this post: click here.