I met Paul Merrett at The Victoria this morning; a critically acclaimed gastro pub in South West London, close to Richmond Park. Chef Paul and restaurateur Greg Bellamy opened the pub in 2008 and since then it has gained a reputation for serving excellent food. The Times described it as ‘an absolute treat for foodie familes’ and also named it one of the best 50 places to eat al fresco in 2010. With its seven bedrooms, it’s recommended as a Special Place to Stay by Sawday’s and in 2011 was voted Best Gastro Pub in London at The Great Pub Awards.
Paul earned his own fine reputation as a great chef long before The Victoria opened. He’s seen frequently on TV shows like Saturday Kitchen and Market Kitchen, and is the author of two cookery books, Economy Gastronomy and Using the Plot: Tales of an Allotment Chef ; he is currently writing a third book on Asian/spicy food, one of his passions. Paul’s road to TV and gastro pub fame has come via an impressive route and includes him achieving two separate Michelin stars at former restaurants.
Paul admitted that he didn’t achieve much academic success at school and it was his mother who suggested he went to catering college to learn to cook; it was a life skill and would also enable him to travel if he wanted. He didn’t cook as a child but he came from a foodie family where he learned to enjoy and appreciate good food. After three years at college, he wrote to The Ritz and was offered a three-year apprenticeship there. It was much easier in those days, Paul said, to get those kind of breaks. But even now, he continued, one of the joys of cooking is that it’s still a profession where you don’t need qualifications in order to succeed; if you’re good and apply yourself, you can achieve great things.
From The Ritz, Paul moved to Le Souffle restaurant at the Inter-Continental Hotel, at the time one of the best restaurants in London, and while The Ritz had provided him with the building bricks to becoming a chef, it’s at Le Souffle under Peter Kromberg that Paul really learned to cook. From there he moved to one of Gary Rhodes restaurants, and then he became head chef at the young age of 27 at a Meridian Hotel, where he worked with a fantastic general manager who had great faith in him and where he learned to manage people and budgets. Later, at Interlude in Charlotte Street, London, he gained his first Michelin star; following this he gained another Michelin star at The Greenhouse. This was ‘high octane cooking’ he told me. He left The Greenhouse to open The Victoria.
We then moved on to Paul’s choice of books.
1. Crust, Richard Bertinet (2007) – Paul said when he took over the gastro pub, it was a new arena for him and he wanted to make as much of his own stuff as he could. He was a novice baker and this book proved invaluable in honing his baking skills. It begins, he told me, by assuming you don’t know much about baking and by the end, it assumes you’ve learned a lot. It’s full of lots of good tips and Paul said the pub’s bread making is influenced more by this book than any other.
2. The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson (2nd edition 2006) – You can sit down, Paul told me, and open any page in this book and find something interesting to read. If you want to know anything about food, recipes, ingredients, then here you’ll find its history and uses and anything you need to know. Paul likes to browse through it; uses it as a reference book; and will refer to it when briefing waiters about the specific details of a recipe or ingredients.
3. The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffrey Steingarten (1999) – Steingarten was a lawyer until 1989 when American Vogue offered him a job as a food writer. The title of the book reflects Steingarten’s decision to become a ‘perfect omnivore’ at the time and eat everything and anything, which required him to overcome food dislikes and phobias. Paul told me the book is a series of essays Steingarten wrote for Vogue. What he loves is Steingarten’s attention to detail; how he becomes obsessed by a particular subject and considers all angles. If he was looking at salt, for instance, he’d order salt from all over the world and turn his kitchen into a laboratory and become completely immersed. Paul loves the way he writes; the way he writes about food, himself and displays a fabulous wit and is so amusing. Paul said the book had influenced his own writing and he likes to convey the passion and story behind his recipes.
4. White Heat, Marco Pierre White (1990) – Paul said he’d challenge anyone to find a chef in their forties who didn’t put this book in their list. When he was starting out at The Ritz, Paul said the big name chefs of the day were people like Anton Mosimann and the Roux brothers. Great chefs, but it was hard for a young chef to identify with them. Then along came the crazy, rule-breaking Marco Pierre White who was absolutely and instantly a role model. White was a mixture of food and rock ‘n’ roll. It was incredibly motivating, Paul said. It made him want to be a chef more than anything. White has written other books but Paul likes White Heat because of the way you see White smoking in photos, black and white photos of what’s going on in his kitchen, and in this book more than any other White’s voice comes through and he’s telling you what to think.
5. How to be a Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson (2000) – Paul said at home in his kitchen he had shelves full of at least 600 cookery books. Many are by the finest chefs in the world, but many he’s only looked at once. The one book at home that he and his family use again and again is this one by Nigella Lawson. It’s all about home cooking, said Paul; all those nice family things likes cakes and biscuits. He likes the way she writes; she demystifies food well and lots of her recipes have nice twists, although she always respects a classic recipe.
6. On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee (2004) – subtitled, ‘The science and lore of the kitchen’, this isn’t easy reading, said Paul. It’s about culinary science. The book has been around a long time and has been updated, its popularity growing with the current interest in molecular cooking. It’s a great book for the non-scientist who wants to understand what’s happening in the kitchen; the whys and hows of cooking practices. McGee exposes many practices that have gone on a long time, for instance, sealing meat before cooking it, and explains why this isn’t necessarily the best approach. Paul uses the book often for reference or for hints on cooking certain things.
7. El Bulli, Ferran Adria (2006) – Paul said when he was at The Greenhouse this book had a huge effect on him. ‘Looking at the food scared the life out of me as it was so amazing.’ This was a man (Adria) at the summit; it was intimidating. Paul got the book at El Bulli where he was taken by a journalist along with other celebrity chefs, including Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal. It was an awesome meal, he told me, and they sat with Adria and were taken into the kitchens and so the book sums up a special moment for him and the way it jolted him into seeing what could be achieved. Paul said what he really likes about Adria’s cooking is not just the discipline of this kind of molecular cooking but the wit and quirky humour behind it. You look at the food and your mind takes you one place; you taste it and your senses pick up something else. It’s fun food.
8. Beef and Liberty, Ben Rogers (2004) – Rogers closely analyses the development of food and cooking in Britain by contrasting it with what was happening in France at the same time. He makes a strong case, Paul told me, for Britain having a far more important role in gastronomy than previously recognised. Things are changing, Paul said, but there’s still an underlying belief that British food will never be as good as French, but this book shows that the great French chefs came to Britain to cook and enjoyed a much more flexible attitude to the development of their craft than their country’s strict adherence to formal practices allowed. Going back to Marco Pierre White, Paul said, he loved the way that White, an Englishman, won his three Michelin stars without ever going to France to work.
9. Barrafina: A Spanish Cookbook, Sam Hart, Eddie Hart & Nieves Barragan Mohacho (2011) – Paul said he goes back to this restaurant more than any other. He loves Spanish food and their way of eating and he likes to go with his son and sit at the bar and order six or seven dishes; then order some more. Some restaurant cookbooks, Paul said, are changed to fit the domestic market but this one isn’t. He refers to it time and time again to bring ideas to dishes. There are some great photos and the recipes are well written.
10. Asian Flavours of Jean-Georges, Jean George Vongerichten (2007) – Vongerichten is chef and owner of 18 restaurants around the world specialising in Asian-fusion cuisine. One of his New York restaurants, The Spice Market, is one of Paul’s favourite restaurants (he said at first it was his favourite restaurant in the world, but then qualified it as ‘one of’ – these decisions are hard to make!). It’s a restaurant where everything comes together: the interior with its wooden decor, low ceilings, hanging lanterns and funky New York feel; the amazing atmosphere – but, what really knocks you out, said Paul, is the food. This is Asian street food taken to a fine dining level. The book is full of great dressings, marinades and quirky ideas. He knows he could open any page of the book and there’d be something he’d love to cook.
So, I asked Paul, which of these would be his overall number one? A difficult question. The professional chef in him, said Paul, would choose White Heat but the cook at home would choose Domestic Goddess or Barrafina.
I had a great time talking to Paul, finding out about his career and the experience and passion he brings to The Victoria. I haven’t, I’m rather ashamed to say, been to The Victoria yet, even though I’ve heard so many good things about it. I must put that right soon because it’s clearly a lot more than your average – even good – gastro pub and I can’t wait to try it out.
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