I recently wrote about the fabulous Sam’s Brasserie in Chiswick and how I love its combination of great food and an easy, relaxing yet sophisticated ambience. It’s just the kind of place I love to eat so I was delighted to be heading there this morning to meet Sam Harrison – yes, it’s his brasserie! – to talk to him about his favourite cookery books and the influences that have brought him to running one of the most popular and exciting places to eat in West London.
Sam caught the ‘restaurant bug’ early in life. His godmother ran ‘an amazing’ catering business in the Henley area and Sam was infected by her energy and enthusiasm when he started doing some work with her when he was about 16. It was, he said, his first experience of working in a team and he enjoyed the excitement of it. His mother was a bit of a foodie though his father wasn’t. However, his father worked in Formula 1 and travelled a lot. Sam sometimes travelled with him and would often be left in smart hotels in different parts of the world while his dad went off for meetings and got to know the people running them. This interest in the hospitality business led to him choose to do a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management at Oxford Brookes University.
After university Sam worked for Forte Hotels in London for a time but in his mid-twenties decided to get out of the capital. He wasn’t enjoying London and when he developed asthma and was advised to move out of the city, he decided to head to Cornwall where he’d enjoyed holidays. He got a job as a waiter at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow where he impressed Rick and Jill Stein enough to become their General Manager by the time he was 27. Unsurprisingly, two of Rick’s books are in Sam’s top ten list:
1. English Seafood Cookery, Rick Stein (1988) – In this, Stein’s first book, he shares lots of the recipes served in the Seafood Restaurant. Sam read it before he went to Cornwall. It epitomises everything that Stein represents, he told me: simplicity and the best ingredients with classic recipes like Turbot with Hollandaise. It’s a great book to read, Sam said; it’s not just a recipe book. He found it inspiring and it also helped him to understand Rick, when he was working for him, better.
2. Rick Stein’s Seafood Odyssey (2000) – This book came out while Sam was working in Padstow. It was exciting to see the dishes served in the restaurant in it at a time when he was involved and there was also the accompanying TV series. There were a lot of good things going on at the time with the opening of the cookery school and deli as well as the other restaurants.
However, after four years, London called again. Long hours and late-night working meant that by the time Sam finished his shift at the restaurant, Padstow was asleep. Not ideal for a young man. Back in London, if you finish work late there will still be bars and restaurants open to head off to for some social life. Rick Stein understood Sam’s reasons for wanting to move on and they’ve remained close enough for Rick to back him as an investor in the brasserie and act as his mentor.
Before he settled in Chiswick, though, Sam worked in Australia for a couple of years. This period was also to have a great influence on Sam and his ideas for the kind of restaurant he would like to run himself. One of the most important influences there was Bill Granger and visiting his original restaurant in Darlinghurst. Hence, another of Sam’s choice of books:
3. Bill’s Sydney Food, Bill Granger (2004) – When Sam first went to Bill’s, Bill Granger’s first restaurant in Darlinghurst, he’d never experienced a place like it before. A restaurant that was totally informal and you could turn up in beachwear yet enjoy the best quality food and a totally professional service. It represented everything he loved about Australian food and eating out there: wonderful produce, fresh vibrant food and the kind of relaxed atmosphere that appealed to him. He looks to all Bill’s books for inspiration in Sam’s Brasserie when discussing menus and dishes with his head chef.
Another big influence on Sam is New York, which he visits a couple of times a year.
4. The Balthazar Cookbook (2010) – Sam loves this legendary New York restaurant, particularly for breakfast and lunch. It’s like a beast, he said, with the number of people it serves. There’s a great buzz and it serves classic French dishes with a New York twist. It’s been a big inspiration from the business point of view.
5. Union Square Cafe Cookbook (1994) – This, said Sam, was possibly his favourite restaurant in the world. Owned by Danny Meyer, whose Setting the Table is an acclaimed book about the running of restaurants and considered a ‘must’ for all restaurateurs. Sam has many great memories of the place, particularly the hospitality. The waiters are so relaxed and friendly yet totally professional. The menu changes daily so that while the chef’s staple dishes remain, there are always new dishes based on the day’s fresh produce.
6. Toast, Nigel Slater (2004) – Nigel Slater is a brilliant writer, Sam said. One of the few food writers he reads regularly in the Sunday papers. He writes beautifully. Toast is a lovely history of English food and attitudes to food and eating. And it’s interesting to see how such a big foodie came from a non-foodie background. Sam likes the simplicity of Slater’s recipes; his use of the best seasonal products. He told me that he often cuts out Slater’s Observer pages to bring into Sam’s to look at with his head chef for ideas for their menu.
7. Mrs Beaton’s Household Management (1861) – Sam has a first edition that his grandmother bought for him when he decided to do his Hotel and Restaurant Management degree. It was her way of showing an interest in what he was doing. Sam uses it too. It’s a great reference book to look up classic recipes and ways of doing things.
8. Roast Chicken and Other Stories, Simon Hopkinson (1994) – In 2005 this book was voted ‘most useful cookery book ever’ by a panel of leading chefs and restaurateurs. Sam said he likes it because it’s beautifully written and he never tires of it. You can just flick through the book, he said, and something will jump at you. Hopkinson’s personality comes through and Sam has a lot of respect for the chef. He told me that Hopkinson came to Sam’s Brasserie’s opening in 2005. They’d never met before but Sam appreciated how encouraging Hopkinson was to both him and his head chef at the time.
9. New British Classics, Gary Rhodes (1999) – Sam said he and his head chef, Ian Leckie, have loads of books in the brasserie’s office but this is one they turn to again and again. It’s a great source of recipes for using fresh produce as it comes in, depending on season and availability. Sam told me about the scallops arriving tomorrow and looking in Rhodes’ book for inspiration; using it to make the most of some Welsh salt marsh lamb. Sam and Ian will ask themselves, What would Gary do? For them he’s a legend; one of the first celebrity chefs who influenced them when they watched him on TV at the height of his popularity. This book is brilliantly timeless, Sam said, and he’d love to meet Gary. (Well, Gary, if The Single Gourmet Traveller’s blog ever reaches your inbox or Google search, you should hotfoot it down to Chiswick and meet Sam and you’ll love his brasserie.)
10. Larousse Gastronomique, (first published 1938) – When he was doing his degree, this was the bible, Sam said. It still is. There’s a copy in their office and it’s a great reference book. If you want to know how to describe or cook any sauce or dish, the information is here. Sam said his managers use it for briefing staff about dishes.
When I asked Sam which was his No.1 choice he had no hesitation in choosing Bill Granger’s book (No.3). He said this was not so much for the recipes as Granger’s attitude to ingredients, presentation and the restaurant experience. Going to Bill’s in Australia 11 years ago inspired him to bring elements of that kind of eating-out experience to London. In Sydney – and New York – Sam told me, there are lots of local, independent restaurants. They don’t have the proliferation of chains that we experience in London. If you asked anyone there to name their favourite restaurants they’d always include a local one. That, said Sam, was part of his decision to create this kind of local restaurant in Chiswick rather than central London. And that’s something he’s definitely achieved. Sam’s Brasserie has a ‘local’ feel in all the best ways. As I said in my review a few weeks ago, you could happily pop in at any time of day (it’s open from 9 am till late) for coffee, a snack, a drink at the bar, or a 3-course meal for a special occasion. It has the great easy but sophisticated atmosphere Sam wanted to create; something reflected in Sam’s own friendly manner. It was great talking to him this morning and I definitely feel inspired to head back to Sam’s Brasserie for another meal very soon!
If you’ve enjoyed this post click here to read other interviews in the Top Ten Cookery Books series.