I’ve always loved going to the Tate Modern restaurant for lunch; not only is the food always excellent but the view is stunning. Situated at the top of the Tate Modern building, the floor-to-ceiling windows allow bright light to fill the restaurant and give out to a view that spans a prime area of London and the Thames, taking in St Paul’s, the Millennium Bridge, the Gherkin and many other famous sights.
I was therefore delighted to be going there this morning, on a glorious sunny day – albeit quite cold! – to meet Senior Head Chef at Tate Modern, Shahid Ahmed. Shahid arrived at Tate Modern in May and since then has been busy overhauling the menus and bringing some of his own cooking style to the kitchens. The focus, he told me, was still on modern British food but the menu is now broader than it used to be, incorporating some of the global influences from his travels and working abroad. He designs his menus according to seasonal ingredients – and local where possible – with sustainability being a high priority. The new menu at Tate Modern, he added, had been taken to a new level.
Shahid is responsible for running not just the restaurant but all the other eating places in the gallery. This is a massive operation, he said, with 65 chefs and 20 kitchen porters. All the food served in Tate Modern is made from scratch and of the highest quality: their beef comes from Scotland, the fish straight from St Ives in Cornwall. There is a separate pastry kitchen and a sandwich kitchen. Tate was a great company to work for, he told me, committed to ensuring that there was money for the best ingredients and the best tools to do the job.
Shahid said that food has always played an important part in his life and he grew up in a family where both his mother and father cooked and from an early age he was encouraged to help. He didn’t initially think of making a career as a chef though and studied for an economics degree. But when he was invited to help out in a friend’s restaurant kitchen part time, he discovered that his passion lay in the world of cooking: ‘Once in professional kitchens, I never looked back.’ He decided that if he was entering this cooking world he needed to be properly trained so went to catering college. Then he started travelling to learn more, working in USA for over a decade, then Karachi, Dubai, Bermuda and finally he came to UK. It’s been an interesting journey working his way round the world, he told me, and he’s been fortunate to have had good chefs to help him along the way. Since living in UK he’s worked in 5* Marriott hotels and the Luton Hoo Estate in Bedfordshire (where the Queen and Prince Philip spent part of their honeymoon), as well as Asia de Cuba, St Martin’s Lane Hotel and Below Zero Restaurant in London.
We turned to Shahid’s list of favourite cookbooks and he said it had been hard to narrow it down to ten. First up was:
1. The Food of the World – A Journey for Food Lovers: Well,the title says it all really! The book, Shahid said, is a joy to read. Recipes come from the heart of China, the smallest village in France and the busy streets of India. The recipes are well put together, simple to follow and the book is a visual and culinary feast. (Looking on Amazon when I got home, the book seems out of print but has come out in smaller volumes, each on a different country.)
2. The Cook’s Book – Marcus Wareing, Shaun Hill, Paul Gayler, Ken Hom and Charlie Trotter: ‘This is an awesome culinary resource,’ Shahid told me. Filled with a wide variety of informative chapters – sauces, starters, cakes, creams, pastries, poultry – and chapters that focus on innovative, international cuisines. This would make an excellent course book for students, Shahid said. He thought every professional and amateur cook should have a copy.
3. Made in Great Britain – Aiden Byrne: Byrne is one of Shahid favourite chefs in UK, he told me. He thought Aiden had done wonders at The Grill at the Dorchester and this book in an inspiration to all aspiring chefs. He will look through it for ideas. The recipes are very good, mostly original and beautifully photographed. It’s very technical, he warned me, so not really a book for beginners.
4. Indulge – Claire Clark: An excellent pastry cookbook. Clark is one of the most respected pastry chefs in the world. At one time head pastry chef at Thomas Keller’s renowned French Laundry in California, she was awarded the MBE last year for her services to the food industry. She makes the dishes look very simple, Shahid told me, but ‘don’t be fooled, this is a book that will test some very good cooks.’
5. Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain: Kitchens weren’t the same after Bourdain wrote this book, Shahid told me, for he uncovered ‘the dirty laundry of professional kitchens in America’ and held nothing back. It is, however, an inspiration to young chefs and a must-read for anyone interested in the restaurant scene.
6. Essence – David Everitt-Matthias: This is ‘a gem’, Shahid says, an ‘absolute cracker’. Everitt-Matthias has a 2* Michelin restaurant, Le Champignon Sauvage, in Cheltenham. Shahid told me that he shows creativity and great skill in the kitchen and is truly a gifted chef. He has no boundaries and will use ingredients from different parts of the world but put them together in such a clever way that they aren’t confused; they work. He added that David has had the restaurant for 10 years, which he runs with his wife, and had never missed a single service: he is always in the kitchen. He’s a chef’s chef and has gained a lot of respect from his peers. There’s also an Essence book on pastry.
7. The Square Cookbook – Philip Howard: Shahid said he was on a waiting list for this book, he was so keen to get it, and it only arrived last week but had to go on this list of his favourite cookbooks. Howard is a chef’s chef, he said, well respected in the culinary world and a chef who is in the kitchen every day. The book takes us through Philip’s journey at The Square – his restaurant in Mayfair. Shahid loves the simplicity of his cooking style and his intimate bonding with ingredients. He ate at the restaurant a few years back and it was an amazing experience. A ‘must-have cookbook for everyone’.
8. White Heat – Marco Pierre White: Shahid quotes Marco: ‘Nine out of ten English chefs have their names on their chests. Who do they think they are? They’re dreamers. They’re jokes. Just ask yourself how many chefs in this country have Michelin stars and how many have their names on their jackets. We all wear blue aprons in my kitchen because we’re all commis. We’re all still learning.’ That says it all, Shahid told me. We had quite a long discussion about Marco, often referred to as the first celebrity chef and enfant terrible in the kitchen. We talked about how, in his early days, Marco would charge out of his kitchen if he thought a diner wasn’t behaving well or wasn’t happy and send them away. Shahid – you may be pleased to hear if you like to eat at Tate Modern restaurant, as I do – said this wasn’t his own style but that you have to respect White. This has been one of the most chosen books in this series and that in itself shows the enormous respect professional cooks and restaurateurs have for White.
9. Formulas for Flavour – John Campbell: A solid technical cookbook, Shahid said. Campbell is a true legend in the culinary scene. His is modern and versatile cooking. In this book he has simplified high-end restaurant food for the home without sacrificing quality. However, warns Shahid, you’ll need time, patience and determination to get the results so don’t bother buying it unless you want to make the effort to produce something really special.
10. The French Laundry – Thomas Keller: This is the story of The French Laundry – as said above, the renowned restaurant in California. What a man! said Shahid. A true living legend who inspires masses. ‘I can’t get enough of this book.’ If you have a passion for culinary art, and the time to invest in it, The French Laundry Cookbook is a must-have. Keller’s approach to classical French cuisine encourages chefs to slow down and fully engage themselves in cooking – the book is more than a cookbook, it’s an educational experience.
When asked which was his No.1 book overall, it wasn’t a surprise that Shahid chose his last, Thomas Keller’s. He’s had the book for years, he told me, but never tires of it. He can always find something new in it. Keller has a keen eye for detail and best of all, a real passion for cooking.
I had such a great time talking to Shahid and we talked about our shared passion for cooking, food and cookbooks. He told me about other books he thought I’d enjoy, like Alice Waters’ biography and suggested markets and restaurants he thought I’d love to visit. I think we could both have happily talked on but it was now midday and Shahid had to move on to a meeting and his kitchen but kindly said I should stay and have some lunch. I only wanted something light and chose a starter, but this was a very special starter! Seared scallops with apple remoulade, almonds and basil oil.
I love scallops, especially simply seared in this way, but rarely think to buy and cook them myself. It was just a perfect light lunch with some freshly baked bread, and ending with fresh mint tea. I left keen to return soon to try out more on Shahid’s new menu and was pleased to hear that although the restaurant is only open for lunch Sunday till Thursday, it’s open for dinner too on Fridays and Saturdays . The opening times, he explained, were due to security. When the gallery is closed, it would be hard to keep the restaurant open because of all the valuable paintings and artworks housed below, and well, I had to agree that made sense.
Update 2017: Shahid is no longer at Tate Modern. The menu has changed a lot and the last time I went I didn’t think the restaurant was as special as it used to be.