The much-loved chef proprietor of Soho restaurant Quo Vadis reveals why the written word is curiously like cooking
“What an intimate question,” Jeremy Lee laughs when asked to describe the experience of cooking his favourite dish. This is typical of the Dundee-born chef’s warm, friendly personality. What is a chef without his secrets after all?
Currently chef proprietor at London’s Quo Vadis, Lee’s culinary history – having previously worked for 18 years at Blueprint Café – is replete with mounds of smoked eel (the central ingredient to his renowned sandwich), praise for seasonal produce and recipes of the highest order. Throughout his career, Lee has regularly returned to another discipline: writing. With this comes the observation that cooking and food writing “make curious bedfellows.”
Lee sees their symbiotic relationship as a point from which to grow. “I think the two, certainly for me, go hand-in-hand,” he says. “The more I cook professionally in a restaurant, the more I lean on great food writing for inspiration.”
This is something that Lee has clearly thought about a lot. “The written word is curiously like cooking,” he explains. “There are some to whom it comes very naturally and very easily, and the only thing they have to overcome is bringing it into the professional arena. I mean, there are some great writers who I don’t think could even remotely entertain the possibility of working in a restaurant kitchen. Then I think cooking at home comes with its precipices: if you’ve got a noisy, boisterous family, or if you’re nervous about entertaining people. They all come with their own little anxieties and contradictions.”
Often beginning each, he seems to suggest, means grappling with these small challenges. “I think, as with all these subjects, the more you scratch the surface, the more complex they become,” he says. “Nothing is as simple as it seems.”
But Lee has no hesitation when sitting down to write or getting started in the kitchen. On stringing together words he says, “You put your toe in the water and its freezing cold and you shiver and squeam and the temptation is to run away. But you gently get a bit braver and you put a bit more of yourself into it and keep going until you’re fully submerged in it. And then before you bat an eyelid, you’re writing.”