Friday, 1 July 2011

Interview with Simon Hopkinson

Simon Hopkinson is getting nervous about being recognised in the street when his first-ever TV series gets aired next week.
This most private of men has for years resisted TV appearances in favour of writing his best-selling cookbooks, but this is all set to change when The Good Cook appears on primetime BBC1.
“It does seem a bit silly to starting a TV career at the age of 57,” chuckles Hopkinson, who was coaxed into making a series by a production team at BBC Bristol.
The London-based food writer, who retired as a full-time chef in 1995, has spent a lot of time in Bristol over the past few months.
Although the bulk of the filming was done in London (‘on a set built to simulate my tiny, cramped kitchen at home’), a lot of the post-production work was done in Bristol.
He knows Bristol well because of his friend Stephen Markwick, who Hopkinson describes as ‘one of the very best chefs I know’.
Markwick, who runs the Culinaria restaurant in Redland, has contributed two recipes to the book that accompanies the series.
“I saw Stephen for lunch a couple of weeks ago,” Hopkinson tells me. “He took me to a lovely little restaurant called Flinty Red, which is just around the corner from the studio where I was doing the final voice-overs for the series. I spent hours in a basement just off Whiteladies Road – this is a whole new world to me.”
Although well known in foodie circles because of books such as Roast Chicken and Other Stories; The Prawn Cocktail Years and Gammon & Spinach, Hopkinson has never courted celebrity and has always been suspicious of TV.
Part of this has been down to a natural shyness, although one suspects that part of it is down to a general unease with rise of the ‘celebrity chef’.
And so it comes as something of a surprise when he says he ‘had a ball’ making The Good Cook, a series that shows us how to cook some of his favourite dishes and get the best of out of his favourite ingredients.
“It took me a long time to decide to do the series,” says Hopkinson. “There was a lot of umming and ahhing, but the BBC Bristol team were so lovely that they gently persuaded me.
“I went to the initial meeting only because I thought I had nothing to lose and I got on really well with them.
“We did a bit of filming in my kitchen at home as a tester, and that seemed to go well so I then had I somebody to teach me how to look down the black hole that is the camera.
“It took a while, and I got into a real state about it at times, but then I suddenly turned a corner and I really enjoyed it.
“I do want to emphasise how I was looked after by the crew and the producers from BBC Bristol. They really held my hand.
“It was quite a gamble for them, too, as it was my first time on TV, but they were a joy to work with.”
Hopkinson has built up a huge following for his intelligent, thoughtful writing about food and he is admired by many of his peers in the food world.
He loves food and good ingredients and he has something of a reputation for being a stickler for doing things properly in the kitchen and not taking shortcuts.
His approach to cooking is far removed from the ‘bish, bash, bosh’ school of many modern TV chefs so how does he think The Good Cook will be received by viewers?
“I suppose, I will be a new face to a lot of them, even though I’m quite well known to a small group of people who buy niche cookbooks.
“I’ve always been serious about food and cooking, I’ve always thought that it was important.
“What I’m trying to say in the programmes is enjoy your cooking and if you do it right you will reap huge rewards.
“I’m never going to say that cooking is easy because I think it’s too easy to say that.
“I have done some very easy recipes in the book and in the series – actually, rather than easy, I’d like to say simple and thoughtful.”
The series is structured around Hopkinson’s passion for ingredients and his recipes are definitive versions of classics such as coq au vin; homemade gravadlax and sticky toffee pudding. In the first of the six episodes, he makes baked pappardelle with pancetta and porcini; scallops in white butter sauce and his famous salad Nicoise.
A man who probably loses sleep worrying how to make the bacon bits stay suspended in a quiche Lorraine, rather than sink to the bottom (incidentally, the book reveals the secret of this culinary conundrum), Hopkinson has an old-fashioned tone to his instructions, although he doesn’t want to come across too headmaster-ish.
“I like things to be done properly, but I’m not too strict,” he laughs. “Let’s just say I’m quietly emphatic.
“Having said that, there is one point where I do say ‘this is how it should be’ when I refer to how a crumble should be. But then a crumble should be simple and it should be crunchy on top and soggy underneath.”
Despite the looming TV fame, Hopkinson won’t be swept away on the media wave, preferring to cook for himself and close friends at the West London flat he shares with his cat.
“I won’t do cookery demos in public and I don’t do many interviews. I can’t stand up in front of people and cook and I can’t do public speaking, it’s just not my thing.”
Whilst he is clearly proud of The Good Cook, the reality that he might be recognised on the tube after next Friday is now hitting home and he says he doesn’t like watching himself on TV.
“I am not very comfortable watching myself on TV so I’m going to my brother’s on the night it’s aired and watch it with him. We’re going to have a barbecue and cook the tandoori chicken legs from the book.
“I couldn’t possibly sit at home and watch it on my own, that would be really weird. I would have to cover my eyes with a cushion.
“I keep saying I’ll never go out again once it’s shown on TV. That’s if it takes off, of course.
“If it doesn’t, they might just ignore me and cross the street when they see me, which would be perfect.”

The Good Cook, BBC1, Friday July 8, 7.30pm. The accompanying book is published on June 30 (BBC Books, £25).

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