James Steen is an award-winning journalist, food writer, author, and a ghost-writer who collaborates with well-known chefs. He is the author of The Kitchen Magpie and the co-author of Marco Pierre White’s autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen; Raymond Blanc’s memoir, A Taste of My Life; Keith Floyd’s memoir, Stirred But Not Shaken; Kitchen Secrets, which he wrote with Raymond Blanc; and Marco Made Easy, which he wrote with Marco Pierre White. He lives in London where he writes and serves as a consultant for food companies.
Jessica Greenlee What was the most fun you had while researching for The Kitchen Magpie?
James Steen Eating and drinking. Also, I really enjoyed leafing through ancient cookery books and, quite simply, listening to people talk about food and sharing their knowledge.
When I finished the manuscript I thought, this is absolutely bonkers – it’s just too mad! Icon Books will ask for the advance back. Luckily, they didn’t ask for their money to be returned. And anyway, I’d spent it by then.
My brilliant editor, Rob Sharman, saved me from being carted away in a straitjacket but still allowed me to get away with an ample amount of insanity. I think he kind of protected me from myself. Every lunatic should have a Rob Sharman.
The fantastic response to Kitchen Magpie has been astonishing and unexpected. People are saying, ‘Bonkers is good!’ and ‘I like mad!’
I mean I didn’t expect people to say, ‘I’m reading the book and wetting myself with laughter.’ And certainly not the blokes.
JG You include a recipe for garden snails in The Kitchen Magpie. Did you test-kitchen it? What about the other recipes?
JS I’ve tested garden snails, which are great – the petit gris variety, brought here by the Romans and found in most gardens in Britain. You don’t need to tip a waiter, either. As I mention in The Magpie, slugs can also be eaten but I’ve not done that.
Here’s a little extract – and it’s a recipe I didn’t test.
Elizabeth Raffald, a housekeeper and therefore well equipped to be the author of The Experienced English Housekeeper, tells her readers of the 1780s how to ‘dress a turtle of a hundredweight’.
That’s 50kg, or 112lb, which is the weight of a small lamb.
Her gravy alone involved using two legs of veal and two shanks of beef. Different cuts of the turtle were cooked in various ways – stewed, fried, braised – with ingredients such as anchovies, mushroom ‘catchup’, truffles and Madeira…
There’s one recipe in the book that I’ve tested about 649 times and it works swiftly. It’s the Magpie’s hangover cure – perchance the world’s best hangover cure. Here’s the recipe:
200ml (7fl oz) coconut water
100ml (31fl oz) whole milk
50ml (2fl oz) double cream
Juice of 1 lime
In a blender or using a stick blender, blitz all ingredients to a smooth liquid and drink.
By tomorrow morning I’ll have tested it 650 times.
JS [The next few paragraphs are a dressed-up tribute to my mates so people might want to zoom onto the next question.]
To celebrate the kitchen, I created chapter headings such as The Teapot, The Oven, The Table, etc. Stories, bits of history and recipes just seemed to slot neatly into the respective chapters. And I went to a lot of knowledgeable friends and begged them to contribute.
For instance, Matthew Fort – who is so polite – kindly agreed to write about good manners in restaurants.
For the Chapter entitled The Wine Rack, Richard Siddle, editor of Harper’s wine magazine, did a funny Q&A about wine, and there was more help from Carlo Grossi of Grossi Wines and Phil Connor, who’s a tutor and connoisseur.
Mixologist extraordinaire John Collingwood wrote about cocktails. And Adam Byatt, chef-patron of Trinity, gave me tons of invaluable advice and fed me well. There were so many people who helped – too many to mention. In fact, this is sounding like an Oscars speech…and lots of well-known chefs contributed. In short, it was like one big party…but with all the guests in different places; not in the same room. And without the police knocking on the door asking for the music to be turned down.
JG When did your interest in food writing begin?
JS Since childhood I have always loved cooking and eating. I like to have ridiculously long lunches which finish the day after they started.
Going back about ten years, Marco Pierre White asked me to work with him on his autobiography, The Devil in the Kitchen, and that’s when it started.
I love chefs and working with them. They are compelling to interview and I have the greatest respect for them. I feel privileged to work with such gifted people. I suppose I have an equal fascination for the creator of the dish and the history of the dish, as I do for the eating of it. People have described me as ‘the chef’s ghost’. But then loads of people have described me as ‘the guy with the white hair’. Or my next-door neighbours describe me as ‘our neighbour’.
JG You say that many of our common kitchen items are disappearing. Which will you be sorriest to see go?
JS These new-fangled minimalist kitchens are fighting against good, old rustic. Fridges and freezers are being hidden away in drawers. What’s going on? Food and wine are rarely on display. Hate it!
I feel comforted by seeing a teapot and a corkscrew in a kitchen, not tucked away in a cupboard or drawer. I hope neither of those disappear! If they do then there goes tea and wine. So they probably won’t go. I don’t think I’ve answered your question very well.
JG What would you like to see in the kitchen of the future?
JS A music system that instantly recognizes what you are cooking and finds tunes and songs to accompany the creation of any dish. This super-duper system has sensors that know you are making pasta, let’s say, and the next thing you know, The Three Tenors suddenly start belting out opera through the kitchen. That would be great fun. You could try and trick it by frying onions and baking a soufflé at the same time.
JG What is one food you have never tried but would like to?
JS That’s a tough one. At the moment, I’d like to indulge in a tremendous amount of caviar which I love but feel I’ve not sampled enough; or fine wines that I can’t afford and have never tasted. I was curious about a few things I covered in the Magpie, like ortolan, but they’re illegal.
All of a sudden I feel like tiramisu. I think it means pick-me-up in Italian. But if you fell over would you ask a tiramisu to pick you up. I wouldn’t. It couldn’t do it. A tiramisu is not physically strong.
I’m not fussy about what I eat so would be happy to try pretty much anything. I can’t eat oysters because they make me extremely ill. So I don’t dislike them but simply cannot eat them if I want to keep my family and friends.
I would quite like to try magpie – it’s edible but we don’t eat it: partly because it was a dirty scavenger which in Tudor times kept the streets clean; and partly because in Tudor times we respected it as a street cleaner and wanted it to carry on with the job. If our Tudor ancestors ate it, that meant no more clean streets.
But now that we have proper street cleaners we could probably eat magpie. I wouldn’t like to eat a proper street cleaner.
JG What are you working on now?
JS An appetite for my next meal. At the moment, I am slumming it at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, in Oxfordshire, working on a book with Raymond Blanc. It’ll be a fantastic homage to Le Manoir, and is really exciting.
Also, I’ve just completed a book with Marco Pierre White – a new cookbook called Simply Marco, and that’s stunning.
There are also a couple of projects that need signing on the dotted line so best not to talk about them.
Also, I’ve been talking to Francesco Mazzei about a book. He’s chef-patron of L’Anima, in the City, and for me, he’s the best Italian chef in London. Actually, he’s the best Italian chef full stop.
JG To use your own question: What is the food of love?
My own food of love is ham and eggs, which my mother made when I was a child. One thick, sweet
slice of honey-roasted ham beneath a fried egg and there you have it: the contrast of runny, yellow yolk and firm, pink meat; the mix on the palate of hot egg and cold ham. Give me that humble dish for breakfast and my wife Louise’s shepherd’s pie for lunch and the day is heading towards perfect.
Jessica, what is your food of love?
JG Home made bread. My mother used to make it, and now I make it. The whole process is slow and unhurried; kneading is quite meditative, and it’s amazing the way it can be so simple and so delicious. It starts smelling good as soon as it begins to rise, and while it’s baking and just out of the oven, it smells of home.
Thank you for taking the time to do this!
JS It has been a joy and my pleasure.