A few months back, Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram, the naughty curry-making chefs behind The Marksman pub in Hackney, came up with the idea of asking a selection of their favorite chefs to pay homage to their gastro-heroes with a series of "cookbook dinners." Each chef would host a dinner at the pub, crafting a menu inspired by their favorite culinary tome. Nose-to-tail eating don Fergus Henderson took control of the inaugural meal, overseeing a dinner of oeufs à la gelée and crème de volaille truffé from Fernand Point's 1969 cookbook Ma Gastronomie.
Tonight, it's Jeremy Lee's turn. Head chef at Soho's iconic Quo Vadis restaurant, Lee is known for his simple, seasonal approach to British cooking—as well as being one of the nicest chefs in town. The book he has chosen is An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David, first published in 1984.
"An Omelette and a Glass of Wine chose itself as it is very much in the spirit of food that I have been fortunate enough to cook for many years," Lee explains. "It's the culmination of a lifetime's work in writing, and what we encapsulate in dishes that follow her [David's] 'keep it simple' philosophy. She inspired a whole generation of chefs."
Lee's affinity with David is so great that Rotheram and Harris knew almost immediately that he would choose her.
"We both said, 'We hope he chooses David', as we love it," Rotherham says.
Harris continues: "I read David before I became a cook. Food writing is really important to us—that kind of food writing, as it's not just technique, it's story. Most recipes should have a story and there's genuinely one behind every dish in the book."
David's influence on British cooking can't be underestimated. An upper class rebel, she spent the Second World War in France, Italy, Greece, and Egypt, before returning to her forlorn, conflict-ravaged homeland at the height of rationing. Despairing of the bland food on offer, David began writing articles about the seasonal cuisine of Europe's sunnier climes for Harper's Bazaar, soon amassing enough to publish the first of several books on foreign foods. Her culinary adventures appeared regularly in the pages of Vogue, The Spectator, and The Sunday Times, until her death in 1992.
Including detail on the cultural heritage of dishes and ingredients she wrote about, David's books, most notably French Provincial Cooking and A Book of Mediterranean Food, found their way into kitchens across the UK, including Lee's in remote eastern Scotland.
"Mum and Dad were really stylish and they cooked and looked after us magnificently," he says. "Mum used to sit at the counter in the kitchen with this big pile of books and E. David was always there: these well-thumbed copies, which I've got at home, with all her notes."
An Omelette and A Glass of Wine, a collection of David's own favorite essays and articles, was the last of her books to be published in during her lifetime.
"It's the last David my parents gave me when I still had them, so it means a lot." Lee shares. "And if you need to introduce someone to David, it's a brilliant way to do it."
Lee was lucky enough to meet David early on in his career when working at one of the only restaurants she ever adored, Bibendum, under chef Simon Hopkinson.
"She was very elderly then so they used to bring her up in a wheelchair in the goods lift. She was very grand so I don't think it went down very well," Lee remembers. "Once she was passing by the pastry section where I was stationed just as a lemon tart that I was cooking came out and she said, 'Oh, keep one of those for me.' So I got to serve her a slice of my tart which was amazing, and which Simon said she liked. She was a great regular. It was a blessed time to be around, those last few years of her life. This extraordinary scene in one of the most beautiful dining rooms in London. It was giddy stuff."
At tonight's dinner, Lee honours his old regular with a sparky and silken pairing of radishes and cod's roe for starters, as well as baked asparagus—a Quo Vadis staple.
"I've never been able to make something I like more." he says. "It's rolled in feuille de brick, these thin North African pancakes, which are then baked in butter with Parmesan."
Next up is ice cold "lovage soup," followed by a riff on a Quo Vadis signature: smoked eel and horseradish sandwich, which Lee created during his 16 years as head chef of the Blueprint Cafe.
The next course, bruscandoli, leaps straight from the pages of An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.
"David was in Venice and kept seeing this impossibly glamorous couple at every restaurant eating this risotto. She got so curious she went up to them and said, 'What are you eating?' It was bruscandoli, Italian for 'hops.' She promptly ordered it herself and it was delicious." Lee explains. "It's a simple risotto made with vegetable stock and tips of wild asparagus, which are delicate, tender, and lightly crisp. It has an ephemeral flavor."
Fine story aside, it's about the most elegant risotto I've ever tried.
Lee's main course, grillade des mariniers du rhône, leads us to the canals of Marseilles, where it was first cooked by boatmen. It's a braise of succulent beef and onions spiked with a vinaigrette of parsley, capers, anchovies, garlic, and olive oil. All of which first became kitchen staples due to David's writings—the tastiest inheritance imaginable.
"Everlasting syllabub is a famous David thing," Lee says of tonight's pudding. "She also mined an awful lot of early British cooking that had long been forgotten."
As well as having its own chapter in An Omelette and A Glass of Wine, the syllabub is also laden with Lee family history.
"Syllabub was made every New Year for mum's trifle, which was unbelievable," he says. "It's so boozy, it's ridiculous. We all had a very merry time of it. I've dug out mum's custard glasses to serve it in."
The syllabub arrives encased in fragile glassware. Lee wasn't lying about the booze, either.
And so dinner is done. A worthy tribute to Elizabeth David: doyenne of British food writing, who rescued a whole nation from canned peaches and Spam.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.