Autumn sunshine pours in through the windows of Quo Vadis restaurant in central London, as I sit with head chef Jeremy Lee. The reason for my visit? A smoked eel sandwich, with lashings of horseradish and a pinch of pickled red onion, which is as much of an institution at the iconic Soho restaurant as its stained glass windows, friendly staff, and daily-changing illustrated menus.
"It's the strangest, simplest story out of necessity and frugality," declares Lee in his warm, booming Scottish accent.
Lee, who's known for his seasonal approach to British cooking and effervescent personality, has been at the helm of the Quo Vadis since 2012. But it was during his time at Blueprint Cafe at the Design Museum in Bermondsey that the sandwich came into existence.
"I always bought Poilâne loaves [a type of sourdough], to which I'm devoted, because we didn't have a bakery then," says Lee. "For some strange reason, we had a lot of it one day for some strange reason, a lot of smoked eel. And that was literally it. We gave it a whirl and it was delicious."
Lee adds: "It was a much less elaborate affair than it is now."
After Lee's move to Quo Vadis, serendipity intervened again.
"It was meant to be a truffle sandwich originally but the price [for truffle] was beyond belief. There was no luxury in opening this place, I think we had about three days!" says Lee. "Anyway, 'smoked eel sandwich' filled a box on the menu and it arrived a very unsung dish."
But not for long.
"It got an amazing welcome and generous, tumultuous applause. Folk got very over-excited about it and it's been on the menu ever since."
As we move downstairs and go through the restaurant to reach the kitchen (stopping intermittently as Lee greets patrons as old friends), he explains the appeal of the smoked eel sandwich.
"It uses lots of my favourite ingredients: cider vinegar, horseradish, pickles, smoked fish, and Poilâne bread," he says.
While showing me the bakery section of the kitchen, Lee turns to me and lowers his voice a little, "We can't make bread that beats the Poilâne, much to the frustration of our baker." He raises his voice again, "It's good for keeping his ante up! He's a fantastic baker but the curious quality of that loaf is … no one can do what Poilâne bakery does. I've looked and studied them but it's their gig which is why we buy it."
It's sandwich time. With a loaf of Lee's favourite bread ready and waiting, it's time for the star of the show to make a slippery entrance. And there's a tale as long as the eel's shiny black body to go with it.
"We buy around six whole (it keeps it more moist that way) smoked eel from one of the largest suppliers in the country, in fact the only last true supplier," Lee tells me. "There are other smoked eel purveyors but this one is particularly special."
After Lee chops off the eel's head, the filleting and skinning can commence. I settle in for the story.
"We blessedly get them from the Lincolnshire Fens which is the great traditional place for eel," says Lee. "When I cooked at Alastair Little, which is going back a while, I used to buy them from a lovely old man called Mr Beale. It was literally Mr Beale's Eels."
He continues: "Nature took its course and very sadly he became too infirm to run it so a Dutch couple bought it, in tact, and just changed the name to The Dutch Eel Company."
Lee chops the smoked eel fillets down the sandwich size, butters some bread, and muses: "These curious properties the wide Sargasso Sea has. Nobody understands the extraordinary journey that the eel make. We literally only use about five or six the whole week. We don't want to use anymore than that."
The journey this eel took before the smokehouse and this Soho basement might be unknown, but eyeing it up as the buttered bread is fried, I know exactly where this one will end up.
Dijon mustard and horseradish cream slathered on ("People gasp when they see how much I put on but I say that you need that much so the elements all balance each other out"), I ask Lee about the importance of sourcing produce.
"My mother was desperately interested in food and so was my father. They were very good at finding places to find things," says Lee. "I think one of the great secrets of cooks is generally that they are great buyers."
"I love shopping, getting on the blower to the producers, and ducking out to find things. There aren't many food shops left in the West End so I like to go to La Fromagerie and markets, or even Waitrose, bless its cotton socks. It's an important thing to know what to buy, where to buy, and how to buy. So you're always serving stuff at its absolute best which is what we love most of all anyway."
And the sign of a good producer?
"They usually have a twinkle in their eye," says Lee with a smile.
Sandwich fully assembled and a generous spoonful of pickled red onion placed by its side, I recall Lee telling me that the dish used to be "a less elaborate affair." How has it changed?
"It's taken tiny tweaks," says Lee. "It used to be much bigger and seriously, over-the-top rich—it was absolutely outrageous. We did all sorts of things to make up for the fact that it was a sandwich but it was a journey to realise that it was a dish in its own right. So then it was actually a case of what we could take away."
He adds: "Now it's three delicious bites so you can pick it up with your fingers, reasonably elegantly with a veil of panache, and just take a bite with a touch of the sweet onion pickle."
Lee hands me the plate and confides that he's made this one a bit bigger and a bit more messily than usual ("Because that's the way I make it. Untidy food is the best food") before saying: "It's not a dish that hangs about, so let's get you upstairs to eat!"
I can vouch that I did not eat the sandwich elegantly or with any veil of panache but by God, it was good. I apologise to the waiter nearby for my terrible table manners (I went in with hands rather than silverware). He laughs, "Don't worry, I've seen people eat it all kinds of ways. Some people deconstruct it and pick out the eel. Or they don't eat the onion."
My visit is complete after getting the seal of approval from Lee for going in with fingers—"She's eaten it properly! It's a sandwich, after all!"—and kisses on both cheeks.
I exit through Quo Vadis' revolving door a very bonny lass.