by Malcolm Jolley
Simon Hopkinson worked his way up to being one of the top chefs in London until the New Year’s Eve 1993-94, when he walked out of his kitchen at Sir Ternece Conran’s Bibendum restaurant sobbing. He would never to return to professional cooking again. What the diners of London lost, the hungry readers of the English-speaking world gained. Following his breakdown, Hopkinson picked up the pen and began a second career in food writing, first as a columnist for The Independent newspaper and then with the publication, the same year, of Roast Chicken and Other Stories, a sort of memoir-cum-treatise on the elements of good cooking.
Hopkinson’s turn from cooking to writing was natural enough. As a young chef in South Kensington in 1980s, he had attracted the attention and praise of England’s high priestess off cookery books, Elizabeth David. Roast Chicken enjoyed modest sales, and some warm critical attention, but was hardly a blockbuster, and over the next decade Hopkinson receded from the dining scene altogether to lead a quiet life.
Everything changed for the former chef in 2005. Waitrose, the chic UK grocer, publishes a glossy magazine, and that year they asked a panel of celebrity chefs and prominent food writers to compile a list of the most influential cookbooks ever. Roast Chicken, which was co-authored with Lindsey Bareham, an accomplished cookery writer in her own right, came out on top, hands down. This meant sales skyrocketed the following week such that Hopkinson’s musings on food ranked above the latest Harry Potter chronicle to be number the one seller at Amazon UK, which became an even bigger story in our post-modern media world, leading to even more sales. A rush print of 30,000 wasn’t enough and Hopkinson was a sold out author with his publishers pleading for another book.
Happily, Hopkinson and Bareham delivered, including a kind of sequel called Second Helpings of Roast Chicken and an amusing look back at the the cuisine of the 1960s and 70s, The Prawn Cocktail Years. Hopkinson also collaborated with Conran on other cookbooks. Then, last year in the UK Hopkinson brought out his latest, and possibly best, The Vegetarian Option.
The Vegetarian Option, which has been published this year in North America by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, is a play on the meatless main course chefs are (quite often reluctantly) more or less obliged to offer on their menus. None of Hopkinson’s recipes in this book contain meat, but quite a few do butter and other animal-derived products. But it’s not, strictly speaking, a vegetarian cookbook. Some recipes could very easily, and deliciously, be put next to a joint of meat, but they wouldn’t have to be – its your option.
It’s evident that one of Hopkinson’s declared heroes is Richard Olney. He writes about the pleasures of the table with an intense passion that echoes the late American expatriate to Provence. The Vegetarian Option is divided into chapters of pairs of vegetal ingredients that work together or are similar like ‘Tomatoes and Olive Oil’, ‘Chilis and Avocados or ‘Onions and Leeks’. There are also sections for herbs, pasta, legumes and grains, rice eggs and fruit. Under the last heading is a small collection of elegant cocktail recipes: in its introduction Hopkinson asks his readers, “Why, pray, would you ever wish to add chocolate to a Martini?”
It is in fact the introduction to each chapter that makes this book. I discovered it in the library of my father-in-law while overseas this Christmas holiday and read the whole thing cover to cover in front of the fire one afternoon. Hopkinson loves food, loves cooking and loves thinking about them both: its obvious in his wry-but-warm writing. Though book seems to be about a narrow topic, he shows how even the humblest ingredients like ‘Carrots and Parsnips’ can over multitudes of flavour and uses. There are no small ingredients, for Hopkinson, just small cooks. And home cooks, not chefs, are his audience. Here is a man who has not had brigade for over 15 years, and is at home in his readers’ modest kitchen. As fancy (and delicious) as ‘Warm asparagus custards with tarragon vinaigrette’ sounds, Hopkinson shows it’s straight forward enough to prepare. And could you imagine a better to start to a spring dinner party?
The Vegetarian Option ought to be a gimmick book, a formula devised by a publisher to sell books. It’s not, it’s a celebration of the richness and variety of things that sprout from the ground and the passion of a man who wants only to do right by them.
Malcolm Jolley is the editor of Good Food Revolution.